#cfp08 A Human Face and Due Process Online

If I were to summarize the ‘Activism and Education Using Social Networks’ track at Computers, Freedom and Privacy yesterday, I would boil it down to putting a human face on advocacy organizations and seeking due process online. What was most interesting was that during the discussions, I watched these processes happen online.

Eric spoke about the new ACLU Blog, “because freedom can’t blog itself”. He spoke about the difficulties in working out the policies of what could get written by whom for the blog. He noted the contrast between traditional advertising, expensive, glossy, and not reaching the younger generation, and online content. He noted that sites like Facebook, MySpace and Flickr are not all that fancy in their graphical design, yet it is the user generated content and the first person perspective that is so compelling. As he spoke about this, he brought up the ACLU’s Flickr page, which to my surprise, included a picture of a good friend of mine. I quickly posted a link to the Flickr photo on my friend’s wall in Facebook. Ah yes, the power of the personal.

We broke into hands on sessions and I spoke with many different people. A neighbor, who is active in town politics and works for Yale was there and I spent some time talking with her. A friend of one of the conference organizers from Tribe was there and we talked a little bit. I showed a few people Second Life and talked about the role of Second Life in disability rights advocacy.

This led me to a fascinating discussion with Dr. Linda D. Misek-Falkoff from the United Nations and the Center for Cross-Cultural Understanding. She spoke about RatifyNow.Org, a website to support the global grassroots efforts to ratify the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She has a wonderful set of videos of people in the U.N. talking about the convention. She also understood the importance of putting a human face on large organizations. She took a quick video of me saying hello to ambassadors and activists fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities.

The afternoon led to a brainstorming session where the topic of social network service providers failing to provide adequate due process was discussed. In particular, Facebooks tendency to ban people automatically because they try to send too many messages, add too many friends, or similar activities. A friend of mine was recently banned this way, and has gotten nothing but automated responses to his requests. A few of us are talking about setting up a group to address this issue.

As this discussion was going on, I received a Twitter from Andy Carvin about Ariel Waldman’s blog post about Twitter refusing to uphold its Terms of Service. Specifically, the post centered around Twitter failing to deal with harassment issues.

At a previous session at CFP there were some great discussions around the issue of cyber-harassment and it will be a topic of one of this morning’s sessions. Around an hour later, a bug report was reported on GetSatisfaction and the blog post got Dugg. The next hour saw the article make the front page of Digg and an hour later Jason Goldman of Twitter responded,

Twitter does not get involved in these disputes between users over issues of content except in limited circumstances. Twitter is a provider of information, not a mediator. Specific physical threats, certain legal obligations, privacy breaches of specific types of information (e.g. SSN, credit cards), and misleading impersonation are some cases where we may become involved and potentially terminate an account.

This only added fuel to the fire. Evan Williams of Twitter twittered.

Note: Before joining a mob, you might want to check if everything they're saying/assuming is true.

This too, fueled anger at Twitter, already under lots of criticism for its spate of recent outages. It is worth noting that 12 other people noted on GetSatisfaction that they have the same problem, almost as many people as work for Twitter.

About three hours after this, Biz Stone, stepped in and said

The fact that so many of us can have differing opinions without having even reviewed the content we're discussing highlights the difficulty of this issue. In fact, Twitter recognizes that it is not skilled at judging content disputes between individuals. Determining the line between update and insult is not something that Twitter nor a crowd would do well.

All of this returns back to the issue of due process. The fact that so many people are so concerned about this highlights the importance of the issue. Biz states, “Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content.” This harkens back to the issues of Section 230 and communications utilities not being liable for content.

Yet it misses a very important point. Twitter, like Facebook and Second Life, which have also have similar issues, is not just a communication utility. All of them are communities. They are communities dependent on privately run communication utilities. These communities lack recourse to any sort of due process.

Biz’s comment about determining the line between update an insult not being something that either Twitter nor a crowd could do well seems ill advised to me. Someone needs to make that determination. Twitter can try to do it. Twitter can encourage the crowd, the community, to join in the effort to determine the line. If that doesn’t happen, the line is likely to be repeatedly brought to the courts and to legislatures to be decided. Either that, or the community will simply move to some other communications utility which provides better recourse to due process. None of those options seem particularly good for Twitter.

The activism panel at Computers, Freedom and Privacy spent time struggling with putting a human face on organizations and in seeking due process in online communities. The ACLU seems to understand these issues very well. Let us hope that corporations like Twitter, Facebook, and Linden Lab makes some progress on this topic as well.