Class 1


[NOTE: This is live blogging. It is therefore full of errors, omissions, bad paraphrases, and general misreporting.] After introductions — the course is over-subscribed, and there are about 35 people in the room — JP leads a half hour discussion of the “autoadmit” matter. As one of the students explains, AutoAdmit is an anonymous forum for people to compare law schools. The target audience is people trying to decide between law schools. One of the owners is a UPenn law student, and there may be a second, unknown owner. A while ago, people started posting some awful stuff: threats, name-calling, etc. E.g., one of the postings claimed that a particular student killed himself, although that was false. And there were allegations of sexual acts by that student. What was different about the fact these acts occurred at an online message board, JP asks.
A: The anonymity of the people posting. [Sorry, I don’t know student names at this point.]
A: Harder to figure out the responsibility of the host of the Web site. A newspaper might find it easier to track down who sent in an anonymous letter. So: 1. Should the host be liable? 2. If so, what is the duty of the host to find the name of the msg sender?

A: Many other users can reproduce the info and link to it.
JP: And the legal question is whether you can make someone liable for pointing to these nasty comments?
A: The repercussions are much broader because the site is public.
A: And it never goes away.
A: And that applies not only to the subjects of the defamation but to anyone who is involved in any way, including the host.
JP: It’s the difference between a river and a pool. If you overhear me say something, it’s gone in the river. If it’s online and you can search for it, it’s in the pool.
JP: ReputationDefender works in this space. These facts have given rise to a new industry.

A: One thing can be in multiple locations, raising jurisdictional questions.

A: Because there’s so much out there, defamatory postings may actually have less effect.

A: The transaction costs of spreading info are much lower.
JP: The cost of speech is almost zero. For whom else are the transaction costs lower?
A: The readers. The host.
JP: Maybe there’s a value to having slightly high transaction costs because it acts as a gate?
A: The lower costs means you can participate. You can be part of the story.
JP: Yes. Message diffusion takes on a different nature. And sometimes those messages get wrapped up in you. Maybe identity takes on a role here.
A: The person can respond exactly on the same page, not like if it were a printed pamphlet.
JP: Awesome. This is a read-write medium.
A: I’m interested in blogs where flame wars occur. E.g., a Yankees-RedSox site. In political flame wars, it can be who yells the loudest. People will keep repeating wrong info.
JP: What’s different about the Web?
A: The volume and the persistence.

A: It’s a question of authority. Anyone can say anything.
JP: This is a question about intermediaries: Who’s allowed to speak for whom? Dan Rather spoke for CBS.
A: The Internet makes it easier to know what’s been said about you, so you can respond faster.

JP: LT, what is the state of the law? Who do we hold liable?
LT: Generally the speakers. Not the intermediaries. Section 230 gives immunity to intermediaries.
JP: If it were a newspaper?
LT: They’d be liable.
JP: CraigsList has been found not liable for discriminatory ads that a newspaper would have been held liable for.

Then I lead the class in a discussion about whether friendship online is the same as offline. Is it possible? Is it the same? Most in the class think it’s possible. Some think the differences are negligible. Others think the differences are real. Conclusions (from my pov): 1. It can be difficult to identify differences and even harder to evaluate their significance; 2. Differences, possibly even small ones, can require us to think carefully about policy and software design decisions. [The discussion was more interesting than this preemptory summary. But I can’t live-blog and lead a discussion simultaneously.]
Corinna di Gennaro, of the Berkman Center, who has been sitting in, says that research shows that friendships do occur. Her research shows bloggers are less likely to make online friends and meet friends offline compared to email lists and social networking sites. [Interesting!] [Tags: webdiff autoadmit friendship john_palfrey ]

1 Comment

  1. Michael O'Connor Clarke

    January 30, 2008 @ 9:59 pm


    (Cross-posted from comments on David W’s JOHO blog)

    This sounds like an absolutely fascinating course and a great first class.

    Re: the web difference in law and policy, I wonder what the class would make of the latest Facebook concern that’s been spreading through the newsvines up here in Canada?

    The issue centres around friends/supporters of victims of crimes “outing” the accused in Facebook groups in clear violation of publication bans.

    As an example, take the case of 14-year old Toronto high school student, Stefanie Rengel – murdered on New Year’s Day. Two youths (16 and 18) were quickly taken into custody.

    A court order prevents newspapers and broacast media from naming the accused, but postings to the Facebook group set up to commemorate Stefanie clearly identify the two teens.

    Similarly, four teens in Alberta accused of microwaving a cat to death, cannot be named under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, but individuals setting up Facebook groups to protest and deplore their crime have not hesitated to name the four alleged offenders.

    Messy. The web has made things different here, for sure – simply by putting the power of publishing in the hands of so many. But should the same laws extend online, or do we need new ones?