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Under Attack

Our rights are under attack. We all seem so preoccupied with figuring out how to enjoy, play in, and monetize the blogosphere that the issue of free speech isn’t getting the play it deserves. Gillmor says it all:

Apple Computer’s disgusting attack on three online journalism sites, in a witch hunt to find out who (if anyone) inside the company leaked information about allegedly upcoming products, has taken a nasty turn. Too bad it’s not surprising — and journalists of all kinds should be paying attention.

A judge in California has decided that the sites don’t qualify as "journalism" (AP) under state law and/or the First Amendment. By his bizarre and dangerous standard, I apparently stopped being a journalist the day I left my newspaper job after a quarter-century of writing for newspapers. (Note: At the request of lawyers for the sites, I’ve filed declarations — here (104k PDF) and here (1MB PDF) — saying that in my opinion these sites are performing a journalistic function. I haven’t been paid to do so.)

Not just journalists but PR people and citizens. The notion that we should not undertake activities such as reporting or analysis on the basis that only professionals can do that is ludicrous. Suddenly we are faced with a very ominous situation in which the Government, companies and big media don’t just get to control what we see and say – but also who gets to say it and when.

BusinessWeek also chimes in saying:

If the ruling holds, it will set a precedent certain to reverberate through the blogosphere because this means under the law bloggers aren’t considered journalists.

Problem is, we don’t want to be considered journalists – at least not me – all we want is the same right to responsible free speech (we still get sued for libel and fired for stupidity, just like everyone else). But for those sites publishing, or functioning, as media outlets – why shouldn’t they be subject to the same laws – or afforded the same rights – as Big Media?

Kevin Bankston of the EFF says:

"They’re people who gather news, and they do so with the intent to disseminate that news to the public. The only distinction to be made between these people and professional journalists at The New York Times is that they’re online only."

I’m not sure this works in terms of the entire blogosphere – and in all fairness he is speaking to the specific issue of blog media sites. We don’t fact-check like they do. We’re far more imperfect. We’re into the conversation less than the transmission. While Kevin’s argument is a good one I come at it from a slightly different direction.

And that is, implicit in the right to free speech is the right to report and when governments and corporations start medling in that, we all need to be very, very worried. Secondarily, they should also stay away from medling in what defines media and what doesn’t. It’s the fact that we’re not reporters or big media outlets, or, in print – that makes this such a revoultionary medium.

4 Responses

  1. By Jeremy Pepper on March 8th, 2005 at 6:09 am

    Andy, I tried to address this with my post on blogs and libel. The big problem is that bloggers want to straddle the fence: the protection of a journalist with none of the integrity of a journalist. No journalistic ethics, no vetting of information – I’m not saying that’s all blogs, but it seems to be the majority.

    As someone that just came from Sun, you can respect both sides of this. A corporation does need to protect its secrets. To me, what’s amazing is that it appears Apple is just full of security leaks.

  2. By Andy Lark on March 8th, 2005 at 7:24 am

    While I’d agree that some folks are trying to straddle the divide – and that companies have a right to protect their secrets – I do think that onus should be on the company to keep secrets inhouse. We are talking about online media utilizing blog technologies as a new means of publishing.

    What most companies engage in via the PR process is a very clever manipulation of information – “leaking” it to a few favored sources who are guaranteed to represent it in a positive light. Blogging changes this by enabling all to report – however effectively or ineffectively that might be. That we should look to draw a line in law between a professional and non-professional reporter, and, restrict what that individual can and can’t report runs against the notion of free speech. I don’t think we can afford grey areas on this one. Free speech equates to the right to freely report. If companies can’t keep their secrets inhouse, that’s their problem – it isn’t reason to limit rights.

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