Once again this week, users of the enormous social networking service Facebook have fallen prey to unscrupulous people scamming them for information and money. It’s beginning to be a familiar story: A seemingly innocuous link is sent from a friend, a company asks for personal information, and mysterious charges show up on a credit card — or, in this case, a mobile phone bill.
Internet security experts, and Facebook itself, would have us rely on that old adage, “there’s a sucker born every day,” as we shake our heads and joke about how ignorant people will fall for anything. People should know better, we mumble, than to give out their mobile phone numbers to strangers and think they’ll get something for nothing.
The fact is, though, that it is the rest of us who should know better. Just a moment of reflection shows us that we already do. We know better, as a society, than to think that those given unfettered access to communication channels always will do the right thing. We should know better than to believe that the rights of commercial interests always trump the social good. In fact, in the U.S. and much of the world, we’ve known better for hundreds of years.
While we spend much time and ink wringing our hands about the new and supposedly unprecedented world of the Internet, the fact is that we have failed to apply even the simplest social lessons we’ve learned to it.
Fallacy: The Markets Always Balance Interests
One lesson that any economy based on the capitalist model has learned is that the Wild West approach is not an optimal way to run a country. It stands to reason, then, that it’s also not a good model for a communication infrastructure. Even in the rough-and-tumble early days of industrialization in the U.S., we had concerns about monopolies and abuses of financial power — the Rockefellers and Carnegies learned this the hard way.
Why, then, would we insist that vetting applications from companies that — compared to those days — are tiny and new, creates unnecessary bottlenecks in the innovation and commercial processes so crucial to growth? That’s basically Facebook’s argument. We can’t police everything, the service says, so users just have to be careful.
In fact, the Apple iTunes App Store has shown us that app developers can be both supported and held to reasonable standards without slowing Internet innovation to a halt. We know better than to think that Facebook doesn’t have the ability to better monitor what goes on among its app developers. We also know better than to think it shouldn’t exercise better control over them.
Fallacy: Free Speech Has No Exceptions
Another story recently in the news is the refusal of online classified giant Craigslist to exercise better control over the ads that appear in its adult services section. Advocacy groups have shown repeatedly that those ads are rife with activity that, as a society, we almost unanimously agree is horrendous — including child trafficking. Why, then, does it continue with almost no interference?
We seem to have lost the lessons we’ve learned about free speech down the same rabbit hole as the ones about unregulated commerce. While we’ve successfully applied limits to free speech on television, in print, and over telephone lines, we can’t seem to make the leap to applying those same standards to the Internet. It’s too complicated, we complain. The laws are different. No one has authority.
Those are flimsy excuses, I would argue. Anyone who visits a DVD rental store knows that the adult videos are kept in a separate, closed-off room. That’s because we feel strongly as a society that the rights of those who want to view adult content are trumped by the rights of kids to be shielded from adult sexuality until they reach the age of consent.
Most of us even agree that this is less an issue of prudery than it is of common sense. We’ve become accustomed to having to ask the store clerk for our issues of “Hustler” magazine. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve become accustomed to knowing that “Hustler” would flatly turn down an ad if we tried to place one selling the sexual services of a young girl. How different could Craigslist be? How difficult would it be to apply the same standards?
Fallacy: It’s Rocket Science
When we buy the argument that we can’t apply common sense standards to Internet-based activities, we’re selling ourselves, and our long history of successful balancing of rights, far short. While Facebook certainly couldn’t entirely eliminate scams perpetrated through its service, it definitely could do a better job.
Manufacturers of products that contain known flaws that harm buyers are held accountable for those injured through an established body of law called “product liability.” If Facebook is allowing developers to distribute harmful software, why shouldn’t the service be viewed similarly?
Likewise, publications that knowingly support illegal activities, or hate speech, or other social ills, especially in favor of their own financial gain, see their free speech rights limited. Why should Craigslist be different?
What we’re afraid to admit is the raw truth: Protecting ourselves and each other may simply cost too much. We may not be willing to pay the price to continue to apply what we’ve already learned — many times the hard way — to this brave new world.
TechNewsWorld columnist Kimberly Hill is also a reporter for ECT News Network. She has been writing in the high-tech, research, and business fields for 25 years, for a wide array of organizations and publications including Ziff-Davis, Cleveland Clinic, Intuit and BusinessWeek. She’s an assistant professor at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, where her students patiently listen to her go on and on about writing, responsible communication, social equity, local food, and any number of other passions. Then they teach her what’s really going on.