Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Speaking out for yourself in a public place


One of the major points brought up at the COPA trial in Philadelphia is that the Web allows speakers “free entry,” to articulate or present in a very public space – and be found by many other people, through the search engines – controversial or disturbing ideas without seeking permission from others. And, as pointed out, this possibility, evident only in the past dozen or so years, is quite disturbing to many people.

Note well: Most of my blog entries about the COPA trial are on another blog, at this URL.

And underlying issue is turf protection. People who made it the old fashioned way, by moving up social and business hierarchies, may feel threatened. Indeed, it seems refreshing that individuals have an alternative to throwing money to organizations and politicians to represent their partisan interests, often in an intellectually dishonest or incomplete fashion. This blog entry will list a number of possible problems, but many of these may well seem to be red herrings. One way to derail a new competitor is to ignore it, and not give it credibility by responding or complaining. Yet, sometimes people play victim, if they feel that newbies are competing unfairly, or are not paying their dues, or are indirectly denying others income.

Let’s run through a list of the possibilities.

. Free content can displace income-producing content from professional writers and journalists. (The ultimate turf problem.)
. Individual speakers may endanger kids with unsupervised posts. This is what COPA is all about.
. Credit card and adult-id verification screens mandated by COPA could compromise privacy of visitors and pose security problems
. Speakers could inadvertently divulge confidential or classified information or business trade secrets through posts, sometimes through inference
. Speakers, even while avoiding piracy or direct posting of copyrighted content without permission, could violate press “no rewrite” rules with paraphrased postings. Speakers could dilute this danger by combining different stories and attributing them, and by adding personal editorial perspective
. Speakers could be accused of offering “legal advice” and probably should have disclaimers denying such in many cases. Legal discussions are often necessary to make political or social arguments
. Speakers could be violating campaign finance reform laws, although this danger has been somewhat attenuated by moderate FEC rulings earlier this year.
. Based on past experiences in a few communities (Chicago, LA, a few New Jersey townships) speakers could be violating local zoning laws.
. Speakers, if offering a lot of “personal stuff” or if getting into certain controversies, could attract risk to others associated with them, such as family members or neighbors. This could present problems for insurance companies or property owners, and states have already looked at this issue with respect to hate crimes laws. Entities doing business with the speakers might perceive themselves to be at heightened risk, also. This is the “heckler’s veto” problem. There are "skip tracer" sites that can locate some people even when their personal information is not disclosed.
. Speakers could provide a distraction to stakeholders, clients or customers in the workplace. I have written about this a lot on this blog, and it is well known now that many employers have started looking at the public web activity of job applicants. I have suggested that blogging policies be based on the kind of job to be offered.
. Speakers could, because of search engine, keep other people visible to the public, sometimes in an unfavorable light; search engines can produce misleading results when names are combined with derogatory phrases.
. Jobs that require forced intimacy present particular risks when others can find personal writings. Sexual orientation disclosure provides serious issues for military servicemembers because of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. As has been noted at the COPA trial, teachers have been fired for making personal information available to students (sometimes including sexual orientation) on the web. There is a long audit trail of case law dealing with issues of public school teacher free speech.
. In some unusual cases, some speech could be seen as enticing wrongdoing by others. This might include “self-defamation” which is sometimes done (as on social networking sites) and is intended as social parody or role playing, but might be seen as enticement legally. Other problems come out of demonstrating weaknesses in public security systems, as with a recent controversy caused by graduate student Christopher Soghoian who demonstrated a way to generate fake airline boarding passes on his server. Links about this in The Washington Post, story by Brian Krebs on Nov 1, 2006m or Chris's own blog.

The Washington Times, in an editorial on Oct 12, 2005, had pointed out some of this in relation to the election reform issue. Amateur speakers cannot afford the legal advice previously commonly sought in the publication and journalism businesses. Nevertheless, proportionally, most litigation still involves "established" publications and media. Future controversies are likely to deal with the circumstances and standing of the speaker (as with respect to "conflict of interest") as well as with his or her content viewed "objectively."

On April Fools Day, 2006, Electronic Frontier Foundation sent out an email claiming (as a joke appropriate for the day) that cease-and-desist letters had gone out to social networking site companies blaming them for allowing "minor age" job applicants to defame or disqualify themselves from consideration on their social networking profiles! That is, the sites were by definition "harmful to minors." Perhaps this whole problem sounds like one of John Stossel's "Give Me a Break" segments. But those segments are real reports!

No comments: