Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June 8th, 2007

Clueless, the sequel

Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

KTK over at the blog Lean Left rightly takes me to task for not noting the more fundamental (fundamentalist?) issue at hand in the Julie Amero case, which I wrote about earlier today. Amero was on the verge of going to jail for 10 years for not stopping a school computer infected with spyware—a computer that the school didn’t protect with a firewall or anti-virus software—from spewing a few pornographic web pages during a 7th grade class.

The problem is stupid, backwards, and clueless authorities who are beside themselves at the thought that some kids saw a pop-up ad on a computer, and think that’s worth 10 years of someone’s life. (I’m glad they didn’t find the father of my friend from 5th grade, whose stack of Playboys we found in his garage one day. Christ, the guy would still be in jail.) Technology problems will always be with us. Confusing systems and obnoxious malware are a pain, and will likely be so for some time, but they are nothing but an annoyance. Letting panicky prudes throw people in jail because some kids saw the words “Triple XXX Action!” on a computer monitor – forget that it was by accident, that’s the least part of the issue – is a vastly greater danger. We don’t need computers that are better at protecting us from sex. We need people in charge who aren’t so completely unhinged about sex.

I’m going to take KTK and myself to task for not connecting this up with this week’s surprisingly favorable decision by the Federal 2nd Circuit Court in favor of the broadcast networks and against the FCC over the issue of “indecent” language.

The FCC has recently been holding broadcasters to an increasingly strict standard where every instance of words like “fuck” and “shit” leave them subject to fines that start at $325,000, not exactly chump change even for FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS, which was fined when, as Variety put it, “a bluesman use a colorful colloquialism” Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Blues.”

During the 2003 Golden Globes, Bono uttered the word “fucking,” Cher and Nicole Richie uttered an expletive during a Billboard Music Awards show, and then, of course, there was the mother of all indecencies, Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl.

The FCC commissioners purported to fine these diverse events under the aegis of their indecency standard. But that standard concerns material that “dwells on or repeats at length descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities” or “appears to pander or is used to titillate.” The Commission was therefore left arguing before the court that every instance of an expletive, even these “fleeting expletives,” as they are being called, are instances those things.

As the NY Times noted in its coverage,

the judges said vulgar words are just as often used out of frustration or excitement, and not to convey any broader obscene meaning.

That frustration or excitement was on full dress parade over at the commission. Variety quoted FCC Chairman Kevin Martin as issuing a statement that said,

“I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.”

Let’s leave aside the surly reference to a “New York court” (as Toby on the West Wing would point out, “he means liberal”) and note that in a terrific piece of irony, the Bush-appointed commissioners were hoist on their puritanical presidential petards. The court said, presumably with Cheney’s use of “fuck” on the floor of the U.S. Senate in mind,

“In recent times even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

Now if we can only get Connecticut parents, schools, cops, prosecutors, and lower-court jurists to understand the ephemeral nature of what we might call “fleeting pornography,” we can start to breathe a lot easier and worry less about 10-year jail sentences for innocent mistakes.

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Clueless

Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

When a clueless Internet user meets a computer hopelessly infected with porn-oriented spyware the result won’t be pretty, but it will be a private few hours of pop-up ridden frustration, annoyance, and disgust. Unless the setting is a middle school classroom. Then it will be a hour of public embarrassment. Unless it’s brought to court by an equally clueless, but aggressive prosecutor. With an equally clueless judge, who disallows the defense expert to present all his evidence. Then, anything can happen, including jailtime. Many hours and days of jailtime. Up to 10 years of it, in fact.

Such was the fate of Julie Amero, a Connecticut substitute teacher, who was convicted in January on four counts of “risk of injury to a minor.” This week the wheels of injustice may have started to grind to a halt. Amero was granted a new trial by an appeals court because the lower court case relied on expert testimony that “may” have included “erroneous” facts.

Back in October 2004, Amero was teaching a seventh-grade class. According to a January 2007 article by Brian Krebs in the Washington Post,

After stepping out into the hall for a moment, Amero returned to find two students hovering over the computer at the teacher’s desk. As supported by an analysis of her computer during the court proceedings, the site the children were looking at was a seemingly innocuous hairstyling site called “new-hair-styles.com.” Amero said that shortly thereafter, she noticed a series of new Web browser windows opening up displaying pornographic images, and that no matter how quickly she closed each one out, another would pop up in its place.

Anyone who has visited a porn site, accidentally or on purpose, using Internet Explorer has had the same experience. Even on a Mac, once the pop-ups start, they can keep going. Kill one, and at least one, often more than one, appears in its place. If you’re adept at closing windows, you can quiet the storm, eventually.

“I went back to computer and found a bunch of pop-ups,” Amero said. “They wouldn’t go away. I mean, some of the sites stayed on there no matter how many times I clicked the red X, and others would just pop back up.”

Amero was anything but an adept computer user. Krebs wrote,

Amero described herself as the kind of person who can hardly find the power button on a computer, saying she often relies on written instructions from her husband explaining how to access e-mail, sign into instant messaging accounts and other relatively simple tasks.

Substitute teachers don’t have many rights, and so it’s not surprising, and merely unfair, that after some students told their parents about the incident, “school administrators told Amero she was not welcome back.” A few days later, however, she was arrested. Writing in late January 2007, Krebs reported:

The case came to trial this month, and computer expert W. Herbert Horner testified for the defense that the images were the result of incessant pop-up ads served by spyware on the classroom computer. The prosecution’s expert, a local police officer, said time-stamped logs on the machine showing adult-themed images and Web pages accessed by the Web browser at the time she was in the classroom proved that someone had intentionally visited the sites by clicking on a link or typing the address into the browser address bar.

the judge in the case barred Horner from presenting technical evidence to back up his claims. Horner on Monday published a summary of the facts he would have presented were he allowed to at trial.

The link has all the sordid details. Krebs also reported that the school’s firewall was out of date and so was the computer’s anti-virus software. “In short, the Windows 98 computer was completely exposed to the Internet without any kind of protection.” The defense had found “two adware programs and at least one Trojan horse program,” which logs showed took up residence on the computer weeks before the classroom pop-up incident.

Amero was apparently to be sentenced this week. Instead, Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein overturned Amero’s January conviction. As the Norwich (Ct.) Bulletin reported this week,

Strackbein acknowledged further forensic investigation into Amero’s computer at the state police crime laboratory and by the defense team had turned up the possibility of “erroneous” facts presented to jurors by the prosecution’s expert computer witness.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that false information,” Strackbein said. “(Amero) is entitled to a new trial in the interest of justice.”

Assistant State’s Attorney David Smith, who prosecuted the case, did not oppose the motion for a new trial, acknowledging “erroneous evidence,” presented to jurors. He gave no indication if the state planned to move forward with another trial.

That’s great news, of course, but it’s much too close a call. It’s time for software vendors to protect clueless computer users, it’s time for prosecutors and the police to understand how computers work, and it’s time for a wiser court system than we have to slap them silly when they don’t.

It’s also time for teachers and other adults to learn how computers work. If we’re going to put computers in the classroom, a teaching strategy of mixed utility and, so far, mixed—at best—results, then we need for schools to stop just tossing them onto teachers’ desks, expecting them to operate themselves and teach our students. Not even Macs do that.

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