Facebook's New Suicide Prevention Program Leads To False Imprisonment Of Man In Mental Institution; Consumer Watchdog Calls For Suspension Until Safeguards In Place

Mar 12, 2015, 10:00 ET from Consumer Watchdog

SANTA MONICA, Calif., March 12, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Consumer Watchdog today called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to "suspend the suicide prevention program until it is fully protective of the rights of all individuals and contains safeguards against abuse," following a misfire in the program in Northern California.

A San Mateo man was imprisoned in a mental institution because of a post he made as a test exercising his First Amendment rights and a "welfare check-in" call that Facebook facilitated or made under Facebook's new suicide prevention program, Consumer Watchdog said.

"Facebook facilitated this man's loss of freedom for 70 hours and other innocent victims will be caught in Facebook's web if you do not improve the suicide prevention program's procedures," wrote Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court in the letter to Zuckerberg.

Read Consumer Watchdog's letter here:  http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrfbsuicideprev3-11-15.pdf

"The content of your posts on Facebook now can land you in a mental institution, regardless of whether they represent your true mental state," said Court. "Facebook members need to be very careful of what is posted on Facebook on their account until the company institutes greater precautions and safeguards."

Consumer Watchdog also warned Zuckerberg that Facebook has opened itself up to liability under California's Voluntarily Assumed Duty rule because, by providing the suicide prevention tool with every account, users will rely on Facebook to ensure not only that the tool operates, but also that Facebook will implement the tool services swiftly and adequately to save lives. Facebook is essentially putting the suicide prevention tool on the same level as an emergency 911 service call.

Court gave this account of the man's imprisonment in his letter to Zuckerberg:

"On the first day of this program, and in response to it, a Northern California man posted to his account, as a social experiment, a post indicating his discontent with his bank and his desire to commit suicide.  He informed his concerned Facebook 'friends' that this was an experiment when they contacted him with concerns about his post. Nonetheless a call was made to the police either by Facebook or another Facebook member who was not his friend.  The man was locked out of his account until he read suicide prevention literature.  Police came to his house when he was not home.  When he went to the police station to discuss a traffic notice they had placed on his car, which the police claimed was unrelated, he was asked about the Facebook post. He was handcuffed and imprisoned for 40 hours in a mental health facility where blood was drawn, because he acknowledged the post, even though he stated it was a First Amendment experiment, then transferred and 'locked down' in a hospital for another 30 hours. At the County mental institution, he was forced to witness disturbing events that traumatized him."

Facebook announced the suicide prevention program on Feb. 25.  Facebook Product Manager and Community Operations Safety Specialist Rob Boyle described in detail how the tool works in a video. He said that once a concerned user flags a post to bring it to Facebook's attention, the user is presented with four options to proceed, one of which is to request Facebook to take a look at the post.

From there, Facebook will evaluate the post and do one of either two things:  1) If it deems the post "worrisome but not imminent," Facebook will send resources to the poster such as a connection to a free confidential chat line or self-care tips; or 2) If Facebook thinks there is an "imminent threat" [Facebook] will reach out and find local law enforcement agencies to do a "welfare check." Facebook will then "follow-up" with the person who flagged the post, but Facebook has not specified what would be in the "follow-up" or whether it would take any other further action.

"The Northern California man's experience suggests the follow-up is highly inappropriate and unhelpful," Court wrote. "The suicide prevention process is open to havoc and abuse. Moreover, Facebook will be liable for much of it in the form of monetary damages."

Another concern Consumer Watchdog has includes the possibility that some people could commit suicide as a direct result of the actions that Facebook takes to prevent it.

"Imagine a teenager erroneously tagged as suicidal in an act of bullying, or a post made by one teenager on another's computer that leads to such a tag and the teenager being locked out of their account," wrote Court. "For young people, such an unconscionable act may do more to prompt them to commit suicide than the lack of an 'intervention.'"

"Facebook risks that the suicide prevention services might cause harm unrelated to the potential suicide. Some examples of potential harm include: on-line bullying by users abusing the tool, false-positives, account lockouts, reputation damage in the event of privacy breaches, or other harms yet to be found," wrote Court.

In his letter to Zuckerberg, Court referred to the so-called "prime directive" in the popular Star Trek television series.  It was intended to ensure that technologically advanced peoples did not interfere in the development of societies that they did not fully understand because unforeseen issues could create more problems than they solve.

"The prime directive is a parable for the arrogance of the technologically advanced, who believe they can solve all the world's ills and wind up making them worse," wrote Court. "Facebook should heed the warning of the prime directive because there are some problems, like suicide, that well-intentioned technologists can nonetheless exacerbate." 

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SOURCE Consumer Watchdog