A Tale of Two Parodies?

29 Nov ’06

Today I awoke to what I at first thought were two parodies. The first – a story that the MPAA was pushing a plan to license home theatres – I pegged correctly, but I’ll admit that for a moment I had my doubts. As Mike Masnick notes, the story seemed just a little too real, and for that moment, I wondered: they wouldn’t – would they?

The second I missed by a country mile. Yes, the UK Press Complaints Commission director does in fact seem to be in favour of an internet voluntary code of conduct. Alas, this is not parody. This code, it would seem, would solve the ‘problem’ of no professional standards or redress on the internet. But there’s more – “Former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who chaired the session organised by the Commission for Racial Equality, said blogs were “perceived as a positive development” but added that “some of the most offensive stuff” comes from them.” (Funny, I thought the offensive stuff came from Campbell …) Sigh. Months ago, in a roundtable I chaired on net libel, I wondered out loud whether even defamation laws were really as necessary in an age when anyone could have their own soapbox, and use it to respond to false statements. As Scoble notes, the redress (that the PCC thinks one gets from a complaints process) is to – wait for it – respond on your own blog.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth Finkelstein November 30, 2006 at 11:48

Let me step back a bit. There’s two separate issues:

1) Libel/defamation law
2) Abuse, bullying – 100% legal, but extremely undesirable social behavior.

Often, someone argues “anyone could have their own soapbox”, so then #1 is solved (“whether even defamation laws were really as necessary”), so presumably #2 is ALSO solved – that is “*EVEN* … necessary” implies there is NO wrong which cannot be effectively redressed in this wonderful new world of equality.

When it’s pointed out that the “soapbox” argument is just let-them-eat-cake, the argument shifts. It brings up the fact that libel/defamation law can be abused, which substitutes a cost-benefit analysis for the fact that extreme wrongs can be done without redress. It’s a valid argument to say “Yes, little guys can be libelled and defamed, have their reputations ruined, but if there’s a legal means to fight back, those means will be mostly perverted too by the big guys”. I’m not saying this argument is wrong – I’m saying it exists purely apart from any blog/Internet fantasy, and should be debated on its merits or lack thereof. That is, it’s an argument against libel/defamation redress based on subversion, nothing to do with blog/Internet. Trying to make it about blog/Interent goes back to let-them-eat-cake, that an ordinary person has very little power.

This also holds for abusive bullying. One can say “Yes, A-listers can lie, smear attack, insult, and Z-listers can’t effectively fight back. But if there were any institutional means of redress, that would be very very bad, an overreaction causing far more harm than good”. I am also not saying that argument is wrong (though it sure looks suspicious when coming from A-listers). However, it’s again a cost-benefit analysis that shouldn’t deny the power imbalance exists.

The idea about “newspaper columnists” was my way of pointing out that “other louder voices” have always existed and are of little help overall. That is, the argument that a Z-lister can find some othe A-lister to champion their cause is like an argument that a citizen might be able to find a metro columnist or radio talk show host to help them out. It happens on occasion, but it’s very rare.

The exponential distribution of attention is a mathematical fact. Structurally, there will be a few people with immense power, and many who are practically voiceless. That’s not what blog evangelism preaches, but everyone can’t be above average either.

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Rob Hyndman November 30, 2006 at 07:19

As to the first point, that’s kind of an obvious qualification, Seth, though still an overstatement. But it wasn’t the point I was making. And it wasn’t the basis for my statement that innocent defamation by a bully with a loudhorn was that rare. With all due respect, are you so eager to disagree that you can’t take the time to read carefully? The bottom line is I think we have an overdone sense of the danger that speech presents and think there are actually very few cases where the intervention of a court is truly justified. For the rest, I think people probably ought to be left to their own devices, particularly since now it is much easier now for those who in the past have not had the means to easily broadcast their response to do so. It’s also important to remember that the threat of defamation litigation is a cheap and powerful tool for silencing dissent and criticism – another reason why I think another solution ought to be found for the great majority of cases.

As to the last point, who ever mentioned newspaper columnists or becoming a cause celebre? I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of people on this blog alone – without ever having any that important or interesting to say – and as far as I can tell no columnist has ever mentioned me (oops – Mathew, but he doesn’t *really* count) nor have I ever become a cause celebre for anything.

Frankly, it would be easier to have a conversation with you if didn’t keep theatrically exaggerating the case – the point I made in my first reply. You used the words “sneering in the face” earlier to frame the threat, yet there’s a chiding, mocking tone to your responses that is uncomfortably close to just that – pollyanna-ish? Spare me, OK? I simply think it’s quite easy to reach a large audience with even a modest blog and a simple message. You seem to have a very different idea.

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Seth Finkelstein November 29, 2006 at 22:27

The only people who can afford to sue are rich people, so of course all you’ll hear about are their cases, some of which will be frivolous. That is no basis to say bullying is “very, very rare”. If you want to claim that the law is not useful since it’s a plaything of the wealthy, well, that’s an argument, I won’t take it up – but it’s very different from denying that enormous power imbalances exists in blogs.

I think your last claim is Pollyana-ishly confusing fights between people who each have some effective access, where both have loud voices, with the problem of the imbalance itself. Sure, it can happen that someone’s case gets taken up by a newspaper columnist or becomes a cause-celebre. But it’s a rare event, precisely because attention is so exponentially distributed that there are so few of those slots available.

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Rob Hyndman November 29, 2006 at 18:22

Generally, Seth, I think concerns about defamation are overdone. We see the worst cases. My own opinion is that by far the lion’s share of defamation cases come from rich people with an overanxious sense of the value of their reputations, and those trying to avoid legitimate public criticism. I suspect that the number of cases in which a person is innocently defamed by a bully with a loudhorn are very, very rare.

And I frankly doubt that even in those cases would the imbalance you suggest often be the case – if someone has a legitimate beef, their story will get picked up in an atomized media landscape – their own blog may not be the loudest voice, but other louder voices will likely pick up the cause as well.

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Seth Finkelstein November 29, 2006 at 13:47

Well, my views are indeed clear. I cannot see how, given the immense inequality which is a fact of the distribution of blog power, one can seriously maintain there’s any sort of general parity in *effective* ability to reply.

And it’s a deep peeve of mine, since I’ve been hearing that nonsense for more than a decade now (yes, pre-blog, going back to the popularization of the Internet). Too often coming from an arrogant bully who is metaphorically sneering in the face of someone he’s viciously attacked and he knows damn well can’t effectively respond.
[Not accusing you of this, but explaining I do think the issues warrants some emotion to it, other than the cruelty of let-them-eat-cake (as in, let them post on their own A-list blog)]

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Rob Hyndman November 29, 2006 at 13:32

Yes – which is why I did, Seth. Not to parse it too much, but you seem to be asking a question to which you also want to provide the answer. And I certainly don’t think the issue deserves the hyperventilation and theatre you’re giving it.

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Seth Finkelstein November 29, 2006 at 13:17

“I wondered out loud whether even defamation laws were really as necessary in an age when anyone could have their own soapbox,…”

Do you really believe this, in an age where a tiny, tiny, number of A-listers have huge megaphones, and basically everyone else squeaks down at the bottom of the crowd?

This is not a rhetorical question – how, after it’s clear that a few bloggers reach tens of thousands, can whip-up “dumb” mobs, have major media connections … and most other people have at best a diary page – can you seriously write that a person libelled by what is by rational measures a syndicated columnist, should be content to write something somewhere than virtually nobody would ever hear?

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