Last night, I read a frightening New York Times article about a San Francisco dad named Mark whose life has been upended over photos he took of his naked toddler son. I know that on the surface, it sounds like Mark’s life should have been upended. Nobody should be taking naked kid pics, right?
But what if it was in the middle of a pandemic? What if the photos were necessary for a doctor to see what was wrong with the boy, whose penis was swollen and hurting him? That’s the situation Mark was in, back in February 2021, when the COVID pandemic was routinely killing people apace. That was when people were being encouraged not to congregate indoors if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. When Mark’s son needed help, it was also a Friday night. His wife had called a nurse’s advice line to schedule an emergency telemedicine consult for the next morning. The nurse had told her to take photos of the infection and send them to the physician for review.
As requested, Mark’s wife took the pictures on Mark’s phone, then sent them to her iPhone, so she could upload them to the doctor’s messaging system. Under those circumstances, she didn’t realize that the photos might be seen by anyone other than the healthcare professionals who were entrusted to take care of her toddler’s very real medical problem.
The pediatrician received the photos, examined them, diagnosed the child’s medical problem, and prescribed antibiotics. The toddler quickly recovered without further incident. Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends. The naked toddler’s photos tripped Google’s screening system and were flagged by “an algorithmic net designed to snare people exchanging child sexual abuse material.” The end result is that Mark lost over a decade of contacts, emails and photos. He also became the target of a police investigation.
A couple of days after the photos were taken, Mark’s phone made strange noises. It was then that he realized that Google had flagged his account because of “‘harmful content’ that was ‘a severe violation of Google’s policies and might be illegal.’ A ‘learn more’ link led to a list of possible reasons, including ‘child sexual abuse & exploitation.'” Mark was surprised and confused, but then remembered the photos of his son’s genitals. Realizing that Google’s screening system probably flagged the photos and labeled them as abusive, Mark thought that eventually a human being would review them and let him off the hook.
Still, being flagged by Google wasn’t a small inconvenience. Mark’s whole online life, including his cell phone plan, was through the company. He filled out a form requesting that Google review the decision. He explained that his son had an infection, and he had only taken those photos so that the doctor could diagnose him properly. But because Google had shut down his cell phone plan, Mark had to get a new phone number from another carrier. And then, because he couldn’t access his old phone number or email address, he couldn’t get the security codes that would let him access his other accounts.
A few days after Mark asked Google to reconsider their decision, he received a flat denial from them, with no further explanation. The company had also flagged a video Mark made and sent everything to the San Francisco Police Department. He was already under investigation by the police and didn’t even know it. In December 2021, Mark received a letter from the San Francisco Police Department informing him that he had been under investigation. The envelope included copies of search warrants, as well as other documentation generated by the investigation. The investigator’s name was included, so Mark called him. The investigator, whose name was Nicholas Hillard, told Mark that he’d tried to get in touch with him. But… his phone number and email address didn’t work. Go figure!
Fortunately, Mr. Hillard told Mark that the case against him was closed. He had looked at the evidence Google sent him and determined that no crime had taken place. The police did not consider the photos and video abusive or exploitative. So, at least Mark would not be arrested… but, when he asked Mr. Hillard to tell Google he wasn’t a criminal, Mr. Hillard said that there was nothing he could do to help Mark get his online life back from Google.
So Mark appealed to Google again, this time sending them the police report that exonerated him. But Google still wouldn’t budge. In fact, they sent him a message letting him know that his account was being permanently deleted. Mark contacted a lawyer to ask about suing Google, but when he was told it would cost at least $7000, Mark decided the lawsuit wasn’t worth the money. And even though it’s been proven that the photos and the video were not abusive or exploitative, Google refuses to reconsider.
The article included a story about another man who was wrongly accused of sexually abusing a child due to intimate photos on his phone that were taken out of context by Google’s AI system. The other man faced similar repercussions, and basically lost his online life because of artificial intelligence that flagged photos that weren’t taken for abusive or exploitative purposes. For some reason, the HUMANS at Google are incapable of discernment, and fail to see that while the technology they use is very valuable for preventing child abuse, it also poses serious privacy issues and potentially ruins innocent people’s lives.
Mark says that the police department has his information on a thumb drive, and he’s hoping they will give a copy to him. The police department says they are “eager to help him”, which sounds like good news. But according to the article, it’s “easier” for Google to just deny people in Mark’s situation access to their services, rather than exercise discernment. In other words, too bad, so sad. I hope Mark changes his mind and sues. Maybe he and the other guy, both victimized and treated unfairly by Google, can team up and sue. What happened to them isn’t right.
And now, a loosely connected rant…
Naturally, a lot of people had comments about this situation. Many of the comments came from people chiming in, even though they hadn’t read the article and simply reacted to the headline. As my regular readers know, this is one of my pet peeves. Especially when they also complain about paywalls, and make a statement like “I think journalism should be freely open to everyone.”
That sounds good in theory, doesn’t it? Until you realize that newspapers are in business, and the people who provide the news have to eat, too. Most people can’t and don’t want to work for free. This was an excellent investigative article by reporter, Kashmir Hill, for The New York Times. Below is a screenshot of Hill’s information page on the newspaper’s Web site.
I see that Ms. Hill is a graduate of two fine private universities. She is based in New York City, which is not a cheap city to live in. She’s a successful and experienced journalist. She probably owes student loans, too. Delivering the news is a very important job, but newspapers are in decline. Why? Because people don’t want to pay for subscriptions and expect that the news ought to be “free”. But you get what you pay for, right? Someone has to pay the bills.
Even if the news is “free” for everyone, someone still has to pay expenses. So– they either get paid for by taxes, which most Americans would prefer to keep as low as possible, or they get paid by wealthy people who have their own agendas to push. That means people like Donald Trump or George Soros… or Jeff Bezos, who already owns The Washington Post, or Bill Gates… or Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News and other news publishing outlets. The New York Times is not a cheap publication, but it’s not owned by the likes of Bezos, Murdoch, or Trump. It’s owned by The New York Times Company, which is publicly traded. How would the paper change if it was purchased by a politically affiliated billionaire with an agenda to push?
I have repeatedly stated that I subscribe to several newspapers, ranging from local publications like The Gazette Journal in my Virginia hometown, to The Irish Times. Yes, it costs money, but we can afford to pay, and I am grateful to have access to the news from excellent and reputable sources. The newspapers help me create content for this blog and keep me engaged in the world. I know not everyone wants or needs to pay for newspaper subscriptions, but I also think that if you’re going to comment on something in the news, you should know what you’re writing about. At least take a moment to read comments made by people who did read before spouting off ignorance. And have some respect for the journalists who took the time and spent the money to get trained to deliver the news properly.
Journalists– especially the ones who bravely go into harm’s way and/or cover difficult or challenging topics– help keep us free by reporting the unbiased truth. Isn’t that interesting? Paying for a newspaper subscription and supporting journalism, rather than expecting it for free, will help keep all of us free. Think about that.
And now, for a funny anecdote involving The Irish Times.
I have been a subscriber for a few years. I don’t read The Irish Times as much as I should, even though the journalism is excellent and offers an interesting perspective. The paper covers US news, but naturally, most of it is about Ireland and Irish issues. And sometimes, a reporter will cover a really unique topic. The other day, I read a poignant piece about a man who realized that his power garden tools were killing machines for the creatures who dwelled there. The thought never occurred to him until he noticed a headless frog, accidentally decapitated by his weed whacker. The guy wrote that he immediately decided to buy new tools that weren’t powered in hopes of sparing the wildlife. I don’t think I would have read something like that in a US paper.
Anyway, The Irish Times also has an advice column, and yesterday, I read a letter a young mom wrote to the advice columnist. The troubled woman explained that before she had her baby, her husband regularly wanted to have at least an hour of sex, preceded by showering and shaving. The mom wrote that her baby is very needy, and she simply doesn’t have the time or stamina to give in her husband’s demands for extended sex sessions.
The comments on this were hilarious, but one in particular was hysterical. A man wrote:
My wife and I have an hour long sex session every week by playing doctor and patient. She’s the doctor and makes me wait outside the door for 55 minutes before I can have 5 minutes with her.
At this writing, his comment has 819 likes and laugh reactions. I responded:
I’m an American, but I subscribe to The Irish Times just so I can read Irish witticisms. (62 likes!)
And the guy came back and wrote:
We’re great at taking the piss out of ourselves. That’s not true about my wife. She’s actually an Olympic Performer……….. Once every 4 years!
To which I replied, “In that case, my husband and I are also Olympic contenders.”
See? Besides the news, when you subscribe to a paper, you also get witty comments from other people who read! Of course, the quality of the comments tends to be commensurate to the paper’s readership. I used to be a Wall Street Journal subscriber, but I got rid of it when I realized it was much too conservative for me, and I never used the subscription. And then I had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get rid of the subscription, which I ranted about in this blog some time ago.
Well, I think I’ve prattled on long enough. I need to practice guitar and walk the dogs. I hope you have a good Monday. And if you don’t already subscribe to a newspaper and have the means, please give it some consideration. The papers need your support, and the rest of us don’t want to read your erroneous and misled reactions to headlines.