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Nanolaw with Daughter

Why privacy mattered.

Soccer field on Randall's Island from the Triboro Bridge.

On a Sunday morning before her soccer practice, not long after my daughter's tenth birthday, she and I sat down on the couch with our tablets and I taught her to respond to lawsuits on her own. I told her to read the first message.

“It says it's in French,” she said. “Do I translate?”

“Does it have a purple flag on it?”

“No,” she said.

“You don't actually have to worry about it unless it has a purple flag.”

She hesitated. “Can I read it?” she asked.

“If you want to read it go ahead.”

She switched the screen from French to English and read out the results: “'Notice from the Democratic Republic of Congo related to the actions of King Leopold II.'”

This was what I'd been avoiding. So much evil in the world and why did she need to know about all of it, at once? But for months she'd asked—begged—to answer her own suits. I'd told her to wait, to stop trying to grow up so fast, you'll have your whole lifetime to get sued. Until finally she said: “When I'm ten? I can do it when I'm ten?” And I'd said, “sure, after you're ten.” Somehow that had seemed far off. I had willed it to be far off.

“Honey,” I explained, “you'll get a lot of those kinds. What happened is, a long time ago, the country Belgium took over this country Congo and killed a lot of people and made everyone slaves. The people who are descendants of those slaves, their government gave them the right to ask other people for damages.”

“I didn't do anything. I thought you had to do something.”

Where do you start? Litigation-flow tariff policy? Post-colonial genocide reparations microsuits? Is there a book somewhere, Telling Your Daughter About Nanolaw?

“You know,” I asked, “how you have to be careful about giving away information?”

She did. We talk about that almost every day.

“So this is why you have to be careful,” I said. “They buy a whole lot of files. So in this case, they could purchase, like—when people do genetic testing to learn about their families? They'd buy all the records and see who is from Belgium. Or if you watched a soccer game with Belgium in it, or you have just one Belgian friend on your network. They take the records for billions of people and put it all together and do math.”

She nodded, but couldn't get past the fundamental problem: “Why me?”

“If you're going to answer suits by yourself, you have to understand that to these people, you aren't you. You are stuff they found in a box.” I considered for a moment. “Remember two years ago, you bought the code dog for Griffin Village?” God knows I remembered. Each of her 100 Griffin Points, when earned, was heralded by a shrill trumpet noise, and my daughter's even more shrill cries of joy. The dog had been named—Wallace? Waffles? No, it was Willie, and she used her 100 Griffin Points to buy a Billy Cat. Which caused more shrieking. Those were long months. “Maybe Willie Dog was programmed by Belgians? Or maybe Griffin Points is backed by a bank in Belgium and we never knew. The people in Congo might not even know. It might not even be the people in Congo but instead people in Italy doing it and they'll give money to the Congo people if they win anything. It might be that their computer thinks it's possible. But ultimately their government thinks that it's fair for these people to demand some of your money.”

“I never got anything from Belgium.”

“They think you did,” I said. “And see, they could be right. They have to be a little bit right to file in the first place and have it go out through a suenet without getting filtered. Maybe it's not Griffin points. It could be anything.”

“But that's amazingly stupid,” she said, forgetting now, I saw, how badly she'd wanted to do this. She had imagined that we were denying her access to some adult mystery, not shielding her from drudgework. That's a lesson too, right? Or was it a mistake to let her try? She already did her own laundry and had a bank account. Other girls had been answering lawsuits since they learned to read, lawyers' kids especially. “It's just part of life,” I said. “You have to think about yourself not as a person but as data.”

My daughter was first sued in the womb. It was all very new then. I'd posted ultrasound scans online for friends and family. I didn't know the scans had steganographic thumbprints. A giant electronics company that made ultrasound machines acquired a speculative law firm for many tens of millions of dollars. The new legal division cut a deal with all five Big Socials to dig out contact information for anyone who'd posted pictures of their babies in-utero. It turns out the ultrasounds had no clear rights story; I didn't actually own mine. It sounds stupid now but we didn't know. The first backsuits named millions of people, and the Big Socials just caved, ripped up their privacy policies in exchange for a cut. So five months after I posted the ultrasounds, one month before my daughter was born, we received a letter (back then a paper letter) naming myself, my wife, and one or more unidentified fetal defendants in a suit. We faced, I learned, unspecified penalties for copyright violation and theft of trade secrets, and risked, it was implied, that my daughter would be born bankrupt.

But for $50.00 and processing fees the ultrasound shots I'd posted (copies attached) were mine forever, as long as I didn't republish without permission.

Of course I consented, going to the site-of-record and tapping the little thumbs-up box to release funds. And here we were ten years later, thinking of Belgium.

I asked my daughter: “How much do they want?”

She looked down at the screen. She is quiet and serious when working. “Two euro cents.”

“Normally one like that I'd just go ahead and pay, except it doesn't have a purple flag. The purple flag means our government said they could sue people here in America. But if it's from another country without a purple flag you can ignore it.”

“So I'm not actually in trouble?”

“You're never in trouble. You didn't do anything wrong. You're just named. And in this case they can't actually claim damages. Trash it.”

She looked relieved. The rights of the Congolese were not her problem this morning. Her mother called from the other room: “Soccer soon.”

“Okay,” we both yelled back.

“How many are left?” I asked.

She looked at her tablet and said: “Fifty-seven.”

“We can handle that,” I said. I walked her through the rest: Get rid of the ones without flags. Pay those a dime or less by hitting the dime button. How many now? (Only six.) We went through the six: Four copyright claims, all sub-dollar and quickly paid.

She opened the penultimate message and smiled. “Dad,” she said, “look.”

We had gone to a baseball game at the beginning of the season. They had played a song on the public address system, and she sang along without permission. They used to factor that into ticket price—they still do if you pay extra or have a season pass—but now other companies handled the followup. And here was the video from that day, one of many tens of thousands simultaneously recorded from gun scanners on the stadium roof. In the video my daughter wore a cap and a blue T-shirt. I sat beside her, my arm over her shoulder, grinning. Her voice was clear and high; the ambient roar of the audience beyond us filtered down to static.

It had been only a few months, but already she seemed older than the singing girl. Soon, we had been warned, she'd demand a cryptographic shield for her diary. “It's terrible,” said one friend whose daughter is thirteen. “I think, what if she's abducted and I need to read her messages, and the police can't read them? What if she runs away but all of her logs are locked? How do I keep her safe with all of those secrets?” But our family is not yet there. If I ask her politely, my daughter will look left, then right, then squash her nose into my cheek and whisper her Griffin Village password. I would never tell.

Watching the video I thought that it was wise of Major League Baseball to combine this sort of sentimental moment with mass speculative litigation. It kept brand values strong. I felt strangely grateful that I could have a moment to remember that afternoon. Surprised by the evidence of both copyright violation and father-daughter affection.

I told my waiting daughter to go ahead and pay the few dollars, just part of the latent cost of a ticket. She tapped and the tablet made its cash-register sound, and the video was irrevocably destroyed so that it could never again be shared. She opened the final message.

“What's a mutual-risk paternity?” she asked.

“It doesn't apply to you,” I said. “It's for boys.”

“But what is it?”

“Later,” I said. I felt like I had done enough fathering for the morning. “Just trash it so you're not late for soccer.”

A final chime.

“Good work,” I said.

She squinted at the screen. “I can do this now,” she said. “I can do it on my own.”

“You have to check it every day,” I said. “Time, tide, and law wait for no man.”

She looked at me and rolled her eyes (like her mother, her eyes are brown), dismissed the arbitration client and swiped the tablet to sleep.

She asked: “Can I sue people?”

This surprised me. “Yes,” I said. “Most people don't but if you have a good reason you can sue anyone.”

“Cool,” she said. Off she went to find her shin guards.

I was of a generation where one group sued and a much larger group was named. But perhaps her generation sees this as part of the traffic of daily life, a territory to explore. Every one a little lawyer.

My wife was on patrol, repeating the time, pointing out when asked where to find a water bottle, where to find a jacket, where to find a hair scrunchy. Finally my daughter had her act together. I watched them leave.

Here is how it would go, I imagined. Daughter and Mother would walk together to the park. They would talk about this morning's conversation. Mother would confirm that handling your own suits is a serious responsibility, that you can't let them pile up or that will send the signal that you were susceptible to liens.

Mother would explain what liens are. Daughter, well-intentioned, would half-listen and send messages to a dozen friends as they walked, each message another flash on the map. Mother would ask Daughter to please keep her wits about her crossing the street, and threaten to take away her phone. (I make the same empty threat many times a day.) Mother and Daughter would arrive at the field in the park, late but not very.

Then would come the game. Cameras in the phone of every parent. Sensors on the goals; sensors in the ref's whistle; in the ball; in the lamps that light the field. Yellow cards, goals, offsides, all recorded from many angles and tagged with time, location, temperature, whether for the memories or to limit liability—the motion of 22 bobbing ponytails transformed into lines of light.

One team would win; another team would lose; or they'd tie; or it would rain. All would go home. And days or decades from now, someone will find a way to cull, to merge, to bend the bobbing ponytails to their own ends and use them in some scheme. They will steal that light as if were nothing, as if it were not life itself.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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