A dumb use for a smart phone

In discussions about the ethics of technology, every now and then you hear something like the following argument: "Technology is neutral—it's just people who are good or bad." Or take the bumper sticker favored by some members of the National Rifle Association: "Guns don't kill people—people do." While there is a measure of truth in this idea, it applies better to some technologies than to others. It doesn't make much sense to apply it to the gas chambers used by the Nazis to kill Jews at Auschwitz, for instance.
So those who use this argument as a blanket excuse for opposing the regulation or curtailment of a certain technology should know that their case is not airtight, and needs to be considered with regard to the circumstances in which the technology is typically used. This is especially true of the new smart-phone app called Yik Yak.
It sounds harmless enough at first. You can buy it at the Apple iTunes store and other places, and it runs on iOS or Android phones. It's sort of like Twitter with a 200-character limit. But there are two main differences. One, it is limited to communicating within a 1.5-mile radius (by a tie-in with your phone's GPS system). Two, all posts are anonymous—no passwords, no usernames, and no way to tell who posted what. Yik Yak is the digital equivalent of a wall waiting to be covered with graffiti. And as you might expect, the average level of messages on Yik Yak appears to be pretty much what you'd find scribbled on a bathroom wall.
The way I found out about Yik Yak wasn't by buying it and trying it out. (My clamshell phone is so old it barely manages texts.) I happened to pick up a copy of the University Star, the student paper at Texas State University, and read an editorial by a journalism major urging students not to do drugs. And by the way, he said, it's so easy now—all you have to do is get on Yik Yak and start asking around, and presto—here comes the pusher, or dealer, or whatever they call the scumbag these days who sells illegal drugs.
Normally I don't read editorials in the student paper, because I typically disagree with 95 percent of whatever they say. But here was a man-bites-dog story—a student saying that Yik Yak was leading fellow students astray.
That's not all. Although Yik Yak is supposed to be limited to those 17 and older, the app simply asks you to certify your age. Anybody old enough to spell and use a smart phone can register, and nowadays that means grade-schoolers. The anonymity of the app is an open invitation to bullying, sexual-themed texts, and bomb threats.
One Long Island teen found out the hard way that the purported anonymity of Yik Yak has a limit. He posted a bomb threat, the cops presumably got a warrant and went to Yik Yak, and the company fingered their unhappy customer, who is now facing a possible jail sentence. So much for truth in advertising. The firm does have some legal boilerplate on their website to the effect that the only way they will break anonymity is if a duly authorized government entity asks them to. But that can certainly happen.
Nevertheless, a lot of bad stuff can and does go on before the police have to get involved. A Google search turns up numerous cases of cyber-bullying aided by Yik Yak. If five or more people within your range vote your posts down, you disappear—but how often is that likely to happen? Mob psychology dictates against it. Asking a mob to transform itself into a deliberative democracy and vote bad actors off the air is like putting a pound of hamburger in front of a pack of hungry dogs and asking them to vote about fasting for Lent.
I don't often unequivocally condemn a particular technology, but Yik Yak is getting my Bonehead-App-Of-The-Year award, which I just came up with. Putting a way of posting anonymous comments in the hands of teenagers is simply asking for trouble. There are places for anonymity—the ballot box, for instance. But voting is something we want to encourage. Buying drugs, making sexual and other kinds of insults, and threatening mass destruction are things that we want to discourage—I hope there is still enough left of the tatters of Judeo-Christian civilization in US culture to form a consensus on that. And ever since the app came out last year, the firm has evidently been engaged in various types of damage control—posting warnings about misuse on their website and discouraging users from the very types of behavior that drive the app's popularity.
I've run across this kind of insidious fraud before—websites that sell ready-made essays and homework solutions to students and warn that "these documents are for reference only." Corporations are increasingly immune to moral arguments and tend to respond only to threats of legal action, either by civil lawsuits or by criminal-law regulation.
With the heightened sensitivity we have these days to the problem of bullying, it would not surprise me if a clever lawyer filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of parents whose children have been abused by means of Yik Yak. Failing that, I would hope that some regulatory agency—the FCC comes to mind—would step in to tell Yik Yak either to change their rules radically or get lost. In today's deregulated political atmosphere, the latter is unlikely, and the lawsuit route requires the prospect of a large financial settlement to get enough high-dollar lawyers motivated.
Unfortunately, Yik Yak is a small startup with only a few million dollars of funding, and so the lawsuit might have to wait till a big company like Google swallows it up.
But Google's code of ethics—"Don't be evil"—would presumably make them hesitate before getting mixed up in a technology that panders so easily to the worse angels—in other words, devils—of our nature. So let's hope that Yik Yak either gets buried under a pile of lawsuits and is never heard from again, or even better, the people in charge of it realize that they've created a monster, and drive a digital stake through its heart. Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.  


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