A Massachusetts man, whose ex-girlfriend had a restraining order out against him, was recently arrested for sending her an invitation to join Google+. This unfortunate drama sheds light on the disparate impact of ordinary things.
According to the Salem News, after receiving a Google+ invitation, Tom Gagnon’s ex-girlfriend went to the police station with a copy of the invitation and the restraining order in hand. The police agreed that the invitation violated the terms of the restraining order; certain Massachusetts orders require that the defendant “refrain from contacting the plaintiff, unless authorized by the court.”The police obtained an arrest warrant, and Gagnon was arrested at his home roughly 90 minutes later.
In court, Gagnon’s counsel argued that the charges were “absolutely unfounded,” asserting that Gagnon had no idea how his ex-girlfriend received the invitation. Judge Brennan, of the Salem District Court,said that he didn’t know how the invitations work either. He set bail at $500, released Gagnon, and ordered him to comply with the terms of the restraining order. A status hearing is set for February 6.
The defendant’s argument is simple: he didn’t send the invitation; Google sent it “automatically” without his (express) consent; and he should not be held criminally liable for Google’s unauthorized actions on his behalf. The Court’s Model Jury Instructions on violations of such restraining orders indicate that Gagnonwill likely prevail – if he can show that the invitation was the accidental, incidental, or inadvertent result of an automated message from Google+. If, on the other hand, the government shows that Gagnon intentionally sent the invitation, he may be found guilty.
Separate from how this plays out in Salem District Court, this incident highlights very important issues for criminal defendants and social media companies more broadly.
For criminal defendants and others under court supervision, Gagnon’s experience offers a (relatively obvious) teachable moment: make sure you understand your account settings to ensure that you do not inadvertently land yourself in jail. Post-arrest exoneration is good, avoiding jail in the first place is arguably better.
For the social media companies themselves, the issues are knottier and the lessons more nuanced. Perhaps there is a fundamental disconnect between Google’s machinations of complete interconnectedness and their appreciation for how that could negatively affect users’ real lives. Indeed, persons under court supervision are marginalized, silenced, and regulated in ways that the “average” American never encounters. As a result, companies large and small may (inadvertently) fail to consider how seemingly innocuous product features might affect those customers’ lives.
The line between corporate and personal responsibilities is subjective, broad and hazy. Social media companies have a lot to consider when rolling out new technology, and they can’t think of every possible eventuality. But maybe, just maybe,this worst-case-scenario come to life will make them reconsider those default settings…