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February 2020
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Yelling fire on a crowded internet

On 60 Minutes Sunday, there was a segment about the biggest tech companies, Facebook, Google and Amazon, collecting everyone’s data. As those interviewed explained with products like the Android phone from Google, the only way to use it is to agree in the very long user’s agreement that the company can store and use your data.

There is literally no other way to use the phones/ software or social media other than agreeing in legal jargon that you don’t mind what the company does in exchange.

The segment revealed that Facebook not only tracks data of its users, but, in at least some cases, kept all their messages, even those users thought were deleted. Some readers are probably getting nervous now when they realize that every single message ever sent on a Facebook app may be retrievable.

Maybe most frightening, the Amazon Alexa devices can keep listening to conversations which aren’t directed at it according to the Sunday night news show.

Shocking, because it is so obviously true, was a comment made by Jeffrey Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy. When asked did any of those corporate actions violate a law, his reply was, “There are no rules on the internet.”

Let that sink in. If you want to use an Alexa device, cell phone, or Facebook whatever information the company wants to collect and store in a data file about you is fair game. At this point, as far as most of us know, all the companies do with that information is target market the various ads and deals you receive based on your online profile. 

But the implications going forward are disturbing.

In a much closer-to-home scenario, our local schools (at least some parents and students) have been thrown into a degree of chaos over panics that developed online with fears that violence might unfold at a campus.

In the first recent incident, local people on social media picked up a threat that was real, without noticing it was aimed at the  Pickens, South Carolina high school, where a student was ultimately arrested. There was never a risk for Georgia, but enough people failed to notice the “S.C.” that school officials felt the need to  calm parents’ nerves by using their all-call phone system.

In the other incident, word of two teenagers verbally arguing last week got blown out of proportion, according to school officials. In the superintendent’s timeline, the flashpoint  was reached when a parent asked online if anyone knew about someone bringing a gun to school the next day, and that became widely circulated on social media.

We’d argue this is the modern equivalent of someone yelling fire in a crowded theater if they got the whiff of a cigarette. Our yelling fire analogy comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919. If it is falsely yelled to cause panic, it’s illegal, but, not so clear are the repercussions if it’s yelled in earnest mistake or if it’s posted as a legitimate question.

Those who spread and blew out of proportion two kids arguing into a situation  requiring a six-person team of sheriff officers and school officials spending hours sorting it out last Thursday, assumedly didn’t yell it falsely. 

But as dearly departed Stan Lee, (creator of Spiderman) noted, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” And when you have the ability to yell/post fire or gun (even if it’s a question about a gun at school) you also have the responsibility to see that a panic doesn’t ensue. The better way to handle school security concerns, as the superintendent states this week, is by privately reporting a potential threat to the school administrator, sheriff, central office or 911.

As much trouble as the posts caused, there are no rules that prevent someone from posing questions about guns in school on social media even if they totally made it up. As we are all learning:  There are no rules on the internet.