Rant from Riverton: I can relate to Musk's mindset ~ but I don't approve of his tactics.

For the past 72 hours, I have been following the whole Elon Musk Twitter issue with the banning of accounts related to the @ElonJet account that was retransmitting ACARS and other data regarding the position of his private jet as well as the many journalists who have been caught in the gauntlet for reporting on it. 

Just some background.  Back in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, long before broadcast advocacy, REC Networks was involved in services that could be reached by telephone.  These were interactive services that were controlled using a touch tone phone.  On these services, we offered public (voice) message posts, private messaging between registered users (voice mail), the ability to send short voice messages to another user who was calling in to the system at the same time, voice conferencing services that tied callers together into two-way or multi-way conversations, special interest groups that users could join, one-way outgoing voice services that were produced by our callers and intended to entertain and inform as well as play games.  This sounds a lot like today's social networking websites like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.  There were only a small handful of these types of services in the country due to the type of hardware that was needed at the time to do this.   What was more prominent at the time were the many computer bulletin board services (BBS) which were called with a modem (remember the screech?), which did not use voice but instead, used the written word to provide these types of services.  

You could conclude that phone systems like the ones operated by REC and computer-based BBS systems were the original interactive social networks.

While major social networks have millions of users and many simultaneously accessing the service at the same time, the REC systems had hundreds of users where only about 8 could use the service simultaneously.  Our local calling areas were defined on where the line was located.  In California, that local calling area is about 8 to 12 miles and was extended during times when we operated separate phone lines that used call forwarding to make the services local to more parts of Los Angeles.  Those who were outside of this area either had to pay toll charges to call or they would "phreak" (unauthorized use of access codes for MCI, Sprint, etc.) in order to reach the system.  This is quite different than today's social networks, where short of government firewalls, the entire world is a local call. 

As someone who ran these lines, I had to deal with problem people who wanted to cause trouble.  My personal information was given out many times on ours and other systems.  My family has received physical threats in the past.  The latter kind of sounds like someone else we know who is currently making the news.  

On the REC systems, we had rules for behavior.  It was our expectation in order to make the service as safe and as open minded as possible.  Most of our callers followed those rules.  We had the ability for users to report messages that were either left in their private voice mail or on public message forums to the administration of the system where appropriate actions were taken.  These would sometimes include restricting access to certain features or in some cases, suspend or delete the user.  This was a part of our administration of the system.  I had no political agenda.  The system ran well most of the time and it turned out to be a big social club.  

With his purchase of Twitter, Elon Musk is now in my shoes.. the modern equivalent of a "phone god" or "line runner" or in the BBS world, a "sysop" (system operator).  His family is receiving physical threats (as so he says) and I can understand why he would be concerned about this.  I know I was when that shoe was once on my foot.  

Now in all fairness, the REC systems never had journalists as users, or at least users who have disclosed that they were calling the system in their capacity as a journalist. 

A lot of people have stated that the suspension of @ElonJet and the many journalists who reported on that account are having their constitutional right to free speech denied.  I disagree with that notion.  The concept of "free speech" in the United States is limited to retribution from the government for making certain kinds of unpopular speech.  This right is enshrined in our constitution and unfortunately, is ignored many times, especially where it comes to things such as how law enforcement handles peaceful non-disruptive protests.  

I was watching a YouTube video the other day about a small group of vegans who were protesting in front of a restaurant that served meat products.  They were peaceful and on the public sidewalk.  The local law enforcement tried to get them to move because "others were uncomfortable" with their message.  The cops were unable to find any ordinance that prohibited what the protesters were doing there and the protesters were standing their ground and the cops just gave up because they knew they had nothing.  As a very loyal beef eater (yes, I love my moo cow), I may not personally agree with their pro-vegan message, but I respect their right to peacefully protest and deliver their message, regardless of how uncomfortable that message may be to moo cow lovers like the Michi.  They were on public property, in a public forum and not infringing on anyone's private property.  

Now, for services such as the old REC phone systems, computer BBSs and the modern social network systems, such as Twitter, these are not public forums that are maintained by any government entity (unlike the city sidewalk where the vegans were protesting).  This happened on private property.  On private property, short of any anti-discrimination laws that exist for specific public accommodations (such as restaurants, privately owned bus and airline companies, theaters, etc.), the owner of that property can ask you to leave without any repercussions.  That is the private property owner's first amendment right to do so.  For example, if the vegans were inside of the restaurant (on private property) protesting, then that would be considered trespassing and the property owner or their designated agent (the restaurant manager) has the right to ask the protesters to leave and if they do not cooperate, then law enforcement can get involved. 

Despite its openness, at the outset, Twitter is private property and Elon Musk is the owner of that property and has a full say who does or does have have access.  This is no different than when I ran a system, and I had a say who could or couldn't come on.  Social media networks, phone systems and computer BBSs also do not meet the local, state or federal definitions of a "public accommodation".  

Now this rolls back to the question about @ElonJet and whether it is ethical or legal to disseminate information about flight tracking data.  When I think of this scenario, the first thing I think about is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA).  The ECPA was passed decades ago back in the days when cellular telephones were analog and could be clearly heard using a scanner.  The ECPA is the reason why scanners marketed to this day have certain frequency sub-bands in the 800 MHz band blocked out.  However, when I review the actual law (disclaimer: I am not an attorney), I find myself in Title 18, Chapter 119 of the US Code. In 18 USC §2511, paragraph (2)(g)(ii)(IV) has an exemption for the interception of "electronic communications" by "any marine or aeronautical communications system". 

The modern system used for aircraft tracking is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system.  The Federal Aviation Administration considers ADS-B as the preferred method of surveillance of air traffic control in the national air space.  ADS-B transmissions can be intercepted with radio devices that can decode the data.  ADS-B is not encrypted.  There are many aviation enthusiasts who have these radio receivers set up to intercept, decode and disseminate the data.  

So in answer to the question whether the activities of @ElonJet were permitted under the law.  My non-attorney opinion on this is "absolutely, yes".  The law has a specific exemption for the interception of transmissions from any aeronautical communication system.  ADS-B promotes air traffic safety even in the cockpit by providing pilots, even with smaller general aviation aircraft with advanced situational awareness of the traffic near them.  I do not support any changes to Title 18 that would change the status of aeronautical transmissions.   

This then brings up the topic of ethics.  Elon Musk claimed that the dissemination of his aircraft's ADS-B data was the equivalent to an "assassination target".  I wholly disagree with that claim.  It is important to understand that the system tracks the aircraft and not the person. Once the aircraft is on the ground, the tracking stops and information may be stored that the plane is sitting on the ramp at a certain airport.  For example if Elon Musk's plane is tracked as on the ground at Van Nuys Airport, this could mean:

  • Someone flew Elon Musk's plane to Van Nuys;
  • It does not mean that Elon Musk or any of his family members were on board; and
  • The flight crew and any passengers were once at Van Nuys Airport but may now be somewhere else in Southern California or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

Normally, flight data that comes through ADS-B and is disseminated by organizations such as Opensky Network is usually delayed.  So even if you were hellbent on assassinating Elon Musk with a surface to air missile, the data from @ElonJet will not help you.  ADS-B does not track individuals on the ground once they leave the aircraft so Elon's claims that @ElonJet contributed to a recent incident that involved has family is outright bulltwinkies.  When you are a public figure, you are always a target. I know this from personal experience.

To me, the publication of the old "Maps to Stars Homes" was more of an intrusion of privacy than ADS-B data is today. 

So far, we have determined that:

  • Twitter is a private entity and not government open space;
  • Twitter (the virtual online system) is not subject to federal, state or local public accommodation laws;
  • ADS-B is considered an aeronautical electronic communication system;
  • ADS-B is defined by numerous international standards;
  • US federal law exempts the interception of aeronautical communications from the ECPA and other laws;
  • ADS-B data from aggregators is usually delayed by a few minutes; and
  • ADS-B tracks aircraft and not people.

So the question comes up to whether Elon Musk can or should ban someone from providing that data on Twitter.  If we were to look at this using the "castle doctrine" ("a man's home is his castle") or something probably more applicable in this case, what I call the "sandbox doctrine" ("it's my sandbox and I make the rules"), Elon was correct in banning the @ElonJet account.  Remember, I see this as someone who has administrated systems like Twitter (albeit on a much smaller scale) and my rights as a line runner/sysop, etc.

This brings us to the journalists, whom Elon claims disseminated a link to the content created by the @ElonJet creator on a different social media platform.  Elon called this "doxxing".  The Oxford Dictionary defines "dox" as to "search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the internet, typically with malicious intent."   In my day, doxxing meant when someone out of the blue called for a pizza delivery to your house as a result of your online or over the phone activity.  With that definition in mind, was what @ElonJet did considered "doxxing"?  I would say probably not.  While this was public information, it was still (to a certain extent) identifying information, however, @ElonJet identified the location of a piece of machinery and not a specific individual.  Anyone can be on that plane and unless Elon Musk lives in a aircraft hangar, disclosing the location of his private jet does not disclose his "home address" as he claims the journalists did.

The only mistake made by the journalists, though accidental but justified as a part of their duty as journalists, was actually using the Twitter platform to direct other users to the information that offended Elon Musk to a different social media platform. 

Was Elon Musk within his right to kick these journalists off Twitter?  If we ignore the public relations backlash and the potential commercial consequences that can come to the platform as a result of the decision, we find ourselves back in the "sandbox doctrine".  Twitter is his sandbox and he makes the rules.  No different than a school yard bully.  However, if you then mix in the PR backlash and the potential loss of user base in demographics which may substantially diminish the commercial viability and appeal of advertising on Twitter, Elon Musk made a huge mistake by kicking off those journalists, even if the ban is temporary.  Twitter has substantially lost credibility from this knee-jerk reactionary move by Elon Musk.  That credibility will take a long time to recover from, if ever at all.

Therefore, I can understand why he did this, and it was within his right to do so.  However, his handling of the situation was not a good business decision on his part and the most ethical thing he can do right now is to permit the journalists to come back on the platform if the journalists decide to do so.  The REC systems were never supported by advertising, they were supported by the callers and if made a move that would disenfranchise a significant amount of my caller base, then I would no longer have a viable system.  Elon Musk is digging Twitter into a similar fate with his actions since buying the platform. 

Note: I started writing this blog on Friday, December 16, 2022.  Since I started writing this, Elon Musk had announced that those who allegedly "doxxed [his] location" will have their suspensions lifted.  The suspensions should have never happened.  This whole debacle was no different than the power hungry linerunners and sysops that I had encountered back in the 80s and 90s calling phone lines and computer BBSs. 

Michelle Bradley's "Rant from Riverton" blog expresses the personal opinions of Michelle Bradley and does not necessarily reflect the positions of REC Networks and its related operations and advocacies.