More Alarmism Over Social Networking Sites

Following up on its earlier article about how college students’ profiles on social networking sites are turning off prospective employers (which I discussed here), today brings a new warning from the NYT on this digital peril: Young People’s Web Postings Worry Summer Camp Directors. The opening graf seems to channel Helen Lovejoy, labeling “sites like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster” a “scourge” of summer camp directors. Add the new story to this week’s news of a lawsuit against MySpace alleging that it failed to prevent a user from sexually assaulting a child, and it looks like only a matter of time before Congress starts calling for an investigation of this whole Internet thingy. So what’s going on with the summer camps?

  • Pedophiles can follow children to camp based on information in the children’s profiles. But camps aren’t secret; they’re right there in the yellow pages. They’re even labeled from the street with big signs. They advertise — indeed, they even have web sites of their own. How do social networking sites increase the actual levels of risk campers face here? The Times doesn’t say, although it clearly wants the reader infer that the Internet is a uniquely dangerous place simply crawling with predators.
  • Kids are finding risqué photos that counselors have posted in their profiles. This seems like a reasonably legitimate complaint, but surely it is adequately redressable through the terms of the employment contract between the camp and the counselor. This issue is exactly the same one that the Times already wrote about in its June 11th article — did it really need to repeat itself so soon?
  • The kids are using their profiles to criticize the camps and their counselors. And here, I expect, is the real motive for the crackdown: the camps are worried that bad reviews will depress attendance and revenues. The very public fretting about the “safety” issue is a smokescreen for the camps’ real (but less defensible) desire, which is to insulate themselves against criticism. One of the camps’ new tactics described in the article — “trademarking their names, logos or slogans so they can legally order others not to use them online” — seems to have everything to do with deterring criticism and nothing to do with safety, although of course it’s not a trademark violation to identify a business using that business’s own name, no matter what the NYT article implies. (Just ask Jerry Falwell whether you can use trademark law to stop other people from saying bad things about you online.)

I’m a parent; I understand the urge to protect one’s children from harm, and I’m sure than when David gets a little older I’ll worry with the best of them about sending him off to camp. But the Times article yearns for a pre-Internet idyll (free from predators and bullying) that never actually existed. What’s really newsworthy here, it seems to me, is the scapegoating of the currently popular social networking sites for a host of social ills that long predated their own existence and will endure long after people have moved on to the next online fad, whatever it turns out to be.

9 Responses to “More Alarmism Over Social Networking Sites”

  1. A must read in this regard, albeit a dated one, is James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. P., 1998) ISBN 0822321777. See the Amazon customer reviews to glean a sense of the book’s provocative tone, but I for one think it’s the funniest book I’ll ever read about child molestation. My point in recommending this, however, is that it largely demonstrates the urge to scapegoat mentioned by Tim.

  2. Tim, I also found that article infuriating. I too was particularly bothered by the throwaway line (in the Times’ voice, not a quote from someone) about how registering for a trademark supposedly entitles you to censor anyone from mentioning your brand name. This is a dramatic (but sadly common) misunderstanding of trademark law.

    One other point: as badly as the camps are handling new technology, some of the campers and counselors don’t sound too great either. One counselor told the Times, “Because [her blog] did not mention her surname, ‘I didn’t think anybody could connect it to me.’” Wow. If removing her surname is the only anonymizing step she took (for example, I guess it mentions her employer by name if it’s in the article), that’s a drastic misunderstanding of how to protect your privacy effectively.

    At least the director of one camp, in addition to ridiculous responses like the trademarking and “beefing up internal security” (huh?), seems also to have stumbled on a sensible idea almost by accident: “We’re bringing in a child psychologist to spend two days with campers talking about good decision-making.”

  3. [...] Bloggen Info/Law skriver: [...]

  4. [...] But the permanence of networked information has costs, too, which (like the benefits) are only beginning to be explored. Members of the generation just behind mine, who have grown up reflexively creating and posting information online, are learning that digital is forever — if you’re a job applicant (or even a camp counselor), anything that has ever been written by (or about) you online is, at least potentially, still there. (Back in my day, we used goofy aliases to hide our online identities; but I gather that practice has been fading.) Once information is online, it turns out, it may becomes quite hard ever to get it back offline again — the Wayback Machine preserves old web pages; Google Groups archives Usenet posts; and it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes up with the magic bullet that automatically archives IRC and IM conversations and makes them searchable. Even your deleted e-mails aren’t necessarily gone; they may still exist on backup tapes where law enforcement authorities can get them. The durability of digital content raises problems that touch on both informational security and individual privacy. [...]

  5. [...] So much has this sort of online self-disclosure become second nature to some members of this cohort that they can be quite surprised when the more restrictive norms of earlier generations intrude. They may retaliate (as in this funny story from last weekend’s NYT) by bringing a taste of Generation-Y norms to us older folks. More commonly, they may simply get tripped up, as the job applicants and camp counselors in some of my earlier postings did, by the unfamiliar expectations of the generations that didn’t grow up online. At my wife’s company, for example, new employees have proudly shared their Facebook profiles with managers, even where said profiles prominently feature close-up photographs of said employees passed out after a little too much partying — after all, the employees are no doubt thinking, isn’t that sort of sharing, democratizing, and hierarchy-leveling what the internet is all about? (Well, that and the other thing.) ;-) [...]

  6. [...] Trademark? It’s a common misunderstanding of trademark law to suppose that owning a mark gives you the right to censor other people and forbid them from using the mark at all. But it has never been a violation of trademark to use a mark to refer to the mark holder’s own product. You can refer to The New York Times as “the New York Times” without violating its trademark — if it were otherwise, comparative advertising would be impossible, and trademark law would run into serious First Amendment problems. So if you’re using the words “Tony Danza” to refer to Tony Danza rather than to someone else, there’s no basis for a claim of trademark infringement. [...]

  7. [...] Authorities on the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota (UMD) have banned student athletes at the school from having accounts on social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster. The story in the local Duluth newspaper is surprisingly good, giving both sides of the debate and avoiding the sort of “Interthreat” sensationalism often found in such reporting (even in the New York Times). [...]

  8. [...] proud tradition here at Info/Law of mercilessly spotlighting journalistic cluenessness in matters of intellectual property (all with the best of intentions! right, guys? …guys?), here’s today’s [...]

  9. Social Networking is an amazing by-road of the internet. Here to stay – FULL STOP.