Soapbox Philosophy: Dig in to data on NSA surveillance
Op-Ed · June 21, 2013

On Tuesday, when I was supposed to focus on putting the paper to bed, I got drawn into a debate over whether newspapers can legally use Facebook posts in print.

The conversation took place over an e-mail thread hosted by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and comes in the midst of the controversy regarding the National Security Agency mining phone records and Web data on millions of Americans.

An editor in Ohio wanted to write a column about a storm a year earlier that knocked out power for as much as two weeks in his area. He asked readers to post on Facebook lessons and tips they had learned from the outage. His question: Can he legally copy those readers’ comments from Facebook and use them in his column?

The short answer is “yes,” but, editors being editors, who are born with the innate ability to call people out for mistakes, started arguing with the simple replies to the main question.

Some started quoting lawyers, then concluded that “you don’t want to risk it.” Others quoted lawyers, concluding “Go as far as you want.” Then there was a batch who worried about upsetting the Facebook members who were also readers.

I liked the bunch who advocated for understanding how far you can go, but restraining yourself, asking Facebook users for permission unless there is a strong and compelling reason to do so.

Then there was the debate over copyrighted material.

Keep in mind that all of the guys and gals arguing this subject all have essentially the same jobs, and could not agree even when actual laws were cited regarding “fair use” and copyrights.

Now take that into account when the NSA, President Obama and both Democrats and Republicans have defended the surveillance programs. And both Democrats and Republicans and the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, have criticized the programs as either unethical, illegal or unconstitutional. Both sides are citing Supreme Court cases, especially Smith v Maryland.

The difference between the NSA programs and newspapers is that the NSA had no intention of asking the American public if they could gather the information. The programs were secret from the start and were meant to stay secret. Newspapers would publish the information and the public would be fully aware of what it had done.

Either way, the NSA surveillance programs looking at Americans’ personal data is a complicated issue and everyone should do their best to become well-informed on the details.

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