Category: Cyberlaw

Disparate Impact in the Blogosphere

Danielle Citron gave a compelling presentation at the recent Yale Symposium on Reputation in Cyberspace exploring how group dynamics can deter women from participating online. The Yale Pocket Part has done a symposium on online harassment. Citron moved the discussion forward by analyzing social psychological dynamics in online life and describing how much more likely women are to be threatened by the worst type of comments:

Threats, lies, and the disclosure of private facts discourage women from blogging in their own names. Women lose opportunities to establish online identities that would enhance their careers and attract clients.

Destructive online groups prevent the Web from becoming an inclusive environment. Disappointingly, this phenomenon throws us back to the nineteenth century, when women wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid discrimination.

Web 2.0 technologies provide all of the accelerants of mob behavior but very few of its inhibitors. . . . Individuals who feel anonymous do and say things online that they would never seriously entertain doing and saying offline because they sense that their conduct will have no consequences. A site operator’s decision to keep up damaging posts encourages destructive group behavior. Online mobs also have little reason to fear that their victims will retaliate against them.

The AutoAdmit lawsuit is a first step toward addressing the last concern. Making internet intermediaries more responsible may be another.

Given that the Yale conference had been criticized for failing to adequately include women’s voices, Citron’s presentation was especially important. While cyberspace may be liberating for many, the same prejudices that permeate real life can infect the online world. And as more of our life gets conducted online, combating these prejudices is going to need to become not merely a legal, but a cultural project. That issue has a long history, and has sparked many valuable discussions. Citron has already done very important work on making computer systems more accountable, and I look forward to reading her contributions in this area.

Zero Sum Reputation Games

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Auren Hoffman gave an engaging presentation at the Yale conference on reputation in cyberspace this morning. (Rebecca Tushnet has a summary of his and many other presentations here.) Here are some points from his position paper:

1. You should know more about yourself than anyone else knows about you.

Consumers should have the right to find out what data is being collected about them. As a consumer, you should be able to go to DoubleClick, AdBrite,, Google, Yahoo, Aggregate Knowledge, etc. and a list of all the websites that track you. You should be able to go to Choicepoint, Experian, Acxiom, Rapleaf, etc. and see all the data they collect on you. . . . And you should be able to access this data for free at anytime.

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Yale Conference on Economies of Reputation in Cyberspace

Today I’ll be trying to comment on a conference I’m attending on “reputation economies in cyberspace.” Here’s an overview from the conference website:

Reputation, which plays a key role in almost any economic or social system, is a fundamental, but not well understood, aspect of online business transactions, peer production of information and knowledge, and exchanges within virtual social communities. Traditional modes of authentication, accreditation, reputation, and prior acquaintance with participants rely on the social norms of close-knit communities and the accountability of meeting face to face. Since these mechanisms usually do not apply to online environments, we have witnessed the development of alternative models for reputation management including third-party certificate authorities, peer-produced evaluations, ratings, stars, points, karma and others.

Dan’s book on The Future of Reputation does a great job talking about the most compelling “human interest” stories in the privacy realm. I look forward to hearing from many panelists today on more mundane, but quite important, efforts to translate old reputation measures (like FICO scores) into new cyber-realms (like deciding whom to loan money to on or Kiva).

Conditions for the Digital Library of Alexandria

librarywall.jpgI have been in the middle of a major rethink of search engines’ efforts to digitize books. As it started I enthusiastically celebrated their potential to tame information overload. But major research librarians are now questioning search engines’ practices here:

Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they are put off by restrictions these companies want to place on the new digital collections. The research libraries, including a large consortium in the Boston area, are instead signing on with the Open Content Alliance [OCA], a nonprofit effort aimed at making their materials broadly available.

As the article notes, “many in the academic and nonprofit world are intent on pursuing a vision of the Web as a global repository of knowledge that is free of business interests or restrictions.”

As noble as I think this project is, I doubt it can ultimately compete with the monetary brawn of a Google. And why should delicate old books get scanned 3 or 4 times by duplicative efforts of Google, Microsoft, the OCA, and who knows what other private competitor? I also worry that a fragmented archiving system might create a library of Babel. So what is to be done?

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Scammer Yammer-Jammers to Slammer?

tubular.jpgCell phone yakkers, beware: a new device threatens to level the logorrhea:

[An architect] sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone. “She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

This reminded me a bit of the airplane “seat blocker,” which prevents the seat in front of you from reclining. As far as I recall, the FAA did little to prevent their sale, but the FCC is taking no chances with the yammer-jammer:

The Federal Communication Commission says people who use cellphone jammers could be fined up to $11,000 for a first offense. Its enforcement bureau has prosecuted a handful of American companies for distributing the gadgets — and it also pursues their users.

Investigators from the F.C.C. and Verizon Wireless visited an upscale restaurant in Maryland over the last year, the restaurant owner said. The owner, who declined to be named, said he bought a powerful jammer for $1,000 because he was tired of his employees focusing on their phones rather than customers.

If the restaurant owner were to give notice of the jamming to customers, I would find this a difficult property rights issue. Loud cell phone conversations remind me of the proverbial “sparks from a train” that had to either be prevented by railroads or avoided by owners of flammable material. Who should get the initial entitlement: the yellular or the silence-seeking?

Photo Credit: Jovike.


Not Everyone Wants to Play Google’s Library Game

oldbooks2.JPGIt seems like Google is unstoppable. Frank’s recent post about Google and his talk on the subject reminds that Google is everywhere. Dan’s new book is necessary in part because of Google and other search engines. Google has even popped up offline. Rumors of taking on phone technology abound. And as many know Google has set its sights on books too. As Frank noted Siva Vaidhyanathan among others has questioned Google’s control of information. Vaidhyanathan’s paper, The Googlization of Everything and. the Future of Copyright, which appeared in the U.C. Davis Law Review, offers that in the book realm Google’s actions may trigger a large step backwards because of the nature of fair use.

As Vaidhyanathan admits he only highlights the danger of one court or Congress listening to copyright corporations and restricting the potential of information sharing that the Internet and the book project offers. That alone merits consideration. I do think, however, the paper makes some overstatements about search issues and “stable texts like books.” He argues that Google’s search in books lacks neutrality, and its utility alone will not save it because:

It is hardly an effective or comprehensive research tool. It generates too many ridiculous results for simple searches. It cannot screen out bad results very well. And Google offers no simple information-seeking training to its customers. Searching the text of books is rarely a better way to search than searching among books. Books are discreet documents that operate with internal cohesion more than external linkages.

This idea seems to suggest that those who use Westlaw or Lexis cannot find material well. I think Google supports some level of Boolean searches and Google could easily add subject matter indices to mimic library catalogs. In short, focusing on small issues such as improving the utility of the search detracts from the bigger point. Google can fix or enhance the searches. The improvements will not necessarily stop one of the key points made in the paper. True believer arrogance in the face of laws that see the world in quite a different way can lead to bigger problems. Here Google’s contract which gives libraries an electronic copy in return for participation runs into copyright law for the law is not sure what to do with such copying other than say it is not allowed.

Thus even though some libraries reject Google’s onerous terms, Google’s acts may foment a poorly written ruling or law that hinders other movements which seek to extend access to knowledge. For those interested in one such movement check out the Open Content Alliance.

Cross-posted at Madisonian

Crossing Lines

In cyberlaw, we are repeatedly reassured by leading companies that certain suspect actions just won’t happen because they don’t make economic sense. For example, opponents of net non-discrimination principles say that carriers have an economic incentive to maximize the value of that network, so they won’t discriminate against particular applications within it. But this assumption is now being challenged. . . . and we are seeing cases where a carrier may not merely discriminate against certain applications, but also conceal the fact that it is doing so:

Comcast is pretending to be part of online conversations in order to frustrate users who want to use particular online applications. This happens all the time in the name of “traffic shaping” — it’s the kind of thing that China does to interfere with internet use. What’s different and important about today’s story is that people have carefully experimented. We can now understand exactly what Comcast is doing.

More after the jump . . .

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Can Antitrust Accommodate Privacy Concerns?

The proposed Google/DoubleClick merger has provoked a complaint from EPIC and concern from many privacy advocates. EPIC claims that Google’s standard M.O. amounts to a “deceptive trade practice:”

Upon arriving at the Google homepage, a Google user is not informed of Google’s data collection practices until he or she clicks through four links. Most users will not reach this page. . . . Google collects user search terms in connection with his or her IP address without adequate notice to the user. Therefore, Google’s representations concerning its data retention practices were, and are, deceptive practices.

One key question raised by the proposed merger is whether privacy concerns like these can be folded into traditional antitrust analysis. Peter Swire argues that they can; he believes that “privacy harms reduce consumer welfare [and] lead to a reduction in the quality of a good or service.” I am broadly sympathetic with Swire’s aims, but I worry that contemporary antitrust doctrine is too etiolated to encompass his concerns.

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Radiohead & the Point of Tipping

radiohead.jpgRadiohead has adopted a “public radio” funding model for its new album, allowing downloaders to “pay what they want” for it. A few notes on the way to an observation:

1) Not pure altruism: Tyler Cowen noted on a podcast that the band did demand a minimum transaction fee. Geoff Manne observes the data dividend:

Here’s what else they get: An excellent mailing and e-mail list. To buy (or receive gratis) the album from the website one must enter name, email (and no cheating, since download codes are sent via email), address, cell phone number. . . . Anyone see mass text messaging in Radiohead’s future?), etc. For Radiohead, this is a valuable list, I imagine. It may also be valuable to any number of direct marketers and online advertising companies.

Given that the band may have only made a couple bucks per CD under standard record industry contracts, it may have been sacrificing little with the new minimalist marketing schemes.

2) The Point of Tipping: Since the payment to Radiohead was voluntary, is it a tip? Eduardo Porter says yes:

[A]bout a third of the first million or so downloads paid nothing, according to a British survey. But many paid more than $20. The average price was about $8. That is, people paid for something they could get for free. This phenomenon is not new. It’s called tipping. We do it when we go to the restaurant or the barber, or when we ride in a taxi. Though one could argue there are real tangible reasons for this payment — like not losing an ear the next time we get a haircut — the practice of paying more money than we are legally bound to do is still mystifying in an economic sense. For instance, why tip a cabdriver you will probably never see again?

Confirming this point of view, Greg Mankiw says “we economists don’t understand tipping.” But economist Robert Frank offers a pretty compelling explanation in line with other Darwinian dimensions of his thought. Here’s an excerpt from a recent book of his that addresses the point of tipping:

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What’s Going on With the AutoAdmit Lawsuit?

book16a.jpgWhat the heck is going on in the Autoadmit lawsuit? Last week, Judge Christopher Droney granted plaintiffs’ third extension of time to serve their complaint, giving them an extra thirty days to effect service. He explained that the plaintiffs are investigating some “recently revealed” information concerning one of the parties. To date, none of the defendants has been served, and the defendants (including the headliner, Anthony Ciolli, Penn Law ’07) have of course not moved against the complaint. It’s been over four months since the case was filed, and the litigation is stuck at go.

I have contacted several sources to try to figure out what is going on. As best as I can ascertain, Mark Lemley and David Rosen have been negotiating with non-party Jarret Cohen over the summer, seeking a settlement that would:

  • delete past and prospective threads on Autoadmit about the plaintiffs;
  • de-index the plaintiffs from Google and other search engines;
  • require Autoadmit to log IP addresses;
  • require Autoadmit to create a term of service agreement and a complaint response system.

In return, plaintiffs would dismiss Ciolli, and (I take it) proceed against the pseudonymous defendants alone. But this settlement, which would seem to come close to giving plaintiffs all that they were seeking in the case apart from revealing the pseudonymous posters’ names, has stalled. Why?

Here are a few theories. First, perhaps Cohen (or his attorney) is concerned that if he agrees to these terms, it would create an avenue for a later claim for liability that Section 230 would otherwise have immunized, i.e., he will have created a monitoring and responsibility system where none previously existed. Second, plaintiffs’ leverage is insecure. I’ve heard rumors that plaintiffs have acknowledged that they originally named Ciolli on the mistaken belief that he had written some of the libelous posts. But if Ciolli didn’t write any of the unlawful posts, his liability is at best obscure. (Volokh agrees.) This puts plaintiffs in a bit of a bind. If they drop Ciolli now, they lose their best leverage against the board, and the opportunity to really change how it works and create a precedent for other like gossip sites. If they serve Ciolli, I think he’d have a strong motion to dismiss (accompanied by a nonfrivolous sanctions motion). All this would seem to reduce the incentive for Cohen to settle today. But the service clock is ticking – how many extensions of time will Judge Droney grant? (His chambers rules state that he’ll extend deadlines until the result materially affects his scheduling order.) Third, what about the pseudonymous defendants? Nothing I’ve heard makes exposing the defamatory posters – the most culpable wrongdoers – more likely. (Leiter’s hopes otherwise, but if XO didn’t track IP addresses before, I don’t know how likely it is that plaintiffs will be able to find them after the fact. It is small, and cold, comfort to think about such law students sweating it over the long summer if they ultimately will remain in the shadows.)

All of this suggests why lawsuits are such a bad fit for the reputational harms that sparked this mess. You can’t sue the “real” wrongdoer; the host is basically immunized; and defendants you can find are (at best) tangentially involved. This makes sense: people willing to put their names in public are likely to be more careful and less culpable. On the other hand, the lawsuit itself seems to have had significant chilling effects on the Autoadmit board, as several posters have “retired.” Whether this is a good thing or not probably depends on your perspective.

Solove, do you have a better way?