• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


What Higher Education Can Do about Yik Yak

Ideas for moving forward.

December 21, 2015

Last week’s blog post originally came out of a conversation with a journalist who called me about a month ago to ask if there was anything legal that a college or university could do about Yik Yak. In short, my answer was no. With him, I shared the long tail of my experience at Cornell with gossip sites. I explained that the most effective means of going after a site is to follow the money, i.e. go after their advertisers, since that is default funding. Moreover, for many institutions and students it is an educational moment. The market factor is an important lesson for everyone to learn about the Internet. 

 A few weeks later Scott Jaschik sent me an email asking a few questions about Yik Yak. He was writing the article about student demands to block the site. I offered the usual advice:  arguments from the perspective of a “slippery slope,” “floodgates,” and “forbidden fruit,” as well as fruitlessness (smart phone and data networks belie the block even on campus), First Amendment (for state schools), policy, precedent and process (who decides?) for every campus. By the same token, I am the first to acknowledge the American higher education’s institutional diversity.  I respect smaller, mission driven schools that have blocked for the symbolic effect. 
I came to the notion of a challenge in the original conversation with the journalist. That thought was marinating when I next talked with Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Rochester (UR). She shared with me how the Yik Yak issue came up at a meeting about race at that campus. Maybe because UR is my alma mater, I took more stake in the matter and decided to toss the idea out in a blog post. Subsequently, a number of people wrote me privately to discuss the issue as it emerged on their campuses. I also received a call from the Director of Communications at Yik Yak.  I read through the comments. I continued to mull thoughts. 
At this point, I have come to three conclusions.  

First, to the degree that Yik Yak is a mirror to ourselves, it is important to hold that mirror up for review and deep, meaningful discussion about what we see in that reflection. 

 Second, colleges and university should insist that Yik Yak and other such sites establish a policy prohibiting employees from both soliciting or self-seeding content.  

If I were the CEO of Yik Yak or other such sites, that policy would be my first order of business. The only remaining piece of the 1996 Communications Decency Act is section 230 that provides Internet Service Providers (I.S.P.s), construed broadly to include hosted sites (or at least until tested by the courts), immunity from common torts such as defamation or libel. Embedded in that law is 1990’s government policy about the burgeoning Internet.  If the deep pocket of I.S.P.s could be infiltrated for every actionable thing said on the Internet, the Internet would not exist. But that theory does not hold if the I.S.P.s are in on the take.  Soliciting or self-seeding a site would dissolve that immunity.  It would also run counter to the F.C.C. regulations recently put into place that commonly go under the title “Open Internet.”  Thus, such activity would not only cause my company to lose its immunity from torts, but expose it to regulatory investigation and oversight.  An internal policy making it clear that such activity would not be tolerated among staff is a simple antidote. As a matter of making a market out of our faculty, staff and students, higher education should insist on Yik Yak creating that policy for everyone’s sake

Third, speaking of the regulatory environment, activity such as seeding would also likely constitute fraud. Therefore, the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents the higher education’s leadership, should ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate anonymous social networking sites aimed at their campuses for these kind of activities.  

Fraud is the key F.T.C. transgression.  Fraud committed for one person’s or company’s profit detracts from what the Internet is designed to represent. I advocate not so much for the rest of the world as I care about higher education. Sites designed for the higher education community cannot enjoy the assumptions of an Open Internet or the absence of fraud if in fact that is not the truth in practice. To do so not only violates F.C.C. and F.T.C. rules but also infects our community with distorted realities and profit motives grounded in taking advantage of vulnerable young people. Higher education is in service to uplift them morally and intellectually as well as economically and socially. 
Bias and verbal vindictiveness, encouraged by popular media and the ignorance begotten of two generations of underfunded public K-12 education, is not of higher education made. Bias and verbal vindictiveness is nonetheless an unfortunate reality of U.S. society. Therefore, these issues are among those which higher education must address. That agenda goes towards the benefit of its constituent membership – faculty, staff, students and alumni – as well as to higher education’s unique purpose: knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  If, at the end of the day, the anonymous commentary sites that have ingratiated themselves into campus life are acting in a manner that is purer than Caesar’s wife, then return to first point: they are a mirror unto ourselves, and a reflection with which we are obliged to meaningfully address. But we would only know that if these sites have internal controls such as a policy about seeding and are in compliance with existing F.C.C. and F.T.C. regulatory frameworks.


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