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TMI: Guest speakers explore internet’s effect on journalism

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Front Page

TMI: Harvard Law Professor Charlie Nesson describes how the internet has impacted copyright law.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Andrew Rauner/The Hoot</i>

TMI: Harvard Law Professor Charlie Nesson describes how the internet has impacted copyright law.
PHOTO BY Andrew Rauner/The Hoot

Students, professors and experts came together yesterday to explore the effects of modern technologies like facebook and twitter, on democracy, journalism and communication at the Ethic Center’s “TMI: Social Justice in the Age of Facebook” conference yesterday.

The validity and ethics of the new digital media was hotly debated throughout the first day of the conference. Jeffrey Scheuer, an Independent Commentator on Media and Democracy, discussed his general distrust of the digital media under the title “Free to be Excellent? The Costs of Being Informed in Digital Age.” The session was moderated by Prof. Maura Jane Farrelly (AMST), Director of the Journalism Program at Brandeis, and also included Ariel Wittenberg ’11 as the student respondent.

Scheuer said as a media critic, he considers journalism’s most important function to be its democratic function.

But, as someone who is “techno-skeptical from a civic standpoint,” Scheuer noted the dangers that the ease of accessing tools of “citizen journalism” pose, citing in particular the (untrue) rumor spread over the summer via Twitter that Harrison Ford had drowned.

“Our tools are only as smart as we are,” said Scheuer.

His point was met with challenges from the audience when one audience member noted that people tweeting from Iran beat CNN to the headlines about the country’s turbulent election in June. Sheuer countered with an argument of quality control, stating that there are certain limits to citizen journalism.

Scheuer favored educating future citizen journalists, though he was skeptical of the sustainability of the current print news business model, “I want to teach kids to be media literate. I want civics to be an SAT test. I want people to understand the news system before they get to college,” he said.

He also advocated a non-profit model for media as the answer to all of new media’s woes, a way of creating independent media free of pressure to write the stories that will make money.

In stark contrast to Scheuer was Charles Nesson, the William F. Weld Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Founder and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Nesson is currently representing Joel Tenenbaum, the defendant in one of only two Napster copyright infringement cases to come before a jury. Nesson, in the opening session moderated by Prof. Laura J. Miller (SOC) discussed “Is the Internet a Human Right?”

Nesson noted the difference between tangible property and the intellectual property of the internet, and said he believes the difference needs to be accounted for in law.

He said that people don’t know what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to downloading, and stressed that media companies and their lobbyists have taken advantage of that.

Taking particular aim at trial by jury, Nesson like Scheuer, also touched upon the civic repercussions of the internet, though Nesson had a different angle, discussing the “Three Strikes” policy that internet service providers (ISPs) have adopted.

Once an ISP has been notified three times that someone has been illegally downloading copyrighted material, usually by companies hired by the copyright holders, the user is kicked off the internet by the ISP without any sort of trial or jury verdict.

The ability of the internet to aggregate good work was posed in retaliation to copyrighted material on the web. Nesson cited Wikipedia as “the most beautiful example” of this aggregate effort.

However it also poses one of the biggest problems Nesson explained. He posed the question, “who owns the work once it escapes the confines of our own individual laptops?”

On a similar note, the recent settlement of the Google Books suit made its way into the conversation, as the digital formats of books pose the same problem as the digital formats of music that got Napster into a bind in the late nineties.

The Kindle thread was picked up by Tracy Mitrano, Director of IT Policy and Law at Cornell University, whose session was entitled, “Technology is Neither Good nor Bad, Only Thinking Makes it So,” and was moderated by Prof. Andreas Teuber (PHIL), with Daniel Ortner ’10 as the student respondent.

Mitrano, talking to the undergraduate portion of her audience claimed that, “copyright is the civil rights issue of your generation.”

She noted that the Google Books settlement was a massive win for copyright holders and how US corporations shape technology, particularly when it comes to retrieving lost storage devices, like Kindles.

“Amazon doesn’t want to have to find the lost Kindles,” she said.

Instead, they profit off the purchase of a new one, and someone else gets their hands on a lost or stolen Kindle, allowing the company to continue to profit from the machine. She noted, “Intellectual property is not like physical property- it is more than thievery and piracy.”

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Mitrano also ventured into the realm of Facebook and the debate surrounding the advisability of broadcasting your life for all to see.

“People are so disinhibited by the technology that they are showing things about themselves that in the sober light of day is not a good idea,” she said.

Ortner touched on one of the biggest problems with Facebook saying, “People should not lose their jobs because of information they posted on Facebook when they were 21 years old.”

Mirano did not deny that Facebook and other social networking sites served some civic purpose, citing the “free exercise and right of speech.”

“I don’t think for a minute that there is a perfect solution for these problems,” Mitrano said. Even so, she was willing to give the government the opportunity to act for the public good.

The event, co-sponsored by Library and Technology Services, The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, and the Student Union, with special thanks to Gen Ed Now and STAND, is running through Friday in Rappaport Treasure Hall.

The conference features the the traditional speaker component, with three sessions on Thursday and two on Friday, but also a student challenge. The challenge, which was open to the entire student body, invited students to come and cover the conference and provide a real time exploration of the issues at hand. There was supposed to be a digital media group and a traditional media group, but tellingly, no one volunteered to take on the traditional media component.

The students, plugged in at a back table, are spending the conference twittering, streaming and blogging, and allowing participants to comment and tweet along with them using the the hashback (#) feature on twitter.

Charles Radin, the Director of Global Operations and Communications and point person on the student challenge project summed up the scene, “They have reinvented the wire service!”

Yale Spector ’11, member of the student challenge team explained, “It’s online 10 seconds after the guy says it.”

Spector, along with his fellow team members James Fleishmann ’11, Rajiv Ramakrishnan ’10, Ori Applebaum ’11, and Samantha Shokin ’12, will present their work at a final session on Friday at 11 a.m., following Samuel J. Klein, Director of Content at One Laptop per Child, who will discuss, “Does Digital Deepen the Divide?”

The session will be moderated by Theodore Johnson, Assistant Professor of Coexistence and Conflict at the Slifka Program at Brandeis and the student respondent will be Danielle Myers ’12 of STAND.

Editor’s Note: Ariel Wittenberg, Daniel Ortner, and Samantha Shokin are members of The Hoot staff.