Facebook To Maryland Teachers: Whatever You Say (Update)

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.




17 thoughts on “Facebook To Maryland Teachers: Whatever You Say (Update)

  1. Pingback: Facebook to let school officials flag "questionable" posts for takedown - Overlawyered

  2. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    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.

    The public misperception of this issue is broad and longstanding, encompassing far more than just teh intarwebz.

    Long before Facebook and its ilk, radio listeners, TV watchers and newspaper readers perennially expressed the belief that they are the customers or clients of broadcasters or newspaper publishers.

    I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone complaining “they have insulted the clients and customers who read, watch and listen to them”, and explained: “No. You are not their client or customer. You are their product. Their advertisers are their clients.”

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s a very painful lesson for many, to come to the realization that we’re the baloney in their advertising sandwich.

  3. Ultraviolet admin

    I just was reading this on Goldman’s Blog, he tackles this and the California Eraser law as well as a third law via California that goes after ads for teens online. He has a pretty good write up on several issues with them being poorly written, as well as several legal and constitutional issues.

    Alas, this sort of Facebook corporate cooperation is wonderful for allowing these horrible laws to work since it’s no longer the deep pocketed tech company with quality representation, but a family that has to fight it.

    I do wonder if Facebook will lose all of it’s protection from COPPA since they’ll have very good reasons to know when anyone is under 13, unlike now when people can lie they’ll have state actors with actual knowledge of the kid’s lying. I also think the point of this is Facebook trying to get COPPA lifted by showing ‘they can protect kids’

      1. Ultraviolet admin

        First, he doesn’t allow comments. Second, I find your point of view and responses interesting. Third, I’m interested in the criminal side of this and whether this is them trying to make a deal to escape COPPA. Facebook hates COPPA since they can’t allow anyone under 13 knowingly on the site unless they do a massive amount of compliance costs. They want out, and I’m wondering if this is how, and if the NAAG’s attempts at changing 230 immunity will be supported by facebook if they do some sort of COPPA deal. Which is chilling because then young kids might end up being on facebook and committing badly defined defamation crimes on people in other states that can be prosecuted.

        1. SHG Post author

          Well. Okay then. Carry on. (Not my most interesting response, but I really don’t know enough to offer any valid thoughts on whether this is part of a COPPA strategy.)

  4. Christine McComas

    As the mother of Grace McComas, the lost child for whom Maryland’s new “Grace’s Law” is named, I’m thrilled that this conversation is being had. I too am skeptical of Facebook’s cooperation. They are under scrutiny and are in need of an image-lift. (pun intended). Whether this initiative will work or become helpful I don’t know….
    But I DO know that ‘Grace’s Law’ is not intended to silence free speech, but to protect children at a vulnerable stage in their lives. I’m going to guess that you and Mr. Olson (Cato), and Mr. Gershman(WSJ) are all over 20 years of age, and may not fully understand how the digital inter-connectedness of children today through many platforms makes cyberbullying much more serious and damaging to minors than your discussions would indicate. To say that ‘Grace’s Law’ was enacted “in the hope that no child ever feels hurt again” is insulting. I guarantee you would find the maliciousness of the misuse of social media in our case and others pretty shocking and eye-opening, and the fact that our pleas for help to multiple public entities (including schools, police, states attny and court) went essentially unheard a distinct travesty of justice. Would that the three of you worry less about freedom of speech for deliquent, death-wishing teenagers and use your considerable legal minds to find a fair and reasoned approach to protecting children. “Grace’s Law” in Maryland is just such an effort. Educate yourselves on this very real issue that is taking young lives on multiple continents, and join us.
    Christine, mother of Grace

    1. SHG Post author

      First, I am deeply sorry for your loss. This is not about your daughter, however, any more than the laws passed under the names of other children are about them. Yes, we are all over 20, but all of us have been engaged in social media for a while, and have watched it develop. It’s completely understandable that you would be insulted by concerns that aren’t focused on the children, given what you’ve gone through, but that’s why we write. It’s perfectly understandable that the parent would see the world as you do. If Grace was my daughter, I might feel exactly as you do.

      We are educated about the problem. We do not share your view. It’s not that we are callous to your loss, but that there is no perfect world where no child is ever hurt.

      1. Christine McComas

        I fear you have missed my point. I don’t believe you are callous to my loss, and most importantly I do not believe there is such a thing as a ‘perfect world where no child is ever hurt’. It was this exact point that I found offensive, as it oversimplifies a significant problem. This world will never be perfect and bullying in all forms will always be with us. However, the types of abuse which were aimed at my child of 14, for instance “snitches I will kill you”, “snitches should have their fingers cut off one by one while they watch their families burn”, “I hope you see this and cry yourself to sleep then wake up and kill yourself, you might as well, your just a worthless piece of sh**” are beyond the pale and should have triggered some protections or interest from someone, especially since this began AFTER my child was subpoenaed as a witness against this young man. He had been given a ‘no contact’ condition on probation, but no one watched, and once it was exposed, gave no consequence or even mandated apology, which just might have made her feel someone cared besides me. These protections are needed.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not only do I understand your point, but I understand more than just your point. This is why victims, or in this case parents of victims, don’t get to sentence defendants. Their vision is clouded by their loss, which is completely understandable. You shouldn’t feel any differently than you do.

        2. JTW

          Do remember that kids will find a way to bully, and this law or a thousand others isn’t going to stop that.
          Also remember that if death threats were made against your daughter (which I don’t doubt, such things happen) the kids making them were already violating the law and no doubt Facebook’s terms of service, and could and should have been handled under those.
          Enacting new and vague laws that allow government censors to determine (after the fact, for now, so after the next victim would see it) whether something is “of redeeming social value” or not isn’t going to change that, but can be used to stifle political opposition very easily.

          What if the ruling party leadership is looking at a rough election they’ll likely lose and decide that the agenda of the opposing part is “or no redeeming social value”? Under this law they’d (or rather their supporters in the censors’ office) be fully authorized to prevent the opposing party from campaigning.

          This won’t bring back your daughter, or any other victim of bullying (I am one, was bullied (both verbally and physically beaten with full knowledge of the teachers at my schools from age 5 to 15), around the age of 10 I was seriously considering suicide.)
          It will however be greatly detrimental to freedom of expression for everyone who has ideas and opinions that are not mainstream (or rather, not what those in control of the fat red pen or delete button would want mainstream to be).

  5. A. Nagy

    I have seen way too many anti-bullying rules turned around and used on the bullied. I can envision many ways this could be used to silence the bullied, or to be used as a weapon to bully.

    The answer to bullying has never been remain silent, it has never been to fight back and punch them in the face(though this is better then doing nothing often). It is to call it out for what it is, attempts to define it concretely allow abuse by skirting the line, and if you leave it up to discretion it leads to bias from adults in power who have no idea about bullying or the situation at hand.

    One of the biggest problems with bullying is kids often don’t realize they are being bullied, or they believe it is justified in some manner it may even be but that doesn’t make it right to bully. I would focus more on the education aspect then on any sort of rule making.

  6. Bullied as a youth all through Grade School and HS for being an only child.

    There are a few problems… If kids didn’t have smartphones at the age of 10 they couldn’t bully nearly as easily on any of the social networks. If parents took some time to find out what their children are doing online and on their smartphones and then did something about inappropriate behavior things would improve. If parents took the time to teach their children that life is not fair, it is not easy and bullying is going to be a part of their ongoing life and teach them coping mechanisms this kind of thing wouldn’t be an issue.

    For Grace’s mom, I am so sorry for your loss, there is no excuse for the children’s behavior that bullied her. I was bullied in school, as I went to a small farming community school and I was the only child of a doctor. Assumptions were made about me and my family continually, I was called names, picked on, shunned, ostracized and with no older siblings to ‘protect’ me I was an easy target. I recall the depression of it all, I am glad that there wasn’t facebook or other media as there is today around then. There were barely a single computer in every classroom let alone anything of the likes of Facebook.

    There is something to be said for a simpler lifestyle growing up, although not even a consideration in today’s day and age.

    I don’t believe legislating some kind of law will really make a difference, as those that are the most serious offenders are minors and are not prosecutable in adult terms. What I have seen is that the most effective way to punish someone is to take something that they cherish, such as, their smartphone, internet and computer. If they need it for school then install WebWatcher then block and monitor their activity online on the computer and their phone. Protect the admin password with your life and make it uncrackable with letters, numbers, symbols and capitols in it. Making sure that it isn’t something your child could figure out. People want so much to protect their children from the big bad world but let them roam unfettered online, might as well drop them off in Thailand and see if they make it home or if they end up another patsy in prison for being a drug mule. Both worlds are just as dangerous. The internet land could land them in prison just as easily as trying to smuggle heroin out of Thailand.

    Education about bullying and appropriate behavior should be coming from the PARENTS, not the schools, nor should the schools be tasked with policing it since the power of disapline has been stripped from them over the years. If the parents are unable to control the child, then maybe a correctional institution will help? I just believe that it is an excuse when a parent says their child just doesn’t listen to them. In my opinion then they didn’t do a good enough job in those formidable years between the ages of 0-5. If there is a child bullying another, maybe the parent’s should be held responsible? It would be an incentive to them to make a point of knowing what their child is doing online if they could potentially pay the price with their own life facing prison time for their inability to rear a well mannered individual.

  7. Pingback: Maryland partners with Facebook to censor content ‘without societal value’ in new cyberbullying law

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