Tag: internet

Why I Participate At Political Science Rumors

The first rule of the internet is not to read the comments for any op-ed one posts.  Why?  Because the cover of anonymity allows people to say awful stuff.  Of course, Twitter amply demonstrates that people will say awful things on the internet even when one can be clearly identified.  Anyhow, over the past several years, a series of websites have been gathering spots for both aspiring and experienced political scientists to exchange in rumors and opinions about the profession (to be clear, anyone can post so it might be economist students seeking to troll or other folks entirely).  Given yesterday’s post about PSR, I thought I would explain my presence there.

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The Duck of Minerva is blocked in China


I was just in China for a work thing, when I checked the Duck for something. Turns out the Duck is screened out by the Great Firewall. Even if you go to Google Search Hong Kong, it’s still blocked.

Wow. Who knew even nerdy IR theory and pop culture references posed a threat to CCP rule? Lame. Even more lame – my own website, which gets way less traffic, is blocked too. For sites as small as mine, that’s almost a complement – hah. If only I had readers similarly interested enough to even bother…


Silicon wafers: Why we need to move religion online

As one of the two great still-extant medieval institutions, the church confronts the digital age with a mixture of trepidation and hope. Hope, because congregations and ministers with online presence can build up new types of community and remain in contact through a variety of media; trepidation, because the church, like any incumbent industry, looks with fear at the fate of travel agents, small retailers, and print newspapers. Having seen each industry fall to the likes of Expedia, Amazon, and the Huffington Post, the leaders of churches throughout the United States and beyond worry that some new digital entrant could eat their lunch.

Ministers, priests, and lay leaders are thus turning to Massively Open Online Churches. MOOCs offer senior church executives a way to position their institution to survive in the twenty-first century. Churches with established brand names have already begun to offer tentative first steps. In a wise move, many ministers of large and famous congregations have put the most important part of the church experience, the sermon, online. Online sermons, of course, are not bound by brick-and-mortar constraints; hundreds of thousands of people frequently listen to at least the first five or ten minutes of notable sermons, with as many as two percent of virtual congregants completing the sermons.

Some have wondered whether online sermons are a credible substitute for traditional, physical church attendance. Measuring church outcomes by sermon completion—the easiest metric to compile, and hence the industry standard—it seems obvious that virtual religious offerings need to be adjusted to better meet the needs of the medium. Physical congregants, after all, practically always listen to the entire sermon. Accordingly, a handful of churches have begun to bestow online badges on their virtual congregants who can show that they have completed listening to sermons. Some believe it is enough to take congregants’ words on faith, as it were; others insist that there be short quizzes to guarantee that congregants have heard and understood the sermon.

The rewards of such virtual congregations are easy to calculate for senior church leaders and religious foundations, the most important decision-makers in the religious marketplace.

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Glenn Greenwald reports on the case of Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP and former Wikileaks volunteer. The U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed Jonsdottir’s Twitter records, as well as the records from many other users of the service, from November 2009 onward on the grounds that the department believes that the records may be used in a criminal investigation.

What is newsworthy about this is not that the U.S. DoJ continues to investigate what the American government must, by definition, regard as a violation of its sovereign prerogative to release classified information. Rather, it is that Twitter requested the federal court order be unsealed to allow the affected users to object to the government’s investigation, which had hitherto been kept secret.

Twitter’s actions allow us to further refine Charli’s thoughts on the recent Foreign Affairs article by Clay Shirky. In particular, this should remind us that the U.S. can’t rely on the public sphere to always advance its state interests, and that there are real dangers to relying on a “civil society” that is principally constituted by private corporate actors in order to advance democratization.

As Shirky notes, the U.S. has partially embraced freedom, Net neutrality, and everything else cyberrific about the Web because of what it perceives as the instrumental value of those attributes. Famously, the State Department under Secretary Clinton has embraced Twitter as a tool of public diplomacy. During Iran’s summer protests in 2009, the State Department even apparently used Twitter as part of a soft-power exercise in attempted regime change. Alerted that the site was about to be taken offline for maintenance, Clinton aides worked to keep the site online during the protests. (The New York Times accounts suggests that a pair of twentysomethings did this on their own; one wonders, of course, if this isn’t a rewriting of history to account for the fact that the “Twitter revolution” was in almost every respect a giant fail whale.)

The irony that the same technologies have now become the enabling conditions for the dissemination of Wikileaks, a minor-league public diplomacy embarrassment that has also posed acute risks to specific individuals who may be named or falsely accused of espionage by unfriendly governments, is so obvious as to need no exposition. (Despite the observations from astute critics that Wikileaks, like all organizations, requires resources and access, as well as some measure of societal legitimacy, to proceed with its endeavors, we shouldn’t overestimate how high the barriers to entry are–especially for entrepreneurs who may be carrying less baggage than Assange.)

Shirky recognizes many of these arguments, and elaborates a more nuanced argument about why the United States should support an information infrastructure that will help democratize the world’s remaining and rather astoundingly resilient authoritarian states. His contention is that eventually repressive states will face a tradeoff between allowing open communications, which facilitate trade and economic growth, and choking off dissent, which requires the state to be able to throttle (both in terms of “moderate the speed of” and “strangling”) open communications.

Yet Shirky overstates this dilemma. He recognizes that samizdat and Xeroxes and fax machines and text messaging and Twitter–each generation, it seems, brings its own new revolutionary technology–have only sometimes contributed to democratizing outcomes. Yet he argues that in the long run, open communication leads to open societies. Consider the printing press and the postal service, he says. The former facilitated the Protestant Reformation and the latter the American Revolution. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Shirky’s optimistic technological determinism rests on questionable historical inferences. To paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is too soon to tell what will be the consequences of the movable type printing press–and, a fortiori, of the Movable Type blogging software. After all, the most searching and expansive dictatorships in human history grew and matured in the twentieth century, and were every bit as enabled by twentieth-century technologies as were their democratic counterparts. (Imagine a Nazi Germany without the airplane or a Soviet Union without the telegraph, to say nothing of North Korea today without nuclear weapons.)

It is true that such regimes invest huge amounts of resources into censorship. Consider Internet censorship in Beijing. But it’s not at all clear that Beijing is trying to restrain the development of an ideal speech situation that will lead the Chinese people to rise up and demand Habermasian democracy. Rather, many accounts suggest that the CCP is more worried about the development of more nationalist and anti-corruption movements–neither of which, to say the least, is pro-democratic. Nor does the example of the USSR and of Eastern Europe offer much hope. Had Gorbachev never become General Secretary, the Soviet Union might well have been able to persist for generations longer as a decrepit, wasting regime that was nonetheless able to mobilize sufficient physical repressive power to sustain itself. In fact, it might well have turned out looking something rather like the government that Putin built, with fewer BMWs and more MiGs.

The relationship between the U.S. government and Twitter similarly demonstrates that the outcomes of the public sphere and the state’s interests are not always congruent. Twitter’s request to unseal the subpoena has led to some adverse publicity for the DoJ this weekend. And the State Department will of course have to spend some time soothing the hurt feelings of the Icelandic government, though in the long term all sides understand that the Melians Icelanders will have to give in.

The real damage to the Twitterites’ hopes for techno-democratization, however, lies in the fact that the Justice Department’s request is perfectly reasonable and justifiable by all legal standards. Twitter can’t refuse, so they protest by publicizing the request. Yet publicity in this case is simply precedent-setting, and it is a precedent that countries with Freedom House scores lower than America’s will happily cite. For repressive regimes, the benefit is clear.

A chilling effect will set in among the citizens of freer countries, as well. Just the rumor that the federal government would refuse to hire graduate students who read Wikileaks cable, as well as the more concrete instructions to federal employees and contractors not to read the material, has–in my direct, personal experience–led academics and grad students to shy away from discussing or reading such materials.

Just as important, we should remember that Google, Twitter, and Facebook are not communications technologies in the same sense that the printing press was. They are companies that require vast resources to operate and can function only with the permission of a host government. In an open society, they will promote openness. In a closed society, there is no guarantee they will do so. As always, economics and technology are important to determining political outcomes, but politics is primary.


Cyber warfare and legal responsibility: drifting further apart?

Two cyber warfare trends are catching the eye, but both raise the same major question. First, cyber attacks have been democratised in recent years because of social media and easy to use denial of service attack (DDoS) tools. Popular armies have returned, made up not of a mass of bodies charging, a Clausewitzian centre of gravity on a field, but constituted by curious and enthusiastic citizens on the internet. As William Merrin argued at a keynote in 2009, security has been crowdsourced. US officials set up webcams along the Mexico border so that citizens can sit at leisure and watch for shadowy figures moving through the desert (and they do watch). Other national leaders have encouraged citizens to launch DDoS attacks against strategic targets. Sometimes, ordinary people just feel the urge to participate without any guidance, for instance the ‘Help Israel win’ group of students who targeted Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. If thousands or even millions of people act collectively this way, where does legal responsibility lie for any harm caused? Is there legal responsibility for encouraging people to participate? Are people using digital media today out of patriotic gusto in ways that will later incriminate them?

Second, news media have reported a new super-cyber-weapon this week, the first digital nuke, apparently capable of destroying real-world objects. Previous malware just shut down systems or stole data. Once this new piece of malware touches a digital system (e.g. through a USB stick) the malware itself secretly takes control of the system, and can make it destroy whatever it is managing – a bank, a nuclear plant, whatever you can imagine. The designer can tell it what to target, but thereafter the software does its own thing. In terms of responsibility, whoever funds, designs and delivers such a weapon would seem the locus of responsibility. But not many nations have the expertise to detect such software. Successful attacks would just seem like industrial mishaps. Expect reports of mystery explosions near you (especially if you live in Iran).

Where does this leave international law? We’ve caught up with World War II and the regulation of mass armies and nukes. Who has the technical expertise, political will and diplomatic savvy to draw up laws for a world of crowdsourced armies and weaponized software?

(Cross posted from the New Political Communication Unit blog)

Why states shouldn’t count on Facebook for foreign policy

My colleague, Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, has written a blog post on the potential consequences of states in the West, particularly the US and UK, increasingly relying on informal social networking of its citizens to promote foreign policy priorities. This would be a move away from the kind of ham-fisted attempts at public diplomacy seen in the wake of 9/11 aimed at getting Arab states to “like” the west to allowing every day citizens to debate the international issues of the day.

Thus, “The War on Terror” becomes the “The Long Change” – or changing people’s minds.

However, Ben points out several potentially huge flaws in this idea:
What is new is that this public diplomacy can be done by publics themselves through social media. The clumsy strategic communication officers of the state can stand back. This approach assumes that communication and connection between people across borders through social media can have a liberal, pluralizing effect. But its not clear why people would engage in patient, deliberative, possibly multilingual conversation with people in other countries about controversial political issues. Anyone familiar with the ‘under the line’ discussions on news websites will see how quickly and often the conversation becomes a hostile dialogue of the deaf.

So, perversely, publics must be taught how to be spontaneously deliberative. Forums for ‘global conversations’ will be created, along the lines of the BBC’s Have Your Say online spaces. These will form the ideal of what public-to-public diplomacy is about, for emulation by progressive media around the world. Unacceptable opinions or styles of participation will be moderated out. The mechanism for the long change is us, or what has been called in recent years ‘the power of we’ and ‘we the media’. But any global ‘we’ will have to be carefully constructed and edited.

It is stating the obvious to note that foreign policy issues are already being debated on the internet by both states and citizens. (The fact that the Israeli MFA actually bothered to tweet me on my Flotilla post brought that fact home to me in a big and scary way.) And I admit that I was impressed last year with the global online support for the Iranian protesters in the wake of the election there – although I do wonder if this constitutes debate? It was interesting that Obama intervened and asked that Twitter delay a service update in order to facilitate the Iranians protesting. Ben does not touch on these issues in his post. But the larger point to what he is getting to is whether such movements (particularly the one aimed at Iran) can be harnessed by states in ways that (cheaply!) support their foreign policy priorities.

I share Ben’s scepticism. However, where he seems to be concerned that “The Long Change, should it come to pass, implicates social media – and us as users and citizens – directly into international affairs in ways that require very careful scrutiny” I confess that I am more concerned over the idea that foreign policy could be constructively debated between “Beiberfan4Lyfe16” and “jiHHHAdiKilla”.

*picture from xkcd. I’m a huge nerd.

The Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election (in where I demonstrate a very poor knowledge of UK politics.)

So, in Duck ex-pat news it was announced that a general election (a big national election) will be held on 6 May 2010 this week in the UK. At stake are 13 years of Labour rule, debate as to how the economic “recovery” should be protected.
Yet, despite the relative importance of the election, coming as it is during a time of insecurity, I have to say that it feels like basically no one is inspired by it. Politicians here have been hit by a year of expenses scandals (when it turned out that MPs were claiming everything from the installation of duck houses, to bath plugs and the occasional pornographic movie). It’s not really a surprise they did so, of course – MPs are paid quite poorly compared to their counterparts in Europe. But it was the fact that they seemed to bend and manipulate the rules so blatantly which have upset many people. The ongoing scandal has resulted in four MPs actually facing criminal charges.
In addition, house prices have fallen, no one can get mortgages, the government spent billions on the bailout and dramatic spending cuts are needed. Unemployment is still high, we just lost Cadburys to the Yanks (seriously – this was a huge issue) and I just think that people feel battered by the recession and dread of the knowledge of the kind of austerity years that are ahead. Where the US election in 2008 seemed (at least to me) about better days ahead, this election seems to be more about choosing between the rope, knife, pistol (and two separatist-inspired choices – let’s just use the deadly poisoned leek and kilt of terror…. ) Actually, you have a few more scary choices as well (like the BNP – who I’m not going to link to because I don’t even want to Google their name.)
So I thought that I would provide my poorly constructed guide to the UK Election this week where I thought that I would try to at least highlight some issues that other “Johnny Foreigners” may find interesting. Please consider this my comparative politics post for the year.

1.It might be a “hung parliament”

The mandatory joke here, of course, is that if it is a “hung parliament” – with whom do we start?

Right now this seems to be a huge deal for a number of reasons. First, it could give the Liberal Democrats (the third party who hasn’t been in power since the First World War) a lot of leverage as both Labour and the Tories fight to bring them into alliance or onside. For the LibDems, this could be really great (they finally get power) or really bad (internal civil war as to which side to support). For their part, the LibDems won’t say who they will support – and stick to the line that they are actually trying to win (although no one really thinks they can – except Howard Dean).

Second, there is a sense that because of the harsh measures needed for the recession, the fact that there would be a “hung parliament” seems to be unstable and would be sending the wrong message to world markets. There is only so much stock I put in this argument. Canada has had a “hung parliament” for years and they have done alright (although in full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of the current party in power).

2.There is no UK foreign policy.

I don’t think I’ve even heard “foreign policy” mentioned since the election was called. Rather it’s all about taxes, tax breaks, cutting taxes, etc. (Oh, and of course, who will best protect the National Health Service, or NHS). Let there be no mistake, this is a very naval-gazing election (other than the scary UK Independence Party – UKIP – banging on about leaving the EU and being not-so-secretly racist). Considering the nation is fighting in a war and continues to lose troops on a near daily basis, it’s rather shocking that I don’t think I’ve even heard the word “Afghanistan” out of any of the leader’s mouths.

I wonder if this is because that there is a general consensus on the issue – or if no one really has any bright ideas?

Either way, for this election at least, the UK is less interested in its role in the world than domestic change/continuity. If you are looking for the foreign policy issues, I would suggest checking out this web page from Chatham House and scrolling through a few of their events. For now, it’s the economy, stupid (or as I like to think of it here, “By Jove! It’s the Economy, Chaps!”

3.“Step outside, posh boy”

Rightly or wrongly, growing up in Canada, I tended to view it as a rather classless country – or at least a relatively egalitarian one. Now I know this isn’t true, but I come from a blue collar family where my parents worked hard and improved their lives (stop me when I start to sound like pre-scandal John Edwards). But class IS an issue here (or at least perceived to be one) and it was something I didn’t understand it until I came to the UK. There seems to be a definite underclass here that just doesn’t seem to benefit from anything. To be honest, if you are a poor, white, working class male, you’re probably super not doing well.

On the other hand, if you do come from wealth it may be a serious liability – if you are a politician. Labour has constantly gone after Tory leader David Cameron’s wealthy upbringing (he went to Eaton, member of super-posh Oxford society, etc) as seen in this mock-campaign poster done by the Guardian which became so popular they made a t-shirt out of it.

Can you be too posh to be politically privileged? I find this so interesting because I really think it would be relatively a non-issue in North America. (Although I think it was, to a certain extent for McCain.) So long as you are seen as having the right values, you’re probably okay. And the cost of running a campaign in the US is so astronomical that I don’t see HOW you could possibly be a politician without money – or at least be of a certain socio-economic class. Anyway, it will be interesting to see to what extent Labour continues to go down this route.

4.Everybody is on the internet. Nobody seems to know what to do with it.

I think this is important because the internet played such a HUGE role in the Obama campaign. Immediately afterwards in the UK there were summits and meetings on what the lessons where with regards to how that technology, particularly for fundraising, could be used.

Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the parties really learned any of the lessons – or more correctly, how to apply the lessons to the UK context. Instead, I think everyone realized they need to be on the internet, YouTube, twitter, facebook, email, etc., but they just didn’t figure out how to link it to anything meaningful. Instead we get David Cameron’s wife on “SamCam” and the first casualty of the campaign – a 24 year old Labour candidate who thought that calling senior citizens “coffin dodgers” was a good idea (not to mention the Tourette-inspired names he called other candidates.)

So what we’re left with is a gigantic effort and amount of information put on the internet that seems to have no purpose and completely failing to engage the general public. This Financial Times piece concludes that while the internet may have an effect, this effect is likely to be accidental (ie: some politician screwing up on his iPhone – or just see the above paragraph) and that, at least in the UK, the public is still using mostly traditional sources like newspapers – even if it is on-line:

Studies in the past few weeks from the Hansard Society, the political researcher, and Ovum, a technology consultancy, both disputed that YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would form a meaningful battleground to rival TV or the humble doorstep.

The other interesting conclusion of the piece is that while political parties may not have yet best figured out how to use the internet, they cannot afford to ignore it either. Ergo, they are having to spend millions of pounds on something that they just can’t seem to figure out. (Although they do point out that Labour’s less centralized approach has resulted in success through sites that have mocked the Tories ad campaign online.

So there you have it – four issues coming out of the battle for Britain’s political future.
I confess that I too find myself among the politically uninspired – yet I wonder if I should consider myself fortunate. What a contrast with Thailand and Kyrgystan this week where most people would probably see this ennui as some kind of insane luxury. Or Afghanistan where it’s a struggle to just have the leader not fire the entire election review board.

For those of you who wish to follow further, here are some websites that you may find useful:
Useful websites:

1. BBC 2010 Election Page: A pretty comprehensive source on the election with polls, highlighted issues, candidate bios, etc. I’m not a huge fan of Nick Robinson, but he’s good and has his own blog on the site here.
2. Political Betting: “Britain’s most read political blog and the best online resource for betting on politics”. No really.
3. UK Poling Report: A poll of polls and useful polling analysis for those of you who can’t just get enough hot poll action.
4. YouGov: Polling/research company in the UK
5.Guido Fawkes: This one is kind of muck-raking, but occasionally fun.
6.Finally, I would suggest following my friend Nick Anstead’s twitter. – he wrote his PhD on the internet in the 2008 US election and has done some work on the issue in the UK. He always has great links and he’s my usual source when I have questions about all things political and British.

Anyone else have a site they could recommend? Anything with laughter at this point would probably be super welcomed.


The Problem With Online Petitions

At LGM, I recently suggested that readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions?

Well, because federal agencies don’t care about quantity of comments, only quality, a form letter written by Change.org and submitted by you and 500,000 others is worth exactly one comment no matter how many times it’s sent – precisely the opposite of Congress.

You can probably see the grand irony here. The genius of websites like Change.org is that they make sending a letter to your government easy, thereby potentially increasing the level of citizen participation. But because clicking a form letter is so easy, citizens have powerful disincentives to write substantive comments where such form letters are available, even in cases – federal rule-makings – where such a comment would actually be read and considered valuable. For example, researchers studying the 2004 EPA mercruy rule-making found that the vast majority of comments submitted to the EPA through were are either identical form letters or contained extremely minor modifications.

Not only is this a waste of citizen time and effort, but this influx of meaningless form letters actually makes it harder for federal civil servants to identify the few useful comments sent in by citizens to their government that could actually aid their decision-making about a particular rule.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Anytime you go to signal your opinion on an online petition, first figure out if it’s going to Congress or to a federal agency. If it’s Congress, sheer numbers count and substance is discounted – so save yourself time and simply click yes or no. But if it’s a federal agency – EPA, DoJ, DoT, FCC – be sure to alter the letter as much as possible, and write an informed, substantive comment. For example, if you support prison reform, write about what prison reform rules should look like and why, or ways in which DoJ can actually improve on the NPREC recommendations, and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true for many, many other issues about which progressives care deeply. Biomass for Fuel. Polar Bears. Net neutrality.

Sure, use the above websites to formulate your opinion. Use their online form to submit it. But delete the form letter and put it in your own words. (And not just any words. No emotional rants. No insults in all caps. No accusations of immoral behavior. No threats. It’s not that public officials care about these things; it’s that they couldn’t care less and letters like that just make it harder for them to find the useful, substantive comments that they need to make the best rules.)

Citizens unwilling or unable to take the time to write their own substantive letters can far better serve our democracy if they engage the Congressional process where it’s the absolute numbers of voters taking a certain position that matters, rather than gumming up the rule-making process with duplicative comments. And organizations aiming to increase citizen input to government should be thinking harder about to improve the quality of that participation, not just the quantity.

[cross-posted at LGM]


Sting Operations

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed Stung by the Perfect Sting rattled some cages in the blogosphere this week. Laura McKenna calling her a whiner, implying the post was really about her own bad blogger press. Tim Burke claiming she is dissing bloggers by failing to reference our own grand debates over anonymity. Danny being Danny Drezner accusing Dowd of comparing bloggers to muggers. The column seems widely interpreted as a slam against the new media.

I was sorry that none of these posts engaged the actual story in the article, which had almost nothing to do with the blogosphere per se. Part of this is Dowd’s fault: her argument was poorly executed and buried under asinine introspection (we bloggers would never exhibit careless narcissim.) But look past the fluff and at issue is an important and (yes, Tim) timely legal question raised by not one but two rulings just this month: Should a person’s right to anonymous speech shield him/her against defamation suits?*

Anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment. But defamation is not. So what recourse does a plaintiff have when slandered anonymously? At Digital Media Laywer, David Johnson explains the “chicken and egg” problem this way:

If trial proves that the speaker is liable for defamation, then his anonymity was not entitled to First Amendment protection and should be disclosed. If trial proves that the speaker is not liable for defamation, then his anonymity was entitled to First Amendment and should not be disclosed. However, disclosure of a speaker’s identity is generally required for a court to determine whether his words were defamatory. In other words, you have to disclose his identity to determine whether his identity should be disclosed.

One way around this is the “summary judgment standard” set out in Doe v. Cahill, a 2005 Delaware ruling on whether or not Patrick Cahill, a City Councilman, could obtain the identity of anonymous blogger John Doe for the purposes of a libel suit. Daniel Solove explained the summary judgment standard in a blog post in that year:

In this case, Cahill was a public figure, and to prevail in a defamation lawsuit, he had to prove that (1) Doe made a defamatory statement (damaging to Cahill’s reputation); (2) the statement was concerning Cahill; (3) the statement was published (disseminated to others); (4) others would understand the statement to be defamatory; (5) the statement was false; and (6) Doe made the statement with actual malice (he either knew it was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth).

Solove criticizes the New York rulingfor using a looser standard in the case referenced by Dowd. The plaintiff Liskula Cohen, arguably also a public figure, had been vilified on an anonymous blog as “skankiest in NYC” and was only required to show her case had merit to convince the court to order that Google reveal the blogger’s identity. But even if they had used the Doe v. Cahill standard it is hard to see how they would not have ruled in Cohen’s favor. The only hangup may have been the requirement that the plaintiff demonstrate a defendant’s “malice” but this would seem rather an unfair hurdle when a defendant’s identity is unknown. Hence the chicken and egg dilemma.

Did the court make the right choice? Should a person’s right to anonymous speech (generally, not just in the blogosphere) protect them against defamation suits if filing the suit essentially requires knowledge of the defendant’s identity?

Dowd’s key argument is: No. She, however, is talking not only about defamation but also about various pernicious forms of cyber-bullying and hate speech as well. (She is also not, of course, opposing anonymous or pseudononymous deliberative argument ala The Federalist Papers; it is a straw man to claim that she has “conflat[ed] and tar[red] all anonymous commentary because some act rudely on the Internet” when in fact she carefully distinguishes constructive pseudonomity from mere character assassination.)

On this, I’m with Dowd. I am an advocate of pseudononymous (and to some extent anonymous) blogging, but I am against mindless slanderous invective for its own sake. It cheapens political deliberation, distracts us from the issues, and sets a bad example for our children. As a commenter wrote over at Copyrights and Campaigns:

“Having read the Federalist Papers, I don’t recall Publius defaming as ‘skanks and hos’ those who disagreed with the adoption of the Constitution.”

My fellow political bloggers are correct to point out that this behavior is also not representative of most anonymous bloggers or commenters. But that’s precisely the reason to agree with Dowd and with the court’s decision. Ultimately, “Anonymous Blogger” Rosemary Port’s defense rested on the claim that no one takes the blogosphere seriously as a source of facts. According to the ruling:

“The Blogger argues that even if the words [‘skank’ and ‘ho’] are capable of a defamatory meaning, ‘the context here negates any impression that a verifiable factual assertion was intended,’ since blogs ‘have evolved as the modern day soapbox for one’s personal opinions,’ by ‘providing an excessively popular medium not only for conveying ideas, but also for mere venting purposes, affording the less outspoken a protected forum for voicing gripes, leveling invective and ranting about anything at all.'”

To the extent that this perception is true (that is, to the extent that bloggers get tarred in the public eye as mindless opinion-spouters) it’s not because of people like Dowd, but because of people like Port who abuse their anonymity to defame others – an act that is in fact not protected by the First Amendment – and then claim this as some kind of moral high ground.

*The case raises other interesting questions as well. For example: what is defamation? The court found that allegations of sexual promiscuity count, and I would grudgingly agree, though you could have a whole feminist debate about what that signifies. I also think you could argue, though Cohen did not, that this was not simply defamation but a kind of hate speech – in fact, had the blogger turned out to be male, I think we’d be hearing precisely such claims of misogyny – interesting double standard. Also, Rosemary Port has now sued Google for complying with the court’s order – hard to imagine that she has a case, since Google’s terms of use state it will hand over information if required to do so by the government, but as Solove points out perhaps Google was negligent in failing to go to bat for her? Worth watching to see.


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