Maryland Tops Off Awful Cyberbullying Law With Direct Line To Facebook To Remove Content 'Without Societal Value'

from the administrators-seek-to-control-off-campus-life-as-well dept

We saw Nova Scotia deliver the worst in cyberbullying laws (Canadian edition) earlier this year. Like most bad cyberbullying legislation, this one was prompted by the suicide of a teen. It’s too tempting for legislators to rush into action with no real idea on how to solve the problem, much less mitigate it, and the attendant public uproar contributes nothing in terms of clear thinking or common sense.

As a result, laws like Nova Scotia’s get passed — laws that rely on purely subjective measures. If someone feels offended, they can press charges, utilizing a non-adversarial process that allows the accuser to present his or her case directly to a judge, who then decides whether or not it’s actually cyberbullying. This opens the accused up to civil proceedings, criminal charges and a chance of being banned not just from social media but from the internet entirely, along with being banned from using electronic devices — like a phone.

Maryland’s anti-cyberbullying law (“Grace’s Law”) is also the byproduct of the charged reaction to a teen’s (Grace McComas) post-bullying suicide. Grace’s Law attempts to outlaw being a jerk while still pretending it doesn’t tread all over the public’s First Amendment rights. It grants exceptions for “expressing political views” and “conveying information” but that’s it. And if it’s a teen on the receiving end of “electronic annoyance” (whether or not the “annoyer” knows the target is a teen), expect the hammer to fall swiftly and crushingly.

Grace’s Law is now in effect and the state of Maryland has gone even farther, partnering with Facebook to help it censor the output of Maryland citizens, as Walter Olson details at Cato.

On Tuesday, the new law took effect, and this morning 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. Per local radio station WTOP, Maryland school officials will be offered the chance to flag “questionable or prohibited” language. That is to say, they will flag speech that isn’t prohibited by the new law but which they deem “questionable.”

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.”

Once again, the subjective standard is being applied. What’s offensive to Maryland officials is deemed to be offensive to everyone. Maryland will now start censoring users’ posts and comments, all with Facebook’s approval. Here’s Scott Greenfield with Facebook’s public statement on its partnership in free speech neutering.

“Facebook continues to look for ways to help parents, teens and educators better understand the safety features built 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.”

Oberwetter’s statement appears to have been pre-written by an official at the Ministry of Love. It contains the sort of Big Brother-embracing faux cheeriness Oberwtter, who once sued the DC Park Police after being arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial (and lost but still returned to dance again), wouldn’t make on her own. Nope, this is a corporate canned speech, one that gives a glassy-eyed nod as it awaits orders from its new “partner.” As Greenfield points out, this is a dangerous precedent Facebook is setting.

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.

Even the new statement issued by Facebook, where it claims it won’t be changing its content policy “one iota” rings a little hollow. The response, given to the WSJ’s Law Blog, claims Facebook will show no greater preference to reports via Maryland’s direct line than those arriving via the “report” buttons deployed by everyday, non-Escalating non-Educators.

But the foot’s in the door.

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.

Maryland is the only state in the nation currently working with (or adjacent to) Facebook to make preemptive strikes against posts “without societal value.” It’s very unlikely it will be the last. There are plenty of opportunistic politicians, administrators and attorneys general more than happy to point out how SERIOUS they are about tackling the cyberbullying menace.

Maryland’s anti-bullying law sets its own dangerous precedents, as does Facebook’s willingness to (at least publicly) ingratiate itself to censorious state bodies. It won’t just be one state or one social network before it’s all said and done. With the NSA peeking in the back door and Maryland’s NAAG squad peering through the windows, the world’s largest social network has placed one foot on a slope that descends rapidly to Facebook.gov.

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Comments on “Maryland Tops Off Awful Cyberbullying Law With Direct Line To Facebook To Remove Content 'Without Societal Value'”

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41 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Just report?

‘The response, given to the WSJ’s Law Blog, claims Facebook will show no greater preference to reports via Maryland’s direct line than those arriving via the “report” buttons deployed by everyday, non-Escalating non-Educators.’

If that’s really true, then just LET THEM USE THE REPORT BUTTON.

Of course, it’s NOT true.

Anonymous Coward says:

whenever there is a tragedy, those that are interested in nothing other than making a big thing out of it and the legislation that can ultimately lead from the uproar that occurred, always get their way. the problem is that once a law is in force, it is one hell of a job to get it repealed. that is why there has to be a time when the ridiculous hot headed influence is reduced to as little as possible. hot head law introduction ALWAYS have consequences other than what is initially intended. that has been shown over and over, including but certainly not limited to the over reaction to 9/11, as big a disaster as it was. level headed thinking is what is needed but never found. the one with the biggest mouth is usually the one that gets his/her law enforced but is also, very often, the one with the least sense.

out_of_the_blue says:

Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

“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,”

Obviously written by a corporatist. Facebook is a business that like any other, must serve the public good, or else the public — which by grace of god or nature has the ONLY entitlements that exist — is entitled to remove Facebook’s privilege to exist.

Now that’s just to deal with the rampant corporatism that’s one of the worst evils The People face today. It’s rather remarkable to have the above slipped in, when obviously a good deal of the problem is the open fascism of mega-corporation Facebook in cahoots with gov’t. Mixed message at best.

As for the rest: there’s good suppression of speech, and there’s bad suppression of speech, and that’s judged constantly. This, though, seems simply a byproduct of new places to be stupid, not any fundamental change to common law. If it were possible to use lasers to put stoopid and abusive messages on the moon’s surface, then that too would have to regulated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

As for the rest: there’s good suppression of speech, and there’s bad suppression of speech

There is only suppression of speech. The whole basis of the Spanish Inquisition was suppression of bad speech, as defined by the catholic Church. That is where suppression of bad speech leads.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

Facebook is a business that like any other, must serve the public good

Normally, I don’t like to reply to you, but what kind of an ass-hat statement is that? What fantasy land do you live in that suggests businesses have to “serve the public good”?

Business do not have to do anything like that. Many businesses conflict with “the public good” (have a smoke and try to think of one).

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

actually, the asshat fantasyland they live in, is amerika…

ORIGINALLY, companies were ONLY ‘chartered’ by the state IF their company had some PUBLIC BENEFIT…
(…and said charters were TEMPORARY)

you were ONLY supposed to be chartered by the state IF there was a component that benefited the public, NOT SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU WANTED TO MAKE MONEY…

now, don’t get me wrong, whether still technically true or not, that moral obligation is no longer binding in any way, shape, or form…

that don’t mean that wasn’t the ORIGINAL INTENT in ALLOWING corporations to be granted a charter by the state…

we have strayed so far, not even the constitution is in force any longer…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy
eof

S. T. Stone says:

Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

Facebook is a business that like any other, must serve the public good

No, they don?t.

If you argue that any business must serve the public good at all times, you have essentially argued in favor of placing liability for ?bad things happening? on a third party who had nothing to do with those bad things.

People use phones to set up crimes all the time, but we don?t see phone companies giving the government a direct feed into every phone number they have in service. (They do that under the table, but you get my point.) Facebook should not have to give AGs or state officials or teachers or anyone else a direct tap into its service so it can cut off ?bad things? at the source.

there’s good suppression of speech, and there’s bad suppression of speech

The only ?good? suppression of speech involves suppressing obviously illegal speech and expressions (e.g. incitements of violence, ?fighting words?, child pornography). Any speech not ruled illegal should never face suppression.

I can call you all sorts of names and spout all sorts of obscenities right here and now (and boy would I like to do it), but that offensive bit of speech (which you would probably call cyberbulling) does not break any laws and should not face legal suppression from any level of government.

Maryland has entered into a dangerous proposition. They have now become Big Brother on Facebook and seek to suppress any form of legal speech/expression that it considers ?harmful? or ?hurtful? or (dare I say it) ?ungood?. Not only does this law set a precedent that AGs in other states can use to their benefit (and the detriment of the First Amendment), it sends a dangerous message to parents: ?You don?t have to sit down with your kids and teach them about right and wrong and becoming a better person because the government will watch over your kids and make sure they don?t bully each other into suicide.?

Nothing about this law does anyone but politicians any good.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

The only ?good? suppression of speech involves suppressing obviously illegal speech and expressions (e.g. incitements of violence, ?fighting words?, child pornography).

Their should never be any direct suppression of speech. People however may be tried for a real crime that results from their speech , such as inciting violence, or acts carried out to make the speech, such as child abuse.

Suppression of bad speech is just a way of giving those in power the ability against those who are not, see:-
Teen arrested over terrorist threats
and
“Former NSA Director jokes about putting Ed Snowden On kill List

Further if speech is suppressed it can always have perverse consequences, how can a person write about child abuse that happened to them if child pornography is banned? Can a councillor read and place such an account in a private file, as part of helping such a person, if possession of child pornography is banned?

DSchneider (profile) says:

Re: Facebook is a permitted entity: it has NO "entitlement":

“or else the public — which by grace of god or nature has the ONLY entitlements that exist — is entitled to remove Facebook’s privilege to exist”

This is entirely true to bad the rest of your arguments are the exact opposite of this statement.

The problem is all to often it’s some sort grandstanding public official and not “the public” or not “society” for those “without societal value” statements that is trying to make that determination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Stable doors.

This sort of law is rather useless, as it is removing comments after the damage has been done. Removing the comment does not remove the memory of it from the person being bullied, or their worry about that other people have seen it. It does however make the politicians feel good about doing something, and gives those who would censor speech another tool to use.

Jasmine Charter (user link) says:

Is the new Maryland flag...

Is the new Maryland flag a swastika? What type of INSANE censorship is this and what gives any school official ANY RIGHT to ANYTHING a student says out of school.

Do they goose step their students in parade now too?

Oh wait… some neo-Nazi official in Maryland is offended by this… I feel the censorship pen coming…

Anonymous Coward says:

Attorney generals, huh?

“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”

So why are the attorney generals getting involved with a program for school officials for speech which “isn?t prohibited by the new law”?

I can only conclude that these attorney generals told Facebook that either it would go along with this program, or it would be investigated for something by those same attorney generals. Isn’t that the only contribution the attorney generals could make to that arrangement?

Anonymous Coward says:

Where have I heard this one before?:

consider hurtful and lacking in ?redeeming societal value.?

Oh yeah China and Russia use those exact words.
We are not quite there yet, but this is a very big first step towards this. I would like to ask these people what they would consider “hurtful” or “lacking in societal value”, because I don’t see them stopping at cyber-bullying. How long until they start censoring friends calling each other nicknames for fun, or worse yet: would they consider facebook protests, against them and this law, societal value? How long until they deem that they need to adjust our behavior other places on the web as well?
I shudder to think about where this will lead us, because I can not imagine it will be anywhere good.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Wasteful

Why do politicians continue to waste time and resources on programs that have zero chance of withstanding judicial scrutiny?

Surely these school districts employ lawyers to advise them on legal issues, and I’m assuming these lawyers are of at least minimal competence, having passed the bar and all, so I assume these lawyers are informing their clients that a program whereby a private company like Facebook gives the government the power to censor anyone it likes can’t possibly survive even the most basic constitutional scrutiny. And yet they go right ahead and do it anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wasteful

You’re asking why a politician would like to take credit for trying to solve a major societal problem? When the inevitable shutdown of the program means they don’t have to deal with real-world consequences their solution would entail? When they can point to their opponents or the judiciary as the reason their solution failed? When it’s so easy to cast the program’s opponents (aka the politician’s political opponents) as not caring about teen bullying or suicide?

I’m not sure! I’d ask a Congressperson, but the government’s closed this week.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wasteful

I’ve often wondered the same thing. My conclusion is that there are a lot of incompetent lawyers out there.

According to the American Bar Association, there were 1,225,452 licensed lawyers in 2010. Which means that there are about 12,254 lawyers out there that are in the bottom 1%.

And I doubt that school districts hire lawyers based on their knowledge of the First Amendment. More likely they want ones that can write contracts favorable to the district. So even if they are competent in one area, they might not be in all areas.

corwin155 (profile) says:

"Facebook becomes the agent of the state"

“Facebook becomes the agent of the state” yeah the New Nazi Police State of America under the Dictatorship of NSA.
first off Facebook has always been agent of the state since it partnered with NSA and CIA to help change America into a Dictatorship.
making the Constitution something socially unacceptable as it was written.
The socialist Educated Elites want nothing more then to have the Government run everyone’s lives dictating every single aspect of their lives, with them making suggestions at what is acceptable and which is not.
You can see this happening in New York and California and other states starting to do same thing.
these states have started moving toward making America a Fascists Police state i guess Maryland wants to be part of that growing growing number of states.

Anonymous Coward says:

not a matter of free speech

While the government is not allowed to impinge on free speech, corporations are well within their rights to limit what you say on their turf. If you’re talking in Walmart and officials there don’t like what you have to say, they can ask you to leave. It’s not public property, and it’s not operated by the government (though, it wouldn’t be a terribly far-fetched association).

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