You could have seen “Grace’s Law” coming a mile away, following the sad story of 15-year-old Grace McComas committing suicide after being bullied on twitter. So Maryland’s attempt to never let another child be bullied went into effect this week in the hope that no child ever feels hurt again.
But what comes as surprise is Facebook’s “response” to the Maryland’s efforts. Via Walter Olson’s post at Cato:
Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler unveiled a joint initiative with Facebook and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) in which Facebook will create a new program for school officials, the Educator Escalation Channel — initially limited to use in the state of Maryland, presumably pending similar enactments elsewhere — allowing the officials to object to Facebook users’ content.
The targets of the new program, according to Gansler as quoted by WTOP, include persons who are “not committing a crime… We’re not going to go after you, but we are going to take down the language off of Facebook, because there’s no redeeming societal value and it’s clearly hurting somebody.” That is to say, Gansler believes he has negotiated power for school officials to go after speech that is not unlawful even under the decidedly speech-unfriendly definitions of the new Maryland law, but which they consider hurtful and lacking in “redeeming societal value.”
Facebook has created the Educator Escalation Channel, a direct link to someone at Facebook (let’s call her Umbridge) to inform of hurtful speech that lacks, in the educated view of the designated educator, redeeming societal value. And poof, no hurt feelings ever again.
And Facebook is good with this? From the Hill:
“Facebook continues to look for ways to help parents, teens and educators better understand the safety features build into our service,” Facebook’s Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement, thanking Gansler “for his national leadership on the issue of online safety and for working with us to create this pilot program in Maryland.”
Yes, it appears that Facebook is right on board. While Facebook may be a private enterprise, fully entitled to decide what content is acceptable on its platform and similarly entitled to decide that its users will no longer be allowed to write “Suzy is a poo poo head” on the wall, it’s not that simple when the censor is a state actor and the content at issue is deemed offensive not because it violates any law, but because someone is empowered to stifle speech that doesn’t comport with their vision of redeeming societal value, whatever that means. By doing the bidding of teachers, Facebook becomes the agent of the state. Not so private anymore.
As the good AG says, this is but a pilot program, limited for now to Maryland teachers and Facebook.
“Right now most of the reports of (cyber bullying) are on Facebook and they have been for some time,” Gansler told WBAL News.
“The issue of cyber bullying is very real, and very current on Facebook.”
Gansler says once the pilot program in Maryland is completed, it will be expanded nationwide. He say it may also be expanded to other social medial sites.
Granted, children can be cruel and hurtful. Adults too, though they don’t have the excuse of immaturity for some of the stupid things they put online. And similarly true is that the mean things children do to other children causes their targets pain. To digital natives, the idea of closing Twitter or Facebook and making the hurtful stuff disappear doesn’t work. This world is all too real to them, and no amount of blocking can stop the pain.
But as has been the case in every effort to end “bullying,” that amorphous word that seems only susceptible to definition by the feelings of the victim, there is no way to limit it to only the words that are needlessly and truly harmful. The language is too inherently vague and, well, the sensitivity of the feelings at issue vary too greatly from person to person to ever craft a way to prevent the perceived harm while permitting speech. The problem is exacerbated when qualified by such Orwellian phrases as “redeeming societal value,” as if that phrase in the hands of teachers doesn’t scare the pants off you.
But this is Maryland? Who cares? And Facebook is so MySpace, right? Except it’s a pilot program, and it comes with the support of the National Association of Attorneys Generals, who would like nothing better than to make sure that no speech that doesn’t meet its approval is ever seen. This is how it starts, in one god-forsaken state on one declining platform.
And don’t think that its hook with children, through teachers, means that it won’t eventually be rolled out for others of a certain age. While no one may be capable of owning the internet, whether Maryland, California or elsewhere, they can certainly do grave harm if they get the Facebook, the Twitter, whatever platform is next adored for its redeeming societal value, on board.
Remember, while to the public this is our speech, or our children’s speech in this instance, to tech companies, this is nothing more than a profit-making venture designed to lure our eyeballs so they can sell something to create value for shareholders. Fighting with Attorneys General makes them no money. Being held responsible in the media for killing sad children bullied on their platform makes them no money. Being the protectors of free speech when the government is bent on eliminating it so that no one ever suffers hurt feelings again makes them no money.
And Facebook is happy to lock arms with Maryland’s teachers to silence speech. Welcome to the start of something big.
Update: From Jacob Gershman at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog:
Facebook tells Law Blog that it’s not changing its content policy one iota. The company will apply the same standards whether complaints come from the “escalation” contact or through regular channels for reporting abuse, a Facebook spokesperson told Law Blog. The pilot program allows schools to fast-track complaints and provide Facebook with more context to help the company evaluate whether the flagged content meets its standards, the company says.
So, maybe Facebook is playing both sides of the fence? Maybe Facebook is pretending to be supportive of the Maryland AG for public relations purposes, but has no plans to change anything. Or maybe Facebook doesn’t want the rest of the world to know that it’s now a slave to the whim of Maryland teachers. Time will tell.