Caselists and privacy

I remain mostly unconvinced of the safety of the case disclosure lists.  I think people are taking the legal side of this query too seriously to the exclusion of the real meat of my concern, which is the long term impact of putting a large body of students’ work on the public internet under their own name.  It’s not a question of “can”, it’s a question of “ought”.  “Can” is a question for lawyers, which we are not; “ought” is a question for educators.

In my dayjob, I’m an IT director.  I’m perhaps more sensitive to information security issues than most debate coaches, but then I’m more educated about them as well.   And, in my experience, information on the public internet can spiral out of control very quickly.

We understand the context that debate cases are written in, but Joe Internet does not. It wouldn’t take much for a single innocuous case/page to be blown beyond proportion in the wrong hands.  Once you mix in the nether realms of political theory with “protecting the children,” the resulting hysteria can cause a lot of collateral damage. And has done so, several times.  A school board looking to cut programs without political fallout would love to find a debate caselist wiki. They’d be nearly guaranteed to find a pretext that could be trumped up at will.

The trouble with this sort of danger is it sits and waits; it could crop up next month or next decade.  The benefit is immediate; the threat is long term, and continual.  It could have long term effects on the children themselves — the vetting process already for appointees and candidates is unimaginably invasive, and the private sphere is following the political one more quickly than you think.  It could have equally difficult repercussions for the debate programs that sponsor them.

I’m harping on this issue because no one’s addressed it directly.  Aaron Timmons did give it an aside while concentrating on the legal aspect; the legal stuff was valuable, but was never the main focus of my query.  I’d say his example of Obama’s admission of drug use is not especially applicable; I live in a state that voted 65-35 to decriminalize marijuana a few years ago; the press may care but voters do not.  But there are plenty of ways to blacklist yourself, and the permanent nature of the Internet means that we can do it without even meaning to. Expressing sympathy for Islam online might not have seemed a great political risk before 2001; plenty of Americans joined the Communist party in the 30s only to lose their jobs in the 50s as a result.  These are only the big historical examples.  Their number will only proliferate as the internet becomes a medium of record.

The chances of a caselist wiki hurting students or programs may seem remote, but as someone who’s had to anticipate and deal with the fallout of this very sort of issue several times, I can assure you the odds are higher than folks seem to believe.  For every case of the internets exploding in a meme that you hear about, there are dozens more that never make the news outlets but are damaging to the parties involve all the same.

So I believe that the only responsible way to run a case wiki is to make it private; open it to debaters only and dump it once the topic is done. Prevent it, as much as possible, from being indexed and captured by archive and search engines.  And understand, by imposing a caselist, you’re exposing yourself and your debaters to the worst kind of risk: a nebulous, ill-defined and unpredictable one.  That approach, of course, reduces some of the benefits; you don’t get cross-tournament access or wider community education.  Again, I mourn for the lack of effective national governance that might fill that gap, providing us a national infrastructure by which we could grant debaters and only debaters access to such resources, but that’s just Lear raging against the storm.

We live in a very open age.  Kids and adults alike are posting everything and anything to Facebook profiles and whatnot.  It’s easy to believe that the trend will continue, that we’ll live in a society ever more open and comfortable with public exposure.  But we’re only a few backlashes away from being taught swiftly and harshly the price of exposing too much information on the web.  Once the long term risks grow clearer to all, I believe there will surely be a retrenchment, a pulling back.  We owe it to our debaters to be ahead of it, or at least to give them the option of staying ahead of it.  Risks seem minimal in new fields because people point to the dearth of prior examples; but “it never happened before” is no barometer of danger when you’re breaking new ground.  Caution is merited here, but I fear it won’t be taken until it’s too late.