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May 19 2011

18:45

In Lithuania, an Overdue Crackdown on Online Hate Speech

Online hate speech is becoming more and more widespread in Lithuania and until recently, comments like, "The world needs Hitler again to do the cleansing job," which was posted on a website called Delfi, or "Expel dirty Roma people out of Lithuania" would have gone unheeded by criminal justice.

"Although the Lithuanian Criminal Codex includes sufficient law provisions to prosecute instigators of hate and enmity, these provisions have been largely ignored by criminal judges," Vitoldas Maslauskas, former Vilnius County prosecutor, said last month.

Most law enforcement officials, Maslauskas said, ranging from high-level prosecutors to ordinary investigators, turn a blind eye to the practice of web hate speech for one simple reason: Criminal judges are swamped under real-life infringements and don't have time to chase down Internet bashers who, as a result, go untouched online.

Combatting Hate Speech

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One non-governmental organization though, the Tolerant Youth Association (TJA), is slowly but surely helping to harness the hate speech, with and without help from criminal justice.

"Although we have been actively carrying out various tolerance-inducing projects since the establishment of our association in 2005, it is only in recent years that we have been fighting against the practice of online hate speech," said Arturas Rudomanskis, chairman of TJA.

The association has initiated 58 pre-trial investigations this year into cases instigating hate and enmity: "It represents a rise of nearly double compared to last year's figure of 30-plus-something cases," Rudomanskis said.

"Until last year, we would pinpoint online hate-mongers to prosecutors. This year, however, we changed our tactics by creating an autonomous system allowing people to file complaints against online bashers directly to the prosecutor's office. This has undoubtedly worked out well, as conscious people extensively report hate cases to prosecutors," Rudomanskis said.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tolerant Youth Association, the online slanderers mentioned at the beginning of this article have been traced, prosecuted and punished.

Only a few years ago, it is likely that they would have escaped the law.

Bringing online slanderers to justice

The man instigating hate against Roma people turned out to be a 28-year-old manager of a company in the city of Utena in northeast Lithuania.

The District Court of Utena ruled that the man incited hate against Roma people and instigated to discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity. In his affidavit, the manager admitted the wrongdoing and justified his act by arguing that he had only voiced his opinion. He received a fine of LTL 1,300, which is roughly the equivalent of $535.

In such cases, local courts often seize the offenders' computers as the tools of crime. However, the Utena District Court decided not to confiscate the manager's computer.

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A 36-year-old inhabitant of the town of Anyksciai, who had urged to have "all gays" slain in an online response to an article about the first-ever Lithuanian gay pride parade, whimpered at the District Court of Anyksciai, explaining that he had merely intended to express his discontent against the gay march.

The judge was not impressed and punished him with a fine of nearly 400 euros ($570). District prosecutor Vigandas Jurevicius admitted the case was the first of its kind in his career.

"I launched the investigation following a complaint by the Tolerant Youth Association. To be honest, had it not been for the complaint, I would have not sought prosecution, as it is simply impossible to keep track of the post flow on the Internet," the prosecutor acknowledged.

Just starting the fight

In the meantime, TJA chairman Arturas Rudomanskis notes that the number of Internet surfers who report online slanderers is increasing and calls for a "more substantial" involvement of Lithuanian criminal justices against online hate speech.

"Actually, we have just started the fight," he said. "We are far away from seeing any major breakthrough just yet. However, I see much more support in Lithuanian society and in the media for online perpetrators of hate to be addressed in full force by the law."

According to Rudomanskis, online hate speech cases that reach court break down as follows: 70 percent of the cases are related to hate against homosexuals, and the rest is equally split between anti-Semitic and xenophobic abuse.

"Obviously, Lithuania remains one of the most homophobic countries in the European Union. This is directly reflected in Internet posts," Rudomanskis said.

TJA has succeeded in shutting down a gay hate-laden website set up by a member of an ultranationalist Lithuanian organization, as well as its Facebook page filled with anti-gay slurs.

The role of journalists in tackling online hate

"We have to admit that there are many angry people in Lithuania," said Zita Zamzickiene, the Lithuanian ombudsman for Journalism Ethics. "This is partly due to our recent heritage that goes back to the Soviet era. Homosexuals and ethnic minorities, unfortunately, fall in the category of people who most often become a punching bag. We can tackle the intolerance by educating our people and carrying out prevention programs."

Obviously, Lithuanian journalists can play a key role in curbing Internet slanderers by educating the population and promoting universal human values such as tolerance. For a small country like Lithuania that is still suffering from the post-Soviet syndrome, it may be an issue of utmost priority.

Linas Jegelevicius, 40, Lithuanian, obtained his master's degree in journalism at the Vilnius University Institute of Journalism. Between 1994 and 2004, he lived in New York and Miami, where he contributed to the Miami newspaper Wire. From 2001 until 2003, he edited and published his own newspaper, South Beach AXIS. Jegelevicius currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas, in the resort town of Palanga in the west of Lithuania. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times and Ooskanews.com. He has published two books, and his interests include politics, economics, journalism, literature, the English language (particularly urban English), psychology, traveling and human rights.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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March 02 2011

17:20

Facebook Pushes Comments Upgrade, But Will Publishers Bite?

Bit by bit, feature by feature, Facebook is making inroads into sites that live outside of Facebook.com. Major publishers now sprinkle their sites with Facebook plug-ins, from fan page widgets to friend recommendations to the ubiquitous "Like" thumbs-up. And hey, why not? It's a win-win, with publishers getting more engagement and increased traffic from Facebook News Feeds, and Facebook getting more embedded in more of the web.

So it is not a bit surprising that along comes a Facebook Comments plug-in upgrade, offering added moderation for comments on publishers' sites with these very nifty features:

> Simple upgrade: Publishers only need to add one line of code to their site for the new comments box.

> Enhanced moderation: Publishers get control to make specific comments private (only seen by the commenter and their friends); or publishers can delete comments and blacklist users.

> Commenting in the News Feed: Users can now share the comments they've made on publishers' sites in their Facebook News Feed; their friends' comments on the News Feed update are automatically posted back to the publishers' sites.

The last feature is perhaps the most important viral/social element of the Comments system -- the chance to get comments to reach beyond a website and into the Facebook social stream and bounce back to the website itself. That kind of easy sharing was missing from comments previously.

So, for instance, when I posted a comment on the Facebook blog, I made sure to share it with my News Feed on Facebook, as you can see here:

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And then, when Jen Lee Reeves and I commented on that comment on my News Feed, our comments were posted both on the News Feed, as seen above, and on the original Facebook blog post, as seen here:

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Plus, there's the much vaunted advantage of making people comment with their real names and affiliations showing, cutting down on trolls and ne'erdowells. (At least, that's the hope -- until they figure out a way to create fake Facebook accounts and return with their invective flowing.)

The new Comments upgrade was announced yesterday, with publishers such as Sporting News, Examiner.com and Discovery jumping on board (and TechCrunch is trying a test as well). According to a discussion summary at Quora, the pros of Facebook Comments on TechCrunch so far are real identities, while the cons are loss of anonymous comments by people who are uncomfortable saying who they are. And more troubling is that you can't log in to Facebook Comments with Twitter or Google.

I spoke to Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky yesterday to do a quick interview about the release of the upgraded Comments. Below is the full audio interview, and the edited transcript of that call, including one interjection by Facebook spokesperson Jillian Carroll.

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Q&A

What was your overarching goal with the update of Comments?

Justin Osofsky: We're always working to iterate on our products, and this update is a natural evolution of our existing plug-in, which we first launched in February 2009. Over the past couple years, we worked really closely with partners, and listen to their feedback all the time. One of the consistent themes we heard related to Comments was that partners wanted a system with great moderation, which led to a quality discussion on their site and provided great distribution. That was the spirit behind the product we released today as an upgrade.

My team works with media partners, and listens to their feedback and helps them understand how to use Facebook's tools to derive value for their business. In regards to Comments, we heard two themes from [publishers] outside of moderation. One is they use Facebook as a distribution platform. Comments offer a great opportunity to get distribution. Users can easily share their comments back to Facebook; the average user on Facebook has 130 friends, so they can extend the conversation around the web.

The other theme we heard from partners is that they really wanted a quality conversation around their content. They cared more about quality than quantity. And as the number of blogs and content sites we visit every day grows, it should be easy to see the highest quality comments first -- based on feedback from your friends and the rankings from other readers.

Many people have said, including social media power user Robert Scoble, that they like the new Comments feature because it will lead to more civilized discourse because people have their names associated with comments. But I've seen the opposite on well trafficked Facebook pages because people can punch in their comments so easily without having to register first. Sometimes they will throw things out quicker than they should.

Osofsky: We think we can facilitate a higher quality conversation. The Comments plug-in makes commenting online more like having a conversation in the real world by leveraging authentic and persistent identities to create more quality and meaningful dialogue across the web. We think that will lead to a higher quality conversation when it's your real identity and you're representing your real self in the comments you're making.

How have you seen publishers adopting the new Comments plug-in? Are they using just Facebook Comments on stories, or using other types of commenting systems as well?

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Osofsky: We're seeing a lot of publishers who adopted Facebook's commenting system as the exclusive commenting system on their site. Sites like SportingNews.com and Discovery Communication and SBNation launched with Facebook Comments today.

You allow either Facebook or Yahoo log-ins now to comment on these sites. Where are you at with allowing people to use Google or Twitter log-ins?

Osofsky: As part of the update, we added Yahoo as a third-party log-in and we hope to add additional major providers in the future. We're always looking for ways to improve the product and add more flexibility for partners, but we have nothing further to announce today.

Who do you see as the main competition for your Comments plug-in? Do you think there's a way for you to co-exist with established players like Disqus (used on MediaShift), Echo, and others?

Osofsky: When we develop products, we focus on meeting the needs of our users and developers in creating really good solutions. Basically, this release is based on feedback from users and developers and partners. We plan on continuing to iterate on it, but we think that the greater moderation that's built into this product, the distribution of reaching Facebook's more than 500 million users, the higher engagement through the conversations -- threading on both the publisher's site and on Facebook itself -- and the quality makes us a really compelling product for publishers.

One of the features that's interesting is that when you see someone's comment, a friend of yours, on your News Feed on Facebook, you can respond to it, with the comment going back on the third party site. Do you think that might take people a little while to get used to?

Osofsky: I think users will understand the natural conversation. What's cool about this product is the most interesting content on Facebook is the stuff I discover through my friends. Over 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It's a way to find content through friends and other people.

What the commenting system enables now is -- when I am commenting on an article on, say, MediaShift -- I immediately have social context and the opinion of my friend that is being delivered on whatever the article is on your site. From that, I think there's a very natural discussion that takes place that's unified on both sites. So users will see that lead to a richer, authentic dialogue on publishers' sites and on Facebook.

One thing I'd like to see is all the conversations happening about an article all over the web in one place. And Facebook has FriendFeed, which does that a little bit. Can you see sometime down the road that this might be a unified comment system that brings together comments from other sites too? So you'd see them all in your Facebook News Feed?

Osofsky: We see the News Feed as a way of discovering content from your friends. So if I comment on an article on the Sporting News and Discover and the Examiner, my friends can now see it on their News Feed. So it's a great way to discover the conversations that are happening among the friends you are most interested in.

But as far as being an aggregator of comments from other systems, you don't see that happening at some point?

Osofsky: No. The News Feed will always be a good way to make social discovery of content, but that's the way we view it. You go to Facebook to find out what your friends like. When you show up to Facebook.com and I show up to Facebook.com -- even though we typed in an identical URL -- we're having fundamentally different experiences because we have different friends and different interests, and they are sharing different things about their lives and from publisher sites. That's the experience that will continue on Facebook.

When I look in my Facebook News Feed I can see when people connect their tweets to their status updates. So I am seeing things from other services outside of Facebook. That's why I'm wondering whether other comments could be brought into the News Feed like that.

Osofsky: When we launched the platform in 2007, we basically opened it up for developers to allow people to connect with the things they care most about, and the entities they care most about -- whether it's a sports team, whether it's a celebrity. And because of that, I think that Facebook is a great way to find things in your life, and that's the way that Facebook works, and that's the way it's going to continue to work going forward.

When you talk about comment moderation, you said comments from friends and top-rated comments would rise to the top. Some comment systems have a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." Will you continue to have just the thumbs up or would you consider a thumbs down as well?

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Osofsky: We will listen to feedback on how to best surface the best and most relevant comments. We have no immediate plans to change what we launched today. But essentially we want users to see a really quality conversation, and we think the way you do it is you first see the comments from your friends and then the comments ranked highly from other readers on a publisher's site.

There is a way to block comments that you don't like, or report them?

Osofsky: As you're reading, you can mark comments as spam or report them as being abusive.

And it's up to the publisher to decide what to do with those reports?

Osofsky: We will naturally surface the most highly ranked comments, those will be the ones you'll see more than other comments. And we also give moderation controls to publishers. Based on their feedback, we added a lot of moderation controls as well as "blacklist" controls so website administrators can control the visibility of a comment from making it private [i.e., only shown to the commenter and their friends] to hiding it completely. Or they they can block content or specific words -- such as foul language and spam -- all from their own moderation dashboard.

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Will a reader see a highly rated comment above their friends' comments or which one comes first? And can the publisher adjust that?

Osofsky: Each individual reader that goes to a publisher's site, on the site, they would see a different view. Just like you or I have different friends, from that, what you see in a comments box and I see would be different. The publisher has an administrative dashboard that also shows the comments that are being made on their site.

So which would be ranked higher, the friends' comments or the ones ranked high by readers?

Osofsky: The product seeks to surface the highest quality comments first, and the way in which we built it, we'll continue to evolve our approach to this to make sure there's really quality conversation.

Part of what you see with the comments is the person's affiliation or where they went to college. Is there a way to adjust what shows there alongside a person's name next to a comment?

Jillian Carroll (Facebook Communications): It's an interesting situation. If you made your school network public but not your work, then your school would show up even if it's more relevant where you work. Part of this will be addressed by privacy controls and people adjusting those.

Osofsky: When we release products, we respect people's privacy settings. And if they want to change their privacy settings, we give them the control to do that.

One other piece of feedback I heard was that TechCrunch had implemented Facebook Comments and they're not seeing a number on the number of comments for each article, that there are "48 comments" or whatever. Is that something you will be adding?

Osofsky: We believe our product encourages quality instead of quantity of comments. What I think you're seeing today on publisher sites is a very real and interesting dialogue in the comments section. One of the consistent things we heard from publishers, who we've been talking to the past couple years, is you often get so many comments, one can't surface the relevant and interesting comments. That's what this product is trying to address.

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What about people who aren't on Facebook? Would they still be able to comment on a story?

Osofsky: You can log in on Facebook or you can log in on Yahoo, and we'll be looking to add additional flexibility going forward in terms of log-in providers.

So at the moment if you don't have Yahoo and you don't have Facebook, then you're not able to make comments in the system.

Osofsky: The two ways to comment in the system is through Yahoo and Facebook, correct.

*****

What do you think about the upgraded Facebook Comments plug-in? If you run a site, would you use it? What do you see as its strong points and drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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May 12 2010

19:17

CDA Protects Newspapers from Liability for Libelous Comments

A desperate, weeks-long search in 2007 for missing Purdue University student Wade Steffey yielded a number of stories in the local Lafayette, Indiana, newspaper, the Journal & Courier. The newspaper also covered a mugging incident that was reported by another student, Timothy Collins, on the same night of Steffey's disappearance.

Local police, apparently suspicious of the coincidence between the two events, questioned Collins and administered a polygraph test. He was later charged with false informing, and the University disciplined Collins as a result of that charge. These developments were reported in subsequent news stories in the Journal & Courier. The online versions of the articles prompted many vitriolic statements by readers, including a number that accused Collins of being responsible for Steffey's disappearance.

Steffey's body was eventually discovered; his death apparently was the result of an accident. Even before that discovery, the false-informing charge against Collins was dismissed for lack of evidence. Collins subsequently brought suit against numerous parties, including the police, the University, one online commenter who used his real name, as well as various anonymous commenters, and the newspaper. Collins claimed that the newspaper was liable for defaming him, not only in its news coverage, but also as a result of the accusatory statements made by the online commenters with respect to those news stories.

In Collins v. Purdue University, 2010 WL 1250916 (N.D. Ind. March 24, 2010), a federal court held that under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, the newspaper could not be held liable for the online comments posted by third parties.

Had the same accusatory third-party comments been published in the newspaper's print edition -- say in a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece -- the newspaper might have had a much harder time avoiding liability. That's because the legal rule in Section 230 of the CDA that is applicable to liability for online statements made by another party is much more favorable to a publisher than the legal rules applicable to liability for third-party statements in a print publication.

Why is Liability Different on the Internet?

The U.S. Congress took a bold step in 1996 with the enactment of Section 230 of the CDA. (See this previous MediaShift report, which also discussed Section 230.) While most of the provisions of the Act were aimed at censoring objectionable content on the Internet, Section 230 was aimed at protecting "interactive service providers" from liability for objectionable content provided by third party users of their services. Section 230 also protects users themselves from liability for content provided by other users.

gavel1.jpgThe purpose of Section 230 was, among other things, "to maintain the robust nature of Internet communication," and to maintain the Internet and interactive computer services as "a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity," according to a ruling in Zeran v. America Online [PDF] (4th Cir. 1997).

Under Section 230, an "interactive service provider" (e.g., an Internet Service Provider or a website operator, among others) may not be treated as the "publisher or distributor" of "information" provided by a third party user of its service. As the district court explained in Collins v. Purdue University, this language has been consistently interpreted to provide online publishers with broad immunity from liability for defamation and other wrongful acts on the part of users of their services.

The Expansive Interpretation of Section 230

The ruling in Collins v. Purdue University is a routine application of Section 230. Since the enactment of Section 230 in 1996, there have been hundreds of opinions interpreting the provision, and expanding its coverage beyond the kinds of defamation claims more usually associated with parties defined as "publishers" or "distributors."

For example, the protection afforded interactive service providers such as the newspaper in Collins v. Purdue is not limited to defamation claims. Courts have interpreted the language prohibiting the treatment of a provider "as a publisher or distributor" to limit the liability of providers for a wide range of other wrongful acts by users. (But note that claims of intellectual property infringement are expressly excluded from the protective scope of Section 230). Thus, in Green v. America Online [PDF] (3d Cir. 2003), an online provider was protected from liability for damage to a user's computer that was allegedly caused by another user's malicious transmission of a "punter" signal in an online chat room.

craigslist-hq-logo.jpgOnline providers have also been held immune from liability for the acts of sexual predators who contacted underage victims via their services (Doe v. MySpace [PDF] (5th Cir. 2008)) and from liability under civil rights statutes for religious harassment by users (Noah v. America Online (E.D. Va. 2003)). The online bulletin board Craigslist has been held immune under Section 230 from a local sheriff's claims that the service is liable under public nuisance laws for causing or inducing prostitution as a result of its "erotic services" listings. Dart v. CraigsList [PDF] (N.D. Ill. 2009)

The interpretation of Section 230 has been expansive not only in the range of claims against which it protects providers, but in situations in which it operates to protect service providers and users from liability for content provided by other parties. For example, the owner of a mailing list has been held immune from liability for defamatory statements contained in an e-mail message that the owner forwarded to mailing list subscribers. Batzel v. Smith [PDF] (9th Cir. 2003).

As controversial as some of Section 230 rulings have been, one of its more troubling applications may be in a case involving an attempt by the original author of defamatory content to have it removed from a provider's site.

In Global Royalties v. Xcentric Ventures (D. Ariz. 2007), the "Ripoff Report" online consumer complaint site was sued for refusing to remove allegedly defamatory postings at the request of the original user. The court held that refusing to remove a posting, even at the request of the original author, was an editorial function reserved to the site owner, and protected under Section 230.

The Role of Anonymity for Online Comments

If a newspaper can't be sued for defamatory online comments by readers, what about suing the individual who posted the comments?

Section 230 does not affect the liability of individuals for their own online statements, and such lawsuits can be and have been brought. But, unlike at least one of the posters in the Collins v. Purdue University case, the individuals responsible for defamatory posts frequently do not post under their real names.

In order to successfully sue an anonymous individual who posted an online comment on a newspaper (or any other) website, the plaintiff usually must serve a subpoena on the newspaper to obtain account registration information or an IP address that will lead to the poster's true identity. Many newspapers resist such subpoenas, however, and, as I have previously written, a plaintiff often must make a special showing to the court before an order will be issued requiring the newspaper or other provider to turn over of identifying information.

While it is possible to obtain such an order and ultimately sue the actual author of a defamatory online statement, it is a challenging endeavor for a plaintiff, who may spend a great deal in attorney fees to prosecute a lawsuit against a defendant who may ultimately turn out to be penniless or otherwise judgment-proof. By immunizing online providers such as newspapers from such lawsuits, Section 230 removes the obvious deep-pocket defendant from the line of fire.

Newspapers Reconsidering Online Comments?

It's easy to see the effect of Section 230 on almost any website that allows comments (such as newspapers): User comments often range from thoughtful, intelligent and carefully reasoned to venomous, vitriolic, and obviously defamatory, and everything in between.

The protection of Section 230 of the CDA enables newspapers to ignore the the user comments made on their sites, at least from the perspective of legal liability for defamatory or harmful content. Despite the legal protection Section 230 provides, however, some news sites utilize measures aimed at improving the nature of the discourse in their comments areas.

As The New York Times recently noted in an article on this phenomenon, the Wall Street Journal allows its subscribers to choose whether they will view only comments posted by other subscribers, and many news sites that police comments for content facilitate the reporting of offensive comments by other readers.

The article also reported that both the Gray Lady herself and the Washington Post are revising their comments policies to at least lessen the importance of anonymous comments. The Washington Post reportedly is considering a rating system that would boost the prominence of commenters using their real names.

This is not the first time that newspapers have reconsidered their online commenting policies. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times abandoned an early experiment in user participation when it closed a website that allowed readers to rewrite editorials, due to an overabundance of obscene content added to the site. In 2006, the Washington Post temporarily suspended online commenting when it determined that reader responses to a particular article violated its prohibitions against personal attacks, profanity and hate speech.

In a recent controversy over anonymous online comments, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) reportedly has threatened the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, with financial consequences in an effort to abolish anonymous comments on the newspaper website. The University's Commission on Student Affairs cited "discontent" in the college community over "irresponsible and inappropriate" anonymous comments. But the editors have so far refused to modify the policy to allow only authored comments.

Conclusion

It was the stated goal of the U.S. Congress in enacting Section 230 of the CDA to "offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity." That goal has certainly been achieved, but the diversity of discourse, cultural development and intellectual activity that is supported by Section 230 is accompanied by a significant amount of objectionable content in the form of defamation, vitriol and hate speech.

Section 230 provides newspapers and other online providers with legal protection from liability for such content provided by third parties, leaving providers to determine as a matter of individual policy and editorial judgment what measures, if any, they will take to address the appearance of such content on their sites.

Image of Craigslist headquarters via cyberaxis

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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February 05 2010

15:35

4 Minute Roundup: Facebook as News Reader; Engadget Comments

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the rise of Facebook as a place to find news. Hitwise found that Facebook was the #4 referrer of traffic to news sites, after Google, Yahoo, and MSN -- and above Google News. Plus, the tech blog Engadget shut down comments after an influx of trolls, before relenting to open them again. And I ask Just One Question to Google News founder Krishna Bharat, who explains how 9/11 inspired him to create the service.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio2510.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Facebook Largest News Reader? at Hitwise

Facebook Could Become World's Leading News Reader at ReadWriteWeb

Creating Your Personalized News Channel at Facebook blog

Is Facebook, Not Google, the Real Global Newspaper? at The Atlantic

Facebook helps the news industry, but it's no white knight at VentureBeat

We're turning comments off for a bit in Engadget

Comments getting out of hand, Engadget turns them off at AFP

Engadget editor - Why I turned off comments at VentureBeat

Are Blog Comments Worth It? at Web Worker Daily

How Much Blog Would a Blogger Blog If a Blog Chucked Its Comments? at MediaPost

Commenting on Engadget - a human's guide at Engadget

Google News to Publishers - Let's Make Love Not War at PBS MediaShift

Here's a graphical view of the most recent MediaShift survey results. The question was: "What do you think about Apple's iPad?"

ipad survey grab.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about where you find news online:


What's your primary source for news discovery online?(polls)

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

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January 20 2010

00:11

How to Use Meta-Stories to Engage the Newsroom, Community

How do we create a community? This question is frequently asked by editors as well as by marketing managers and other business people. More and more, I don't think you can create communities.

Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.

In December, I attended the LeWeb conference in Paris. I was impressed by Chris Pirillo, who told us that people who view communities as "tools" are tools themselves. Control is an illusion. (In fact, during his passionate presentation, Pirillo said "control is bullshit.")

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a simple way to make your newsroom or website do a better job of connecting with the community you serve: writing meta-stories.

Meta-stories are stories about what's happening on your website, and about what happens in the newsroom. They're a great way to engage the community.

Tell a Story From Forums, Comments

We allow people to post comments directly to our newspaper's website, but we intervene and moderate whenever the debate gets personal or off-topic. This is a story in itself. I have started writing a daily story about the comments on our site and in our discussion forums. I've been amazed by the hidden gems of insight I've found. It really is a story in itself to examine how people react when a story breaks, and how the discussion evolves.

It's also important to have a forum where people can come together and interact. This is a way for them to help tell a meta-story. Using CoveritLive, I hold chat sessions each weekday (for between 30 and 60 minutes) with or without a special guest. (We're a financial newspaper, so mostly we chat about what happened with the markets.) This synchronous contact with our community builds trust. Beyond that, often people make very useful suggestions, like "why don't you publish that investment guide each quarter instead of only once a year, we really like and need it." Or they suggest interesting new angles for news stories.

Allow the Community to Listen In

My next way to create a meta-story is very simple: I talk to my colleagues. I ask them what they're up to, and what their thoughts are about ongoing stories. I just jot down a list of topics and ideas and post them on our financial blog. This becomes a story about what's going on inside the newsroom as we prepare our reporting.

Go Where Your Community Is

Once I've written my meta-stories, I share them on Facebook and Twitter in order to try and reach an even broader group of interested people. But even though I use Facebook and Twitter, I suggest focusing on the places where the community tends to focus its presence and attention.

For our paper, we generate the most debate and comments on our website, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Our audience is interested in finance and economics, which means they have an interest in innovation and technology. But they're not geeks and aren't necessarily tech savvy, meaning that only a minority of them actively use Twitter.

Even though I'm personally inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, I force myself to hang out more on our site. Maybe it's not the latest in social media technology, but it's where our community hangs out.

They Actually Like It

At first I was afraid that community members would complain about my comment meta-stories: 'Why did you mention his comment and not mine?' It didn't happen. People actually told me they appreciated the effort, even if they weren't the one being featured. I also get the impression some of them have started writing carefully worded comments in order to be included in the comments story.

As for my colleagues, my fear was they would object to being quoted when they are in the early stages of their reporting. It seems, however, they have no objections at all. They actually seem to appreciate the fact that their work is being noted and updated, and all they have to do is to speak to me or to jot down what they're up to -- much like status updates, in fact. It gives the editorial work a stream-like, real-time web urgency.

Keep Things Simple

So forget about complicated community-building strategies. Meet the existing community you want to serve, talk to them, talk to your colleagues, write down the whole process, and put it out there for everyone to read. (This approach works equally well for those who work with sound or video.)

Then combine that with a synchronous session (such as chat) and have real-time interactions. You'll be surprised how much your community will teach you -- not only about the news, but about what you do.

*****

I'd love to hear about your suggestions and thoughts about using meta-stories! Please share then in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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December 11 2009

00:00

Is It Legal for an Editor to Unmask an Anonymous Commenter?

On November 13, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website, StLToday, asked readers to comment on a story titled, "What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?"

Soon, a commenter posted a reply that included a "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy," according to an online account by Kurt Greenbaum, the paper's director of social media. Editors at the website promptly deleted the comment, only to see the commenter repost the same word just a few minutes later.

What happened next has been the subject of discussion and debate within the world of online journalism.

For his part, Greenbaum summed it up in the title of his blog entry about the incident, "Post a vulgar comment at work, lose your job."

Sick of the commenter's shenanigans, he located the person's IP address, and tracked them to a local school. Greenbaum then called school officials and told them about the comment. The school's IT coordinator was able to pinpoint the post to a specific employee who was confronted by school officials and "resigned on the spot."

Greenbaum, who declined to be interviewed for this story, soon published another blog post explaining his actions. He admitted that he may have overreacted by calling the school, but stated, "I am constantly frustrated by the difficulty of dealing with this kind of language" on the paper's website.

Greenbaum's blog entry was republished on the Post-Dispatch's website and has received over 450 comments. In an angry response, an anonymous person created a website mocking Greenbaum, repeatedly calling him the same "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy" that started everything.

Aside from the ethical debate about this incident, there are two important legal questions to consider.

Can He Do That?

The first question: Is what Greenbaum did legal? Answer: yes, probably.

The paper's privacy policy states that the Post-Dispatch and its employees "will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information."

However, the policy also states that a commenter's IP address "does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally." Thus, the Post-Dispatch would argue, Greenbaum's use of the anonymous commenter's IP address is not a violation of the website's privacy policy.

Tom Curley, an attorney with the media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, said that the legal rules surrounding comments and message boards "can vary widely from site to site." Curley said some websites may provide an absolute promise to not reveal any identifying information, while others may offer only conditional promises.

Additionally, websites are a form of private property, and can be managed as such.

"There are some websites that are open forums, which is perfectly fine," Curley said. "But there is nothing that stops a website, legally, from deciding that there are some things that shouldn't be published."

Ethical Implications

In his blog post, Greenbaum stated that the Post does not routinely "take the steps I took in this case. For particularly bad cases of abusing our guidelines with vulgarity and obscenity, we would not rule it out."

malcolm moran.jpg

Malcolm Moran, a professor of media ethics at Pennsylvania State University, questioned Greenbaum's approach. "The main ethical question I would raise in this case is: When does an editor decide the rules change?"

The Post-Dispatch's terms of service state that the website "encourage[s] a free and open exchange of ideas in a climate of mutual respect." However, Greenbaum's actions could chill that climate of open exchange and mutual respect.

"What happens if a person comments about a controversial issue and has legitimate reason for staying anonymous?" Moran said. "Next time, will an editor identify that person if he or she disagrees with the commenter's views?"

Attacking the Editor with Anonymous Speech

The second legal question is whether Greenbaum can sue the anonymous individual who created a website ridiculing him. The likely answer: no.

The anonymous website created in Greenbaum's name is vulgar, to say the least. But that does not make it defamatory. In order to sustain a lawsuit for defamation, a plaintiff must show that the words in question state or imply false facts. Simply calling an individual a degrading name does not imply a fact at all. Rather, it is a non-actionable figure of speech.

Thomas Dienes.jpg

Thomas Dienes, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the mocking website may be in bad taste, but is not defamatory. "This case would be thrown out of court so fast that I can't imagine a lawyer would take it," Dienes said.

"Over the years, there have been a number of these types of websites devoted to a particular reporter. It's rare but not unheard of," Curley said. "Normally, the reporter just shrugs and it all blows over."

This incident is a case study in the struggle that news organizations face when it comes to allowing anonymous speech on their websites. On one hand, this speech can be vile, cowardly, vengeful and tasteless. On the other, anonymous speech can be valuable and is also constitutionally protected.

"The tradition of anonymous speech in this country is incredibly important," Curley said. In fact, media organizations themselves have noted the importance of confidential sources and anonymous speech.

Anonymous Speech Being Tested

Two Supreme Court cases, often referred to as Talley and McIntyre, have affirmed the idea that "an author's decision to remain anonymous...is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

Although this constitutional right only exists in the context of government regulation, the importance of anonymous speech, even if it is in the form of an anonymous comment on a news outlet's website, still holds its importance.

That does not mean, however, that all anonymous speech on the Internet is free from liability.

Recently, plaintiffs in New Jersey, South Carolina, and California asked judges to subpoena the identifying information of anonymous bloggers and commenters in order to sue them. The frequency of these types of subpoenas has reached a dizzying pace.

Generally speaking, courts have taken two different approaches in determining when to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger or commenter. First, some courts require that a plaintiff make a "good faith" showing that the he or she has a viable lawsuit before a judge will subpoena any identifying information. These courts offer anonymous speech a particularly low level of protection, believing that everyone should have their day in court.

A second group of courts require that higher standards be met before an anonymous poster is revealed. These courts employ either the Dendrite test or the Cahill tests, as they are commonly known. The Dendrite and Cahill procedures require plaintiffs to show a litany of factors before receiving any identifying information.

The law concerning what you can and cannot anonymously publish on the Internet is undergoing change on almost a daily basis. This back-and-forth has left the legal state of anonymous speech on the Internet as uncertain at best.

Rob Arcamona is a second-year law student at the George Washington University Law School. Prior to attending law school, Rob worked at the Student Press Law Center and also helped establish ComRadio, the Pennsylvania State University's student-run Internet-based radio station. He writes the Protecting the Source blog.

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November 05 2009

19:43

FT's Long Room Uses Velvet Rope Approach to Online Community

What determines a successful community? The number of unique visitors or page views? The number of comments?

Those metrics can be important, but there are also qualitative aspects to consider. Are the discussions on your site respectful and insightful? Are members deriving value from the community? Or are you hosting flame wars that lack intelligence and decorum?

In order to create a community of quality, perhaps it makes sense to cut down on quantity, and create an exclusive members-only structure. Few media companies have done a better job of building this kind of exclusive community than the Financial Times. Its Long Room was created as part of the paper's FT Alphaville blog. The Long Room is an "exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others."

In order to learn more about how the Long Room has created an exclusive community of value, I spoke with New York-based Alphaville editor Paul Murphy.

Some Background and Context

It's important to first understand that Alphaville and the Financial Times are unique properties. The newspaper's website, FT.com, has a frequency-based pay wall. This means you can read a set number of articles for free, but have to subscribe if you exceed that number.

However, Alphaville is a free daily news and commentary service. Its mission is to give "financial market professionals the information they need, when they need it." On a typical day, the blog gets between 40,000 and 50,000 unique visitors. It generates roughly 500,000 uniques per month.

paul murphy.gif

Alphaville was launched roughly three years ago. Murphy said the goal is to serve a community of "deep specialists in their respective areas. They know more than we journalists know."

In addition to the blog, Alphaville offers email newsletters, news alerts, and Markets Live, a kind of chat session where two journalists instant message each other about the financial markets. (The community can also add comments in real time.) Alphaville also regularly links to news and reporting generated by other media outlets.

"We are a blog and we acknowledge that people are promiscuous," Murphy said. "So we tell them what to read elsewhere if they have half an hour of spare time, and we tell them what they should read in the FT. Being financial professionals, it's a navigational service. We allow them to sample."

The Long Room

The Long Room exists as an extension of Alphaville. It is "an exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others." It is free to join, if you can get through the vetting process to be accepted.

The Long Room was inspired by a famous restaurant in the City of London that was a favorite haunt of financial pundits and market movers during the 1980s. The online version of the Long Room aims to be as exclusive as the real-world place. The site says it clearly: "The Long Room is reserved for financial professionals and for people with a clear understanding of how financial markets and products work. Our members-only policy and application vetting process allow us to ensure that these criteria are met."

Indeed, when a colleague of mine applied for membership, he received a call from London informing him that he had been accepted. But they also told him that he could not report the discussions taking place in the Long Room. "What happens in the Long Room stays in the Long Room," he was told.

Murphy confirms the application process is taken seriously. In fact, he handles many applications personally. He said the Long Room's exclusivity and careful vetting process have helped it reach the target group of financial experts and decision-makers: "I'm really impressed by the seniority of the people applying for the Long Room," he said.

Listening to the Community

The Long Room is an example of how intimate knowledge of a community can lead to a compelling service. The Alphaville team discovered that there was a willingness among financial specialists to share ideas and research, and so they created a safe place that encouraged them to do so.

"We simulated the way groups of financial professionals operate in the real world: in small email communities of 20 to 30 people," Murphy said. "They are trading research and commentary, and we wanted this functionality [as part of the Long Room]."

Murphy said the sharing of research and insight had to be done "in a walled garden in order to give them a certain comfort level."

The discussions inside the Long Room are organized using topic-specific "tables," such as those dedicated to market strategy or finance 2.0. Members can apply to host a table. So far, Murphy said, everyone is getting along well. (He mentioned one case when a person was kicked out because they engaged in constant self-promotion.)

Why it Works

Alphaville has been profitable since its earliest days. "It's a very light structure, especially compared to a newspaper, which typically requires a massive industrial process," Murphy said. The Long Room also enables the Financial Times to gather important insight about its readers. This information helps the paper sell itself -- and its special community -- to advertisers.

Alphaville also helps the Financial Times enhance its position as a hub for the financial community in London and beyond. This unique focus is a big factor in the structure and success of the Long Room. Financial professionals need timely and correct information, and so they can't ignore the Financial Times (or the Wall Street Journal).

But the question remains whether or not this kind of exclusive community could work at other newspapers and news organizations.

For his part, Murphy has no doubt.

"The model is applicable elsewhere, whether we talk about cycling or tennis communities," he said.

*****

What's your take on this "exclusive" strategy? Do you think it's elitist, or that it introduces an element of civility in online interactions? Could this strategy be used by other media organizations? Finally, a last question for the MediaShift community: could this approach help media to survive financially?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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