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Future of the Internet Symposium: Re-Intermediation

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6 Responses

  1. Jonathan Zittrain says:

    It’s funny — as you quote, I’m skeptical of using intermediaries as the Net Police. But two phenomena are testing the limits of that view for me. One is the use of crowdsourcing services like Amazon’sMechanical Turk, where small tasks can be parceled out to lots of anonymous people at a penny a pop, like “label the images with what you see.” I see a number of potential abuses there, both of the workers and of the rest of us as workers are called upon to do shady things without even realizing it since the tasks are so compartmented. In both cases, Amazon might be in a position to help curtail abuse.

    The Craigslist situation is trickier. As I’ve been thinking about this elsewhere after reading danah boyd’s recent post on the subject over at HuffPo:

    – How would you address the argument that by allowing adult services to be so brazenly advertised, craigslist is making them seem just like anything else — ridesharing, couch for sale, etc. One virtue of the graymarket for those who don’t like to see the transactions happen is that it’s … gray.
    – Does your argument apply to the original Napster shutdown? Should the music biz have let it stay up and then just caught as many users as possible for individual enforcement actions, presuming it wanted to stop the copying as much as possible rather than reform its business model?
    – It seems a sad fact that law enforcement can cast a net looking for people soliciting child prostitution or sex with animals, and come up with as many defendants as it wants. It just doesn’t want that many, perhaps due to constrained resources. Would it be so bad to ask Craigslist to at least start an arms race of sorts in order to make posting such solicitations much more difficult and require much more circumspection?

    …JZ

  2. Harry Lewis says:

    JZ,
    To your three points.
    1) Sex IS full of gray. The Craigslist ads include some which are pay-for-sex, some are people who want to have fun and then split the cost of the dinner afterwards right down the middle, and some are something in between. I want Richard Blumenthal and Martha Coakley to enforce the laws, not enforce a black-or-white color palette for classified ads.
    2) We could argue about Napster, and whether we want “catching” to be the job of the music industry, but it’s not parallel, because Craigslist is not predominantly an advertising site for prostitutes.
    3) Attorneys general should not be using the imperative voice, as in “Shut down the site,” if the site is not breaking any law. It’s political grandstanding — maybe empty today, but maybe not tomorrow. Of course anyone can call for good corporate citizenship. But the attorneys general have enough ways to make private parties miserable that we ought not to cheer when they issue commands that extend beyond their legal authority. Tell them to go to their legislatures and seek more authority if they don’t have enough, and our elected representatives, constrained by our bill of rights, can decide whether they should have more than they already have.

  3. Harry Lewis says:

    Actually, the more I think about it, the less I like even the idea of AGs preaching to private parties not to do things that are actually legal for them to do. Two parallels (both imperfect, of course).
    (1) The Internet was invented a few years earlier, and events play out exactly as they are playing out now. AG Blumenthal, riding a wave of anti-Craigslist popularity for pressing them to take down the ads that look like they might be for prostitution, goes after ads for two other illegal forms of sexual activity, homosexual and interracial. The public, appalled that Craigslist is promoting these unsavory and illegal practices, cheers even louder. — Note that I am not drawing a parallel between prostitution and homosexuality. I am observing how an empowered AG running an election campaign can abuse the civil rights of minorities, which makes me want to limit his powers.
    (2) The NY AG, now in 2010, riding the crest of his popularity for pressuring Craigslist to take down the Adult section, joins the already much larger pressure group condemning the lawful positioning of a mosque in lower Manhattan. The mosque knows that the AG, if he really tries, can find a vague statute under which it can be prosecuted, even if not successfully in a court of law, at least to the point of bankrupting the mosque. People cheer wildly.
    See what bothers me?

  4. SagatAdon says:

    The post makes a compelling argument, but there’s one thing about internet sharing that should be considered when one speaks of ownership and piracy concerns. That matter is that online file sharing can be quite helpful to those who have the least exposure. People who don’t have the level of fame necessary to expose the public to their work can benefit a lot from people sharing these artists’ works online: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/08/25/the-good-side-of-illegal-file-sharing-and-online-piracy/

  5. Tyler Moore says:

    Intermediaries have had a role in policing the Internet for a very long time. You rightly point out that Section 230 of the CDA lets Craigslist off the hook for any illegal activities posted by its users. But it is important to remember that the CDA was also meant to legally protect intermediaries that who voluntarily moderate user contributions. Consequently, the CDA should also be seen as a law that empowers intermediaries as the net police, albeit only as a voluntary force.

    In other areas, Congress has placed a stronger obligation on intermediaries. For instance, the DMCA offers safe harbor to service providers for copyright infringement posted by users, but it obliges them to remove the content when notified. Under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, credit card networks are obliged to implement procedures to block payment on Internet gambling transactions. If the attorneys general view the adult services postings on Craigslist as a truly serious menace to society, then they should go to Congress and lobby for a law obliging stronger policing by intermediaries.

    It’s true that any resulting law would have unintended negative consequences for some legal acts, but this is also true for existing laws: DMCA takedowns are issued for material posted under fair use, and the UIGEA blocks Americans from paying for legal Internet gambling using their credit cards while abroad. What is needed is a debate on the trade-offs between the status quo of voluntary moderation and a mandatory obligation to remove postings describing illegal acts.

  6. William Gasarch says:

    The questions raised here really is: Should a government be able to pressure a person or individual to refrain from a legal activity? The answer is clearly NO since the government has ways to enforce its decision that ordinary citizens do not. That is why it differs from a public boycott or protest. Three recent examples

    1) BP is forced to set up a 20million dollar fund. Pressured by the government.

    2) Obama urging pastors to call of BURN A KORAN day.

    I suspect that most readers of this are appalled by both BP and by the Koran-Burners (as am I). But do we want the government to pressure groups to not engage in legal activities? If Bush urged people to call of BURN AN AMERICAN FLAG day (if there was such a thing, perhaps protest to the war) then most readers of this would be appalled.