Debate on Section 230 and Internet Intermediaries

ArsTechnica has posted my debate with Adam Thierer, the eloquent director of the Progress and Freedom Foundation’s Center for Digital Media Freedom.  I read more or less everything Adam writes and by and large agree with it all.  Here, we disagree on whether it’s time to rethink the scope of Section 230 immunity in certain cases.  Urs Gasser and I argue, in Born Digital, that there are cases where Section 230’s scope is too broad from the perspective of child safety in particular.  I realize that I break ranks with many in the Internet policy community in making this argument.  I think it’s an important debate for us to have as a society.

Digital Youth Project Report, Book Released

This week was a big one for the study of young people and the Internet: Mimi Ito and her team released the results of their long-anticipated, 3-year study on Digital Youth.  The study was funded by the MacArthur Foundation as a centerpiece of its Digital Media and Learning initiative.  It is required reading for anyone interested in this field, and no surprise that covered ranged from the New York Times to all these blogs that cover issues related to digital youth.  It’s called “Living and Learning with New Media.”  You can enjoy it in many different formats, including a 58-page white paper

– One key theme comes out of the authors’ orientation toward the study.  “We are wary of claims that a digital generation is overthrowing culture and knowledge as we know it and that its members are engaging in new media in ways radically different from those of older generations. At the same time, we also believe that this generation is at a unique historical moment tied to longer-term and systemic changes in sociability and culture. While the pace of technological change may seem dizzying, the underlying practices of sociability, learning, play, and self-expression are undergoing a slower evolution, growing out of resilient social and cultural structures that youth inhabit in diverse ways in their everyday lives. We sought to place both the commonalities and diversity of youth new media practice in the context of this broader social and cultural ecology.”  This orientation strikes me as just the right one: to be wary of claims that suggest that everything is different, but to be open to the “unique historical moment” in which we — and young people in our culture — find ourselves.  (p. 4, White Paper)

– The researchers provide terrific context for when and how youth are in fact learning.  There’s a gap between the perceptions of many adults about how young people are “wasting time” and what is in fact going on with much of the time spent connected to one another through digital media.  This report — more than any other I’ve seen — helps to provide real clarity into the meaningful socializing and other kinds of learning that are going on.

– As I’ve been going around talking about the book that Urs Gasser and I wrote on a similar subject, Born Digital, I’ve been asked many times about what is going on with the changing nature of the word “friend” and “friendship”.  This report has the answer, in ways that I’ve not been able to articulate myself.  (p. 18 ff.)   For the longer — and wholly worthwhile — version, see the relevant book chapter, of which danah boyd was the lead author. 

– The report makes clear something that we found in our own, much smaller-scale research: that there’s a trajectory of learning that is going on as young people first come online and then, over time, become more sophisticated with the medium and how they relate to one another, to information, and to institutions through it.  The report does an elegant job of showing why this is important — and reminding us that not everyone is proceeding along that same trajectory. (p. 27 ff., through the section on “Geeking Out”, at least)

– The Conclusions and Implications section is easy to read and points are made forcefully.  (pp. 35 – 39)  Teachers and parents, in particular, will find some of these conclusions to be constructive guides.  After spending lunchtime yesterday with 22 students from the Boston Latin Academy, I was reminded of the importance of the learning that happens peer-to-peer, for instance, which is one of the key conclusions of this paper.  There are concrete things that every educator, and every parent or mentor, of young people in any culture can and should glean from this important work.

The White Paper is just one of the outputs of the research.  There’s a 2-page executive summary, the full research report (in fact, a book; the optimal way to get the full picture of the work), and a press release plus videos on the MacArthur Foundation’s web site.

Bravo to the many collaborators for this very important work.  As with much of the rest of the DML research, it’s a real gift to those of us trying to work out this puzzle.

Being Thankful

There are many things to be thankful for this week, as we celebrate the Obama victory.  It means so many good things about America and offers — truly — such hope for the future of our troubled world.   After a few days of reflection, there are three things, perhaps idiosynchratically, that I find myself particularly thankful for: 

One is that the Obama campaign won after doing such a terrific job of combining old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning with the best of the online tools and strategy.  There are of course many reasons for the landslide; this is but one of them.  Many people, like Joe Rospars and his crew, deserve credit for this approach.  Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, joined the Obama campaign very early on as coordinator of online organizing.  The team from Blue State Digital, veterans of the Dean campaign, was there from the start of the primary, too.  But the digital teams for the campaign didn’t do their work in isolation; everything was brilliantly coordinated with real-space campaigning.  It’s the combination of classical-and-jazz campaigning that I have been waiting to see a campaign pull off at large scale.  This one sure did.  And how.  The Obama campaign did that, and much more.  It is surely a new blueprint for a successful political campaign.  (PRI/KCRW’s “To the Point” did a segment on this concept yesterday.  Chris Hughes made this point, too, on his MyBO blog the same day.  Micah Sifry was overhead on NPR yesterday talking about the future of this community.   CQ, among many others, wrote about some of the differences in the campaigns on these topics, early on.  And so forth.)

Second — and not unrelated — the uptick in new voters and young voters continued in 2008.  We’ve had great numbers in 2004 and 2006 in these categories compared to previous cycles.  The trend clearly continued this year, no doubt to the benefit of the Obama campaign and other Democrats newly elected to office.  The presumption that today’s youth represent an apathetic “generation” is, time and again, being disproven, as they find ways new and old to demonstrate their commitment to civic activism.  David Gergen is calling it a “new order” and pointed to the 18-to-29-year-old vote on CNN.  The New York Times referred to a “deep generational divide” that cut sharply in favor of Obama this time around.  (Urs Gasser and I took up this issue, and related matters, in the Activism chapter of Born Digital.  It will be fun to update that chapter now.)

Third, the campaign deployed so many good election lawyers that Obama voters were not disenfranchised in the way that Kerry and Gore voters plainly were in 2004 and 2000.  It was incredibly well-organized this year.  My brother, Quentin Palfrey, took a leave from his job as chief of the health care division at the Massachusetts AG’s office to run voter protection in Ohio.  His team — of literally thousands of lawyers — ensured that there was no repeat of the 2004 horror-show that cost John Kerry votes, if not much more than that.  (Like many other lawyers, I trekked up to NH to do voter protection in previous cycles; this time, there were more than enough lawyers to go around, such that many were sitting around at polling places, redundantly.)  The emphasis on voter protection in this cycle, at such a high level of sophistication, and in so many states, was a great thing to watch.  And locally, organizations to keep this trend growing (in Massachusetts, for instance, consider MassVOTE), only seem to be gaining strength.

Each of these trends took an extraordinary amount of work by an extraordinary number of people.  The successes of these collective actions offers much reason for hope. 

We all share the responsibility of turning this hope into tangible improvements in all of our lives.  One way we can do that is to encourage our elected officials, from President-elect Obama to our local representatives, to govern just as they campaigned — with the Internet as a means of providing transparency.  I think this next four years will be great for organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, Lessig’s Change Congress, the Omidyar Network (with its new investment area in transparency and governance), Personal Democracy Forum, and others, which will — as institutions and communities — help lead us in these ways.  No doubt the terrific Obama technology policy means that there will be administration support for such efforts at transparency. 

These changes need to continue to be driven from the bottom up, with widespread participation, just as the campaign was.  I’m confident that many youth, brought into civic life during this cycle, will stick around and make great things happen — and that many of us, no longer so youthful, will pull our weight, too.  Today, and tomorrow, it’s up to each of us to find ways to maintain the momentum that’s been built up in these and other areas so important to the future of democracy in America.  And in the meantime, I’m feeling awfully thankful to Chris, Quentin, and all those who tossed aside their day jobs for a while to make this happen full-time — yes, community organizing — to make sure that all that volunteer time and money went to great use.

State of Affairs, Public Radio in Louisville

This morning, a few of us are talking about Born Digital and related issues on WFPL, public radio in Louisville, KY. It’s a great show, called State of Affairs. They’ve even made a video, hosted on Blip.TV, about how young people use the technologies.

For a glimpse into the technology world in Louisville, check out Michelle JonesConsuming Louisville. It’s a fun and interesting site, and Michelle’s one of the guests on State of Affairs.

Update: the archived show is here.

The Future of the Legal Course Book

Seattle University School of Law is hosting a workshop on the “Future of the Legal Course Book.”  It’s a very nicely organized, timely session, brought together by Prof. David Skover, Ron Collins, and deans Ed Rubin of Vanderbilt and Kellye Testy of Seattle University.  On the table: how should we rethink the legal case book in the name of improving pedagogy in law schools?

It occurs to me is that the key conceptual shift is that virtually all information – whether or not related to the law – is now created, stored, and shared in digital format for starters.  Our students, too, are “born digital.”  Our students have a very different relationship to information today than they did a generation ago.  They were small children when the DVD replaced the VCR. Research, for our students, is more likely to mean a Google or Lexis search from a web browser than a trip to the library.  They rarely, if ever, buy the newspaper in hard copy, but they graze through copious amounts of news and other information online.  (Even some law professors are now more comfortable in the use of online tools for legal research and analysis than in the system of Reporters and Pocket Parts.) Law school community members are learning, accessing information, and expressing themselves in new, digitally-inspired ways – sometimes good, sometimes not so good.  Others outside our community are increasingly learning about us and what we do from our web presence.

Five to ten years from now, I think it’s likely that legal case books, too, will be born digital — and then rendered in a variety of formats, whether a good old-fashioned book or a Kindle/eReader file or a series of web pages and interactive exercises.  Updates could happen online, wiki-style (or not, if authors want to lock things down into a single format or series of files).  Faculty and teachers could click and unclick cases and lessons and questions that they’d like to use in class.  One could imagine that some students would click “buy in paper” and would get a print-on-demand version of the book sent overnight to them in the mail (say, for $49.95).  Others would click “buy it for my Tablet/Reader/Kindle/Whatever” (for $49.95 minus some discount).  Still others, perhaps hearing-impaired students, would click on “read it to me,” and so forth. 

There are surely reasons why such a future may not come to pass.  Some have raised concerns about legacy IP rights, strong interests by publishers in the current regime, and so forth, as barriers to such a future.  I think that the primary question to ask is about new investments: the bulk of our new investment in teaching materials and platforms be placed in materials that are cleared in a way that facilitates this future.  The barriers we should focus on are those that stand in the way of our shifting (at least some of) of new investments (of time, money, etc.) from one primarily oriented toward the analog to one that has a substantial digital emphasis in the first instance.

To be clear: Books remain important.  Books are not going away anytime soon; nor should they.  Hard-copies of books are important on many levels.  Many people prefer to read hard-copies of books to digital forms of books, despite massive ongoing investments in technologies like the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and new technologies at the MIT Media Lab; we like to curl up with them in bed, collect them on bookshelves as signals of our knowledge (or for easy access), take them to the beach, and so forth.  Books represent a stable format, unlikely the constantly-changing digital formats that imperil digital record-keeping processes over the long-term.  Books are the cornerstone, for now at least, of the large and important publishing industry, whose leaders play an important role in democracies and cultures around the world.  Books have the advantage, under United States law at least, of being covered by the first sale doctrine (you can give them away, or lend them, or sell them in a secondary market).  But books have downsides, too – the “slow fire” phenomenon, the high cost of production (compared to their digital counterparts), and the high cost of storage and distribution.  And, as many have pointed out here in Seattle, the presumption of *only* the traditional form of the book for case-based law teaching is inhibiting experimentation with new pedagogies.

As law schools, I think our work in the area of academic computing should be to facilitate this bright future of course materials born digital and rendered in various formats.  We need to make it easy for faculty to experiment with new technologies in support of their teaching, research, and scholarship — especially in an era of large-scale curricular reform at places like Vanderbilt, Harvard, and others. 

And there’s a need for leadership across schools, too, to develop the platform that makes this future possible.  There are building blocks coming together: CALI’s eLangdell, Rice’s Connexions, and so forth.  Publishers have a role to play here, too, both through their own experimentation and participation with broader, open efforts.  It will be fun to be part of such an effort.