Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's a Free Country, Isn't It?

How many times have you heard something unpopular or disagreeable defended with the slogan, "It's a free country, isn't it?" But how free is our free speech?

In light of our Constitution analysis last week, consider these questions: Should all types of speech protected equally? Where should the line(s) be drawn? What regulations, if any, should be placed on political speech?

Last month the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a case that tests the limits of political speech. Specifically the case concerns a scathing documentary about then-candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton called Hillary: The Movie. The Federal Election Commission ruled the film was (in fact) a 90-minute campaign ad "susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her." Lower courts agreed.

The corporation that funded the movie, Citzens United, was allowed to screen the movie in theaters and could have sold DVDs of the film, but it could not show the movie on television because the film, as political speech, was subject to the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold Act that allows the government to limit political speech on broadcast media. According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court must now decide if the government can limit the public's access to movies -- even political hatchet jobs -- shown on television. In considering a re-argument of this case, the Supreme Court is also considering throwing out its own 1990 precedent that allowed for limited access.

Surprisingly, there are conservatives (like McCain) who advocate for limits and liberals (like some members of the ACLU) that are fighting such limits. The Court's ruling should be made within the next few months. Should the government be able to regulate political speech broadcast over the radio and television? What of books and magazines? When does political speech become propaganda? Should propaganda enjoy the same Constitutional protections of free speech?

Body or Barter?

Whenever I surf the net, which is admittedly quite often, I often see ads that seem to be specifically targeted at me. For example, I see a lot of ads for anything related to, let's say, "zombies". But I'm not sure if it's because of my age, my habits, my income, etc. Or is it just a coincidence that I play video games associated with that theme? :)

It's an emerging and increasingly ubiquitous marketing technique called "behavioral advertising", and it's based on where you go and what you do on the web. (FYI: each computer on the internet has a unique "IP address" which discloses certain information about the user).

Is your data (ie., information about you) "body or barter"? (in the words of UPenn professor Joseph Turow, who blogs here) Meaning, is it something that naturally is your property, or is it something you can choose to trade away for some kind of benefit, like ads that appeal to you or discounts on products you buy?

And yet it may be too late to pose that particular question. After all, consider how much data you have already given to various sites you use like Facebook, Google, Pandora, etc. Consider how much data your parents have given to grocery stores via loyalty card programs. As we transition to our next unit, is the right to privacy absolute? Where does the digital domain fit in to this civil liberty?

An interview with Joe Turow:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fear oFlu

Vaccination; 041028-N-9864S-021 Yokosuka, Japa...Image via Wikipedia
Are you getting the flu shot? If so, are you then getting the H1N1 ("swine") flu shot? In about a week, and at school, I'll be getting my first flu shot in about 7 years. Personally, I used to be allergic to the shot, but I don't have that excuse any longer. When asked why I have avoided the flu shot for so long, my usual reply was to offer my "expert" medical opinion: the flu shot gave me the flu. That was the story I told. And I now have come to believe that it's a false story.

But there is a battle brewing between the media and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), as reported on the NPR show, On the Media. The issue is a classic correlation versus causation mixup. As host Bob Garfield posited, "At some point, someone's going to die, shortly after having been vaccinated with the H1N1 vaccine", and the media will report on this occurrence, and conclusions will inevitably be drawn. As medical reporter, Ben Goldacre argues, "Health scares are a lot like toothpaste. Once they're out of the tube, they're very very difficult to get back in." Consider such culturally specific scares as the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism (in America), that hepatitis shots cause multiple sclerosis (in France), and that polio vaccines cause infertility (in Nigeria).

What is the proper role of the media in this situation? Government watchdog or public health information service? Where do you get your information about your health? Why do you think Americans are increasingly fearful of all kinds of vaccines?

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Monday, October 05, 2009

danah boyd @ Wilmette Junior High

Danah Boyd
Image via Wikipedia
danah boyd (yes, there are legally no caps in her name), social media researcher, is coming to speak to parents and the rest of the community at Wilmette Junior High School on Wednesday, October 7th at 7pm. See if she really speaks for the youth!

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview she gave to make it better, an online journal for Chicago's North Shore community.

Does social networking broaden our children's social circle? If so, how?

Typically, no. Youth primarily use these sites to communicate with the people that they already know from school, church, summer camp, etc. There is no doubt that these tools strengthen social relations, just like the phone or any other channel of communication. But the focus is not on strangers; it's all about friends.

What are the appropriate concerns for parents about social networking? What, if anything, should we watch for that could lead our children into trouble?

Risky offline behavior like drinking, drug abuse, isolation, emotional distress, etc. Online at-risk behavior is directly correlated to offline at-risk behavior. The Internet actually makes at-risk behavior more visible than ever before. It's rarely the cause of it. So if you're seeing something that haunts you online, it would be really helpful to focus on where it's coming from rather than focusing on the technology as the root of the problem.