by Justice William W. Bedsworth
When I turned three, our next-door neighbor gave me a Fisher-Price push toy for my birthday. I’m sure you’ve seen them; they’re called corn poppers. Essentially, they’re a clear plastic dome on wheels with a bunch of balls inside. As the toy is pushed around, the balls are thrown against the dome and make a popping sound.
A very loud popping sound.
A very loud popping sound which absolutely delights you when you’re three years old and about 30% of your conscious thought is devoted to making noise.
I loved that thing. I pushed it around endlessly. In case you haven’t been around a three-year-old for awhile, I will remind you that—pound for pound—they release more energy hourly than any three nuclear power plants.
I expended all that energy on pushing my corn popper around. It was a great gift.
Unless you were my father. My father was at that time working three jobs and napping on the exquisitely rare occasions he had twenty minutes to spare. Those vital naps were inevitably interrupted by the infernal pop-pop-pop of my marvelous toy.1
I’m not entirely sure how I survived my affection for that toy. My poor, long-suffering, sleep-deprived father had many fine qualities, but patience was not one of them. He could explode with a ferocity I did not see again until I encountered Judge Bob Jameson.2
But time passed, Dad did not kill me, and I moved on to actually popping corn . . . and eventually to writing it for monthly publications. I didn’t give the corn popper another thought. Not for forty-six years.
Then my mother called one day, laughing so hard she could barely catch her breath. The next-door neighbors had just brought their grandson over to visit. He was going to stay with them for a week while his parents vacationed. He was three.
I couldn’t understand the joke. What was so funny?
“Your father just got back from the toy store. He bought him a corn popper.”
My father had nursed that grudge for forty-six years. For forty-six years it had ripened and aged until the right moment had finally come to uncork it. And now Mom said he was sitting in the living room, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Until yesterday, the revenge-inspiring corn popper was my favorite story about being undone by toys.3 Then the Wall Street Journal ran a story about “Cayla: the Devil Doll Whose Face Should Be Hammered into Plastic Ground Round.”4
According to the Journal, German authorities have launched a campaign against My Friend Cayla dolls. “For those unfamiliar, the My Friend Cayla doll records and collects conversations between the toy and the kids, and then uses speech-to-text protocols to turn the questions into searchable queries.”5 That means “the [dolls]are easily hacked to either intercept data or to turn the toys into remote listening devices.”6
After witnessing the American elections from afar, the Germans are apparently completely freaked out about the destructive powers of hackers. They have warned parents that possession of a My Friend Cayla can result in a €25,000 fine and two years in prison. They’ve recommended smashing the doll’s face with a hammer!
Honest. That’s the Wall Street Journal quoting the German government order: “Destroy it with a hammer.”
So the German government’s official position apparently envisions Mom and Dad sneaking into little Gisilberta’s room where she sleeps peacefully with her beloved doll pressed against her breast, lifting Cayla from under the child’s arm, tiptoeing out of the room into the garage, and beating it with a ball-peen hammer until its sweet countenance is reduced to an unrecognizable polypropylene pulp.
This seems to me to be a pretty harsh reaction. My dad might have endorsed it, but I’m not sure I would.
And that’s not all. Germany—being Germany—wants this done efficiently. After pounding the doll to rubble, the parents are required to fill out a destruction certificate that must be signed by a waste management company and sent back to the government as proof of compliance.
Man, there have to be parents all over Germany trying to figure out if anyone knows they own a My Friend Cayla. Do their credit card records show what was purchased? Was the discarded box visible in their trash bin? And given their daughter’s attachment to the doll, is there any chance they can hide it from the authorities? Should they be keeping the drapes closed during the day?
Maybe that’s the problem justifying whole fine and imprisonment thing. Maybe Germany feels the citizen surveillance business should be their monopoly. Maybe they just don’t want the competition.
And if Germany’s ability to surveil7 its citizens allows it to somehow determine who has My Friend Cayla dolls in order to prosecute them, maybe there’s a bigger civil liberties question lurking here than I first thought.
Does Germany have no ACLU? No MSNBC? Who’s going to bat for the parents facing two years in prison?
I don’t know what the German penalty for harboring a fugitive is, but if harboring a doll can get you two years in prison, I think it may be time to turn in Cousin Hans the traffic scofflaw who’s been hiding out in Heidelberg.
And lest you think I’m exaggerating the seriousness of this, I should point out this isn’t the first time the German government has outlawed a toy. Consumerist says, “Last year [they] banned a toy panda8—used as a nanny cam—that had a hidden camera in its head.” Before that it was a toy robot.
So if you went with the panda bear and then the My Friend Cayla, you have a chance to be a recidivist toy criminal. Social services will take your children away from you. At least until you get out of prison.
And if you also bought the robot, you’re a three-time loser. I don’t know much about Germany’s career criminal statutes, but that particular Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance pretty much screams chain gang in East Prussia to me.
Too bad my dad’s not still around. By now the neighbors must have a great-granddaughter whose birthday he could celebrate.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.