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Civic Media and the Law (MIT Communications Forum)

11/04/2010 5:00 PM e14"633
Micah Sifry, Founder, Editor, Personal Democracy Forum; Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel, Sunlight Foundation; David Ardia, Fellow, Berkman Center

Description: While these panelists diverge on the precise metaphor -- 'picking through a minefield,' 'hacking through the underbrush,' 'navigating uncharted waters' -- they all agree that the web poses novel dilemmas and hazards for truth"seeking and speaking citizens.

First the good news: "There was a conscious decision by Congress to give online space some breathing room," says David Ardia, shielding website operators "who allow others to use their site to speak out" from liability for some published content. This has permitted the explosive rise of YouTube and blogging services that serve as platforms for the masses. On the other hand, copyright and other legal claims are being successfully prosecuted against website hosts and posters.

Ardia worries about the underreported phenomenon of citizen journalists who post on the web and find themselves "fighting an authority." There is "an extensive chilling effect," says Ardia "If you discover information that shows government corruption or puts powerful institutions on the defensive, you run the real risk of having them lawyer up, come after you, or put you in a position where you can't afford to stand up for your rights."

Another emerging issue: When web content is construed as invading privacy, legal suits arise that lead to a delicate dance between free speech and privacy. "Horrible things are said and done through the internet," says Ardia, "but overall the impact is far more beneficial than harmful. As we start to fix instances of bad conduct, we run a great riskof correcting one thing, but at the cost ofspeech that should be protected."

While the Obama Administration has pledged to make government more transparent, there is wild inconsistency in how federal, state and local governments make their work available. Daniel Schuman describes how some public authorities offer "giant data sets" lacking the kind of sophisticated formats that enable fruitful vetting. Congress members must post an earmarks request online, but Schuman says, "If you want to find it, good luck." And in certain areas, there is no web data at all: For access to congressional ethics information, someone must visit Capitol Hill in person at the right time, and copy pertinent pages. Schuman researched a "fantastic, sortable, downloadable" database describing the disbursement of Wall Street bailout money. The drawback: license provisions that permit the database owner "to pull back" the information, posing a major "impediment to people who want to use this information to talk about what's going on."

Another problem involves credentialing of online journalists. "Members of the civic media simply can't get in the door" of press galleries in some House and Committee meetings, and forget recording Supreme Court justices by cellphone or other electronic devices. "As a private citizen, it's hard and expensive to push back," says Schuman. The Wikileaks disclosures are shaking up discussions of government transparency as well as those about online freedoms. Says Schuman, "It makes the political climate more difficult. Irresponsible journalism will need to be protected, and condemned when done in this kind of way." Moderator Micah Sifry sees an overreaction: "Leaks happen every day in Washington; secret information is out there all the timeNo one is prosecuted. It's the currency of information there." Ultimately, says Ardia, we want to "bring information together in a way that moves us from a glut of data to real knowledge, and hopefully to wisdom, to make better decisions as a society. We are moving in that direction. I'm optimistic."

About the Speaker(s): Micah L. Sifry launched Personal Democracy Forum, a daily website and annual conference on how technology is changing politics. He is also the editor of the group blog TechPresident, which focuses on how campaigns use the web.

Sifry also consults on how political organizations, campaigns, non"profits and media entities can adapt to and thrive in a networked world. Current clients include the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign for America's Future, and Air America.

From 1997 to 2006, he worked closely with Public Campaign, a non"profit, non"partisan organization focused on comprehensive campaign finance reform, as its senior analyst. Prior to that, Sifry was an editor and writer with The Nation magazine for 13 years.

He is the author or editor of four books, including Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), written with Nancy Watzman. He is also an adjunct professor of political science at City University of New York/Graduate Center.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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