China and its Discontents

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The Internet and Libel Law

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Should the internet be subjected to historical libel laws? Can they even be applied in the same ways? One of the biggest obstacles to applying libel law to the internet is anonymity. Of course many websites and blogs are attached to a specific name or organization, and even if they are not, the IP addresses of libelers can be identified. But certain software, such as TOR or VPN services, can conceal a user’s IP address. TOR isn’t just used for this purpose in Western countries–it’s also used by journalists and protestors in undemocratic countries to disseminate news. Furthermore, websites or internet service providers might not want to disclose their users’ IP addresses and even if served with a court order they might not be able to if they intentionally do not store that information.

Libel law seems out of place in the Wild Wild West of the Internet not just because “internet message boards are so filled with outrageous postings that no reasonable person would interpret such a posting as a true statement of fact.” (150) People online do not just commit mild negligence; they often intend actual malice. Social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter are prime examples of websites that could attract massive libel suits against its users, and yet the two are rather tame compared to other examples. 4chan is an infamous message board that is known for being crude, puerile, offensive, and at times libelous. One can also assume a large portion of 4chan users are underage. The internet, by disconnecting a person from their identity or any real-world consequences, frees some people from all inhibitions. The cost of publication is free and it’s anonymous–why not post it?

And yet the factors that make it difficult to sue for libel on the internet also add the greatest unique value to the internet. The internet has succeeded as a revolutionary technology precisely because the entry barrier is low and it is so easy to publish. While the internet has provided a platform to conspiracy theories and Obama birth-certificate claims that are most certainly published with actual malice, it has also turned the tables on the way information is distributed. With older forms of media, information is produced and consumed in one direction. With the internet, consumers become producers, and vice-versa. The average citizen is free to produce new creative works, remix old culture, and yes, libel his fellow citizens with abandon. If we “fixed” the internet so that every user had to conform to journalistic standards, we would destroy the essential characteristics of the internet that make it great.

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:16 pm

A Rant About Women? How About a Rant About Life.

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I am so glad Sheryl Sandberg recently shared via Facebook an old blog post of Clay Shirky’s from two years ago, “A Rant About Women.” The post is old in internet terms, but the content is classic. Some of the comments are even better than the original post. The gist is: women aren’t as good as men at being “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks… self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”

Shirky puts this starkly as a male-female divide, but I would hope any self-reflective person struggles with the delicate balance between being genuine and authentic vs. confident and successful. Ultimately though this is a false choice. We don’t have to sacrifice either, and quite often these qualities reinforce the others. If you find yourself becoming inauthentic as you rise professionally, “you’re doing it wrong.” But when you are authentically confident, people recognize both your authenticity and your confidence, and reward you for both (this might be an exaggeration solely supported by my personal experience). Maybe it’s hard to achieve that state. But that’s the point. It should be hard. There’s no point to it otherwise.

The two top comments were really superb. First this:

I recognize the unfairness when the societal differentiation is considered. But I have also noted the worth of taking for your own the strength of “not caring about” …so much. A good example is in your average male bonding: it’s not that men don’t have their limits, and certainly can trigger the threshold whereby an outright fighting response is provoked with another man, but that bonding almost universally includes a higher threshold for taking cracks, jabs, humorous insults, swipes, etc, and, when you learn how to give them well and in a good-spirited way (I cannot emphasize the second modifier enough), the joy shared by all. The essence of success in this comes from that differentiation learned over time from men’s interactions to develop in-sensitivity, “to not care so much”. Individuals can wisely adapt for themselves virtues learned from the stereotypical schools of women’s sensitivity and men’s insensitivity, suited to taste. In the above case, it’s about our feelings, but the callous of not-caring-so-much also becomes a tool of confidence for other things.

All this being said, hopefully the true difference between an asshole and an admirable person is prudence of application. Sadly, that too is an art not so easily learned, except by falling down, getting up, and reflecting.

In addition to the lesson of “not caring so much” (i.e., being above the criticisms/jokes), I would add it’s helpful to be below the compliments people give you.

The other great comment read along the lines of “known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, and unknown-unknowns” a la Rumsfeld. Or as a friend restated, “ignorant knowing and knowing ignorance.” The point being, we do well on both personal and professional levels when we operate in the realm of known-unknowns/knowing ignorance.

Written by Will

January 22nd, 2012 at 8:36 pm