Keep the frontier wild

This month’s Carnival of Journalism question, posed by Doug Fisher, asks — more or less — what the law can do for journalism.

My answer?  As little as possible.

Keep the frontier wild.


Photo by Ushlambad on Flickr.

One of the more striking parts of the Media Law class I took a surprisingly long time ago in grad school (which I’m still in, technically speaking) was the progression of U.S. Supreme Court cases addressing libel in different media.  The rules, regulations and liabilities for content producers are not the same everywhere.

For example, broadcast television and radio are highly regulated due to the limited spectrum space and the high barriers to getting a license and publishing your own program on the air.

Cable TV is a bit looser, given the size of the dial.

Newspapers?  Even harder to win a libel suit against them, because anyone can write something on a piece of paper and nail it to a door somewhere.  The price of entry is low (photocopies, staples, etc.) although it can take some time to build up a mass audience.

And that brings us to the Web.

The wild, wild Web, if you will.

Low barrier to entry, no barrier to publication once you have Internet access, and more importantly, the potential to completely level the playing field when an individual meets up with mass medium.

And so, I ask that the law keeps its hands off the Internet.

It doesn’t need the law’s help.

Even when it comes to Net Neutrality, I’m pretty sure that if the keepers of the bandwidth push hard enough, their local near-monopolies will fall apart as their customers flee to small businesses, rooftop wi-fi repeaters, and whatever comes next, whether it’s hacked WiMAX or iPhones on a string.

The truth is, the network balances out the imperfections in the process.  That means that spammers will be filtered out, content-copy-machine splogs will approach a profit margin of zero, and trolls will be outed as such, and ignored to death when possible.

So keep the frontier wild.  There’s an unlimited amount of territory out here, enough for everyone who has something to say to find someone to listen.

Raising an eyebrow in Arizona

The Phoenix New Times is facing grand jury subpoenas of all sorts of crazy crap after publishing a county sheriff’s home address.

Read the whole story (warning – your IP address might end up part of these legal proceedings) in the New Times for all the sordid details, but the rather absurd money quote is the following:

“The subpoena demands: ‘Any and all documents containing a compilation of aggregate information about the Phoenix New Times Web site created or prepared from January 1, 2004 to the present, including but not limited to:
A) which pages visitors access or visit on the Phoenix New Times website;
B) the total number of visitors to the Phoenix New Times website;
C) information obtained from ‘cookies,’ including, but not limited to, authentication, tracking, and maintaining specific information about users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.);
D) the Internet Protocol address of anyone that accesses the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;
E) the domain name of anyone that has accessed the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;
F) the website a user visited prior to coming to the Phoenix New Times website;
G) the date and time of a visit by a user to the Phoenix New Times website;
H) the type of browser used by each visitor (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Netscape Navigator, Firefox, etc.) to the Phoenix New Times website; and
I) the type of operating system used by each visitor to the Phoenix New Times website.’
Special prosecutor Wilenchik wants this information on each and every New Times reader online since 2004.”

Without touching on the wild angles that are in play in this story (Minutemen, alleged assassination plots, Mexican drug dealers), it’s clearly a crazy notion that a grand jury could subpoena 3.5 years of user data from a news organization, right? Right?

I figure this is worth bringing to light and throwing some attention at.

via the Online News e-mail list.

[UPDATE: Two Village Voice Media execs spent the night in jail, arrested for publishing the subpoena. By the time I get to Arizona…]

[UPDATE: Charges dropped, special prosecutor fired, all is well, reason prevails, nothing to see here, YMMV…]

House panel approves legal shield for bloggers – CNET

Not as great as it sounds. Basically says that bloggers are journalists IF they make money “or livelihood” — if they take ads. Not sure how detailed the language is, because my blog has certainly been a factor in getting “livelihood.” via Dave W.

House panel approves legal shield for bloggers – CNET

Comment trouble at the Arizona Daily Star

Danny Sanchez points out an explainer from the Executive Editor of the Arizona Daily Star on why comments were deleted from some stories:

“While we created the reader comments feature to give readers a place to talk, StarNet is still our house. And our editors and staff simply do not want guests who make vulgar, abusive, obscene, defamatory and hateful comments. If you want to live in that kind of neighborhood, go create your own online forum.”

First things first, if you’re going to edit individual comments and threads, chances are you’ll have a harder time defending your paper against libel and defamation suits regarding statements made in those comments.

Second things second, that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on? E-mail me if you don’t want to, er, comment publicly.

Third of all, I’m betting this robust commenting system has a function where you can check a box for each story in the system Comments On or Comments Off. Use it.

Cases where comments-on is probably an inappropriate choice:

Cases where comments-on makes perfect sense:

  • every single opinion and editorial piece published in your paper
  • any feature story
  • any enterprise story
  • anything on style, tech, food, arts, entertainment, media, business, sports

What am I missing? What’s a Comments-On story and what’s a Comments-Off story?

Cast your vote…in the comments on this post.

…a bonus point for everyone who knows why the comments thread on that Daily Star note is exactly 255 comments long…