Thursday, July 26, 2007

Miss America: Myspace, kids, and teachers: teach intellectual property law in high schools!

Miss America, Lauren Nelson, recently told Congress that minors should be required to take and pass course work in safer use of the Internet before they are allowed to have their own accounts – email, domain names, or especially social networking site profiles. The obvious inference is that public schools should offer this subject matter in various grades, in English, social studies and perhaps technology education.

First, let me say that this is something I can help schools with. The proper place for a position dealing with this need, if Congress or a state legislature mandates it, is perhaps in information technology, or perhaps program evaluation. This idea could lead to new positions in some school districts.

The media has pretty well covered many of the issues. Some of the concerns have to do with giving out personal information (that could even compromise the security of other family members). Some of the more subtle concerns deal with recent reports that employers and colleges look at profiles of students (a practice the ethics of which is still worthy of separate debate). This is related to the recent trend for some companies to offer “online reputation management,” and the idea that employers might come to expect it.

But one of the biggest concerns is simply knowledge of the legal risks. These particularly concern copyright infringement (more common in peer-to-peer with music and movies, a development that has resulted in kids and parents getting surprise lawsuit threats and payment demands from record companies). A particularly disturbing issue is defamation – and that can include unintentional or perceptual “self-defamation.”

Again, before the Internet, we were used to a legal climate where book and magazine publishers carefully vetted material before releasing it “into the wild.” Yet, we release 13 year old kids to the wild with no supervision.

Social networking sites and blogging sites have developed the ability to “whitelist” – to limit access to the content to a known list of recipients. Sometimes (as with Facebook) the list is wider and based on an email address with a school. But companies providing self-publishing capabilities to subscribers know how to do this. It is plausible to develop a practice where the default is that a new site must be whitelisted until the owner passes a test demonstrating knowledge of the terms of service and responsibilities. This could even eventually be expected of adults, and idea that becomes apparent if one compares the Internet environment with what existed before.

Likewise, content publication and social networking providers might be required to verify age and formal parental consent. But we know from the COPA trial that reliable age verification is very difficult, and requiring that certainly could provoke legal challenges again. Convictions for certain offenses would preclude the ability to use such a service ( a legal precedent being that convicted felons often cannot vote). Myspace, is has been reported, recently identified and removed almost 30000 rso providers, and had to be pressured to do that.

While this discussion applies to students (middle, high school and college) what about teachers? Here we get into some more controversy.

As visitors know, I have long been concerned that when people have certain jobs and then, on their own, become controversial with candid online content that they provide, relationships with stakeholders can be compromised. I have even said that managers and people in certain other kinds of jobs should not self-publish without supervision at all. I wrote a sample blogging policy myself.

With teachers, there are the same issues. One major risk is that students or parents would find material that the teacher has written when at home, form an unfavorable impression of the future (whether or not this impression is really fair or justified), or feel that curriculum approved by parents (through school boards) is being undermined. The major “risk” would occur with a permanent teacher who has the normal authority to give students course grades. The tendency in some schools to centralize testing (with SOL’s and the like) might mitigate that concern somewhat.

With subs, the concern should obviously be much less. A short term substitute teacher does not have any practical authority over students (signing bathroom passes doesn’t count). A long term sub, or a sub who works repeatedly at just one or two schools, could present more of this kind of “risk.” That’s why I think that, even with public employees, school districts should have formal blogging policies for teachers.

Obviously, for a teacher this is a sensitive issue. A teacher says, I’m not “political” what’s wrong with my having my gardening blog? Well, nothing, maybe. In fact, many teachers place their course syllabuses online and allow the entire world to see them with no logon. There’s an issue with drawing the line and with the possibility that material would be reviewed and censured to make sure that the teacher’s writings would not cause a disruption in the school environment.

As public employees, teachers have had long recognized free speech rights, and they are presumably stronger outside the classroom or school property. There is a long audit trail of litigation about this, and there are numerous Supreme Court opinions which generally support teacher free speech off the job, but they came out, by and large, before the Internet.. But the Internet, at least with a website or blog that allows all unregistered users, is pervasive; essentially anyone can know what it is about even if its blocked on school computers. If a gay teacher does not like restrictions on what a school district allows to be taught, does he or she have the automatic right to make is own material available to the public? Even if the site is never mentioned at school, the practical likelihood that kids will find it (given the power of search engines) is very great. Where is the balance to be struck? Must a site be whitelisted, or blocked from search engine robots? Maybe content labeling (discussed in another blog here) would help. Or does the school district just live with the “risk”? The trouble is, it has no real way of assessing the risk.

Before the Internet age, ordinary people tended to keep a low public profile and let unions, organizations and pressure groups represent their interests. Organizational advocacy tends to be partisan, and tends to leave a lot to be desired in terms of intellectual honesty. In the Internet, individuals can carefully tailor positions to address the subtlety of various issues and how their resolutions could affect various parties with unintended consequences. With the “democratization” of debate by public “amateur content” we certain have a new intellectual richness as to how we can perceive issues – a point that ought to be taught in civics courses in high schools and colleges. Yet, allowing people in formal positions of authority to participate this way always presents unquantifiable risks.

If I were to become a permanent teacher with a license and formal “authority” over students, including grading, my public presence on the Internet would have to go. That’s not the case in any job where I am an “individual contributor” and have no formal authority over others (and that could even be a position developing Internet safety curricula some day – without my own students).

In the fall of 2005, there was a potentially serious incident involving some of my own content and one particular high school. Soon I will offer some analysis and conclusions about it, to the extent that I can do so safely.

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