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Friday, August 12, 2011

Is Social Media Free Speech?

Aftermath of the London riots
This is a question almost every I know who uses it assumes "yes, of course."

I can "say what I want" on my Facebook page.  I can post "what I want" on my blog.

But is it a place for truly free speech?

Surely I an organize a group to go down to the town square and clean up litter?

But can I use racially charged words, talk about ethnic groups, things like that?

Can I suggest going to the town square and rioting after cleaning up the litter?

This article at wired made be stop and think about it...  At present in the UK Facebook, texting and so forth are being used to coordinate rioting, planned destruction of property and so on.  Similarly in Egypt and other places in the middle east people are using social media to cause changes in government.

The government and the police have figured out what's being used to coordinate these activities and is working to stop them - sometimes in advance.

Social media is not, I believe, the "free press" as recognized by the US Constitution.  And, of course, even the free press is not allowed to print some things without some form of repercussion.

The law recognizes two broad categories of crime - the kind that you do directly such as assault or theft.

It also recognizes conspiracy.  Conspiracy is where two or more parties conspire together about some illegal action.  Even if only on person directly commits the crime other co-conspirators can be convicted of the same crime even if all they did was convince someone else to commit the crime.

At its simplest conspiracy might be: "Joe's Diner has a lot of cash on Thursday's, Bob.  You should go down their and rob it."  While Bob might get caught robbing the diner I may also be a "conspirator" because Bob and I discussed the robbery together in advance.

So now lets think about Facebook and, say, middle school.

I don't like Suzy and so I post on my Facebook that fact: "I don't like Suzy."

Others engage in similar posting on my "Wall" in response to the comment.  Pretty soon there's a litany of 50 comments.

So far no crime...

Except of someone else reads that long list and decides to harm Suzy.  For example, someone might post "Suzy needs to be taken down to size..." and the next day Suzy gets a beat down in the bathroom.

Again someone might say lets jump Suzy at the bus stop and show her how we feel - and the next day Suzy gets a beat down.

Clearly the "jump Suzy" is an attempt to draw others into a conspiracy against Suzy and if a crime is committed those who post "I'm in" or who "Like" that comment could be looking at criminal legal problems.

The "taken down to size" comment, on the other hand, is less clear evidence of a conspiracy.

But in either case the consequences are not as serious as replacing an assault with a riot where people are killed.

Interestingly conspiracy is fairly hard to prove when the conspiring occurs only during a walk down a secluded lane in the middle of the night - after all there is no direct evidence in that case.  But the local Facebook wall provides a simple and clear chain of evidence in today's digital age.

There are writers exploring this topic.  For example, Charles Stoss (his blog here) and Rule 34.

These are near-future stories where cops wear 3-D glasses wired into "CopSpace" (a kind of working police "Facebook" where criminal information is shared instantaneously amongst investigators and Artificial Intelligences (AI) process input from sources that include things like the future of Facebook trolling for leads).  The glasses are location aware and allow the characters to post notices at crime scenes that only other cops using "CopSpace" can see.

All things which are not far at all from where we are today technologically as a society.

After all, police now carry laptops in their cars and most certainly GPS.  How long before those spiffy sunglasses they wear are become 3D glasses linked into database and sport cameras for facial recognition?  (This is not science fiction.  The London police are currently using facial recognition to capture rioters.) No more real need for a drivers license...  Everything the state knows about you is now online.

Just ask my friend - a "miscommunication" over an warrant in a non-criminal case got his front door broken down.

The problem is that the law enforcement computer systems used by police are not always accurate or up to date.  And a face, like fingerprints, can be "replaced" (see this).

Today bullies in schools are being rounded up through Facebook posting.

Today rioters in London are being rounded up through Facebook.

My guess is that if you have any unpleasant thoughts about anyone or anything you'd best not write them down in Facebook much less anywhere else on the Internet.

But Charles Stoss and Rule 34 go even farther than this:  AI scans future Facebooks looking for postings that imply a future crime - whether bullying or murder.

And this is also not far from where things are today.  My guess is that busy-bodies are currently working on web crawlers to mine high school Facebook posting looking for potential "violence" - and if they're not actively working on it today they soon will be.

Bye bye freedom.

These things are bogus - just like the little Google ad thingy that sits up in the corner of this blog.  It scans the contents of the blog and puts an ad there related to the topic.  But, as I have written before, it really can't tell if you are writing sarcastically or seriously about a topic.

So while you rail against the evils of "blah" with blistering sarcasm Google happily puts an ad from "blah" right along side your very post.

Google is a big, smart company.  Bigger and smarter than most police organizations.

They can't get it right.

Do you think the police "violence crawler" running over the local high school Facebook posts will be any smarter?

I doubt it very much.

And your witty little Johnny's sarcastic posting about whatever will land him, and you for conspiring with him, in jail.

Isn't the future fun?

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