Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Obama, MySpace and the question of rights and governance in cyberspace

Well, this is not my usual obsession with constructing difference. This is about the question of rights and governance on the internet, and about the controversial discussion on whether and how the internet should be regulated.

It all starts with two seemingly unrelated events:

1. I had just finished a delightful book on the social dimensions of virtual worlds like The Sims Online and Second Life.
As a researcher and resident in Second Life, I practically devoured Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallaces 2007 book The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse. Far from being your usual (read boring) academic book, this one is at the interface between academic concerns with virtual worlds and 'lay' audiences. It does a beautiful job, I think, in popularizing some of the major questions researchers have had since the explosion of the internet, while at the same time keeping a very personal tone and refraining from offering all-inclusive explanations or solutions.

For reasons that will become obvious later on, I'll quote here a passage which will move us to the next unrelated event that prompted this post:

"...the question of who was suppressing freedoms - a government or a software company - was entirely beside the point... threats to freedom need to be resisted wherever they come from.... But cyberspace has complicated the issue. By creating a place that exists outside the boundaries of nations, and thus outside the reach of national laws, the Internet has come to be regarded as a place where everything goes. The legal world does not yet have a comprehensive model for regulating what goes on in cyberspace, consequently few of its denizens feel they have the right to object to anything that goes on there" (p. 233)

2. As soon as I put the book aside, I tuned in to listen to the latest CBC podcast Search Engine. Coincidence? The first item was the story of Barack Obama's campaign row with Joe Anthony over a MySpace fan site of Obama's (May 2007). Apparently, Joe Anthony - a user like you and me - had created a fan site for Barack Obama, his favorite at the time, and managed to attract enormous interest from the MySpace community, with some 30,000 friends in 2007, according to the Guardian's coverage of the story. Now, I'll fast forward the details of the row, which you can read online (here and here), to the point where Anthony and Barack Obama's campaign, interested in taking over the site to control its message, do not come to an agreement. What happens next is the exact case in point for the above quote - Obama's campaign staff asked MySpace to close down Anthony's fan site arguing that:

... it became clear that we needed to have MySpace point people at something we had at least basic access to -- immediately. In MySpace, politicians, musicians, and other public figures have the right to their own name (www.myspace.com/barackobama, www.myspace.com/hillaryclinton, etc.), and so we asked MySpace for use of that URL and to ensure that any promotion of "official" profiles for candidates be directed to the new profile our team created.The community of the 160,000 still exists, and we've made sure that MySpace will let Joe have access to the community he helped build. And we hope we can continue to work with him to make that as effective as it can be. (From Joe Anthony's blog reproducing an official statement from BO's campaign)

Why was it becoming clear that control over MySpace was needed, and from whose perspective? Was the problem really the fact that the URL contained BO's name? If public figures have the right to URL's containing their own names, does it mean that nobody else is allowed to use them? Does this apply to books as well, let's say, if I print a book called "Barack Obama" then I should be Barack Obama? I remember once learning in school that public figures have to realize that the public status means they will always be in the public's eye (so the boundaries of their privacy are always an issue). And why is it that the campaigners did not make a true effort to resolve the problem with Joe Anthony, but jumped over his head and asked MySpace to 'give them something that was rightfully theirs'?

What follows next is predictable: MySpace gave control of the URL to Obama's campaign, then returned control over the URL to Anthony. But this is less important for this post. The important lesson to learn here is that indeed, decision-making on the internet - and in the computer business at large - needs to be questioned by each and every one of us. Is it possible that you give up all your rights onlly because you signed the Terms of Contract? Do you even have a choice? Lawrence Lessig's book
Code and Other Laws of the Cyberspace argues that software engineers and companies make their own laws. And that such Terms of Contract cannot have any legal power because there is no true choice to negotiate their terms.

So what about freedom of speech? What about cyberspace as a tolerant, respectful, democratic place? How can these be achieved if users have no control, no self-governance mechanisms and are relinquishing any rights they may have under real life law by checking a box in a pop-up window? Who comes to control this cyberspace?

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