TOPICS > Nation

Over the Line?

August 28, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, truth or consequences in cyberspace. Tom Bearden has some background.

TOM BEARDEN: Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97; wear sunscreen. That’s what author Kurt Vonnegut supposedly told MIT graduates this spring in a commencement address. Trouble is Vonnegut didn’t speak at MIT’s graduation ceremony and didn’t write the words. Columnist Mary Schmich did, in a column that was published in the Chicago Tribune in June.

Someone took it, labeled it as a Vonnegut speech, and began circulating it on the Internet, the global computer network. No real harm was done. But it was one more example of how quickly a hoax can spread around the world on the net. Last year, former Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger made headlines when he claimed to have discovered proof that TWA Flight 800 had been accidentally shot down by a missile fired from a U.S. Naval vessel.

PIERRE SALINGER, Former Kennedy Press Secretary: (November 1996) And despite Navy statements that they had nothing to do with the TWA 800 crash, we have strong evidence that they are wrong.

TOM BEARDEN: The document Salinger provided as proof had been circulating for months on the Internet. Government investigators strongly denied the allegation. Even so, dozens of theories about that crash continue to circulate on the Web.

TED PINKOWITZ, E-Central: An article in the British newspaper, the Sunday Express, the 13th of July has a report on another possible theory of the TWA 800 disaster, the theory is that some space debris hit the 747.

TOM BEARDEN: Ted Pinkowitz is the president of E-Central, an Internet provider service in Denver. He was reading a message posted in a news group–which is one of the ways that information and misinformation travels on the Internet. There are over 20,000 news groups.

TED PINKOWITZ: A news group is a bulletin board area where people can post messages, post ideas, post questions. And then people respond to that. People that use news groups usually use them fairly frequently, and they are checking these news groups on a daily or every-other-day basis, so as soon as something is hit, not only will it propagate through news groups, but people will then e-mail friends and people that have like interests and begin to spread the word rather quickly.

TOM BEARDEN: Many Internet users have address books which can contain hundreds of names. They can be used to send electronic messages to large numbers of people with a single click of a mouse. The same technique can be used to forward a message– like the Vonnegut speech – creating an avalanche of electronic mail. Another way misinformation can be distributed is on a Web page. Virtually anyone can set up a Web site to spread their own ideas and conspiracy sites abound. The topics range from O. J. Simpson to the Oklahoma City bombing, to the Kennedy assassination.

TED PINKOWITZ: People with all sorts of voices–no matter how outlandish they are–have a place where they can publish and be accessed by millions of people. Never before has that ability been available.

TOM BEARDEN: Without the filter of the traditional press?

TED PINKOWITZ: Exactly. You don’t have to print anything, and you don’t have to have a filter of the traditional press saying, we think this is news, we don’t think this is news. You can put anything out there and let’s let the general public decide whether or not it’s significant, important or worth doing something about.

TOM BEARDEN: A court may eventually decide whether an item in “The Drudge Report” Web site is worth doing something about. Recently that Web site–which is devoted to news and gossip- -reported there were allegations of spousal abuse against White House Aide Sidney Blumenthal.

Matt Drudge, who had earlier boasted in a Time Magazine profile that information in his column was “80-percent accurate”, quickly withdrew the allegation. But Blumenthal and his wife have filed a defamation suit against the Drudge Report and against America OnLine, one of the Internet services that carried the report. Incidents like these have led some people to call for new laws to address Internet libel and for increased protection for intellectual property.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get three perspectives now. Floyd Abrams is a constitutional lawyer who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. Daniel Weitzner is the deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a not-for-profit organization working on Internet privacy and First Amendment issues. And Steve Geimann is president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Thank you all for being with us. Mr. Abrams, how is the defamation case against Matthew Drudge different from what it would be if he wrote for a newspaper or was on television?

FLOYD ABRAMS, Constitutional Lawyer: Well, as against him, it’s not different. He’s subject to the same rules as everyone else. He doesn’t get any more protection, or any less protection because he’s speaking for himself, on his own behalf, rather than in a newspaper, or the like. For America OnLine it may very well be different. For one thing, Congress has passed a law which says that when an online service carries information disseminated by other people that they’re exempt from state libel law. So America OnLine may not be liable at all or even potentially liable even if he is.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Put this in a broader context for us, Mr. Abrams. How is this–what are the implications for the Internet of this?

FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, I think in a few ways there are serious implications; first, people who use the Net, people who have Web sites, people who communicate on the Web really have to understand that they don’t live in a law-free world simply because they’re communicating on the Net.

If we have libel law, if libel law is constitutional, it will apply to them too. Second, I think, at its broadest people have to understand that there is not only more freedom, more information, and more participation by more people on the Net than any other way really in the history of the world; there’s also more irresponsible information, more falsehoods, less that you can be sure of because you don’t have an editing process; you don’t have a newsroom, you don’t have someone calling that–Mr. Drudge has got to call and say, you know, we just don’t have it, we don’t have enough information. Mr. Drudge may feel anything is enough so long as it’s interesting, no responsible newsroom does, and I think it’s a good thing that Mr. Drudge is at least judged by the same standards that any journalist or any one of the rest of us would be.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Weitzner, do you think that different people and groups that are working on the Internet now are getting that message?

DANIEL WEITZNER, Center for Democracy and Technology: Well, I am somewhat chastened by Mr. Abrams’ advice, that, indeed, there is a law out there. We know there’s law out there. But I think this is a serious matter for Internet users because, as they saying goes, on the Internet everyone is a publisher. I think that what that means is that everyone’s the potential target of a libel suit. And when we look at mass media libel law and we see that the average award is in the millions or tens of millions of dollars and legal fees are who knows what, that’s a disturbing prospect, I think, for Internet users that something that we might say out there in cyberspace on some news group on our Web site could be subject to the relatively intensive scrutiny of the legal process.

I guess I think that the more serious issue, though, that’s raised by the various cases in the setup piece by this AOL case is that, indeed, Internet users are now challenged to figure out what they should trust and what they shouldn’t. And I frankly think that’s a cultural process for the Internet to go through. I don’t think that that’s a process that will first and foremost be addressed in the legal system. I think it’s something that’s being addressed today in the Internet community and there are lots of examples of that, of how we establish trust and reputation. And my hope is that process can continue–it’s an important process–without too many more very large lawsuits like this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Give me one example.

DANIEL WEITZNER: Well, the Kurt Vonnegut case is interesting. A good friend of mine handed me a printed copy of that posting. I didn’t know where it came from. And I read it, and I thought it was interesting. And he told me where it came from but I read it with half–with amusement and half wondering what this was and where did it come from–because it didn’t come from a source that I trust on the Internet. I trust my friend, but he didn’t know where it came from. So I think we’re all learning how to decide what to trust.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Geimann, look at this as a professional journalist for a moment. Is the Internet, as you’ve said–you’ve used these words–like street corner gossip–or does it need to start adopting guidelines and ethical standards and the sorts of things that journalists have developed over the years?

STEVE GEIMANN, Society of Professional Journalists: I think Daniel is exactly right, that one of the things that we’re learning about this new technology is it puts people in a lot of places very quickly. It allows us to go places we could not get to on our feet, or could not get to by a phone call. We now can read what other people think. We can share information instantaneously, no matter where we are at any given time of the day or night, and that has led some people to believe that everything they read because it’s in print is true, is truthful.

I think we have to start asking ourselves as individuals, what’s the source of the information, is it reliable, is it dependable, does it have a trust factor? Journalists too have to make that determination. When we go about reporting stories and we use the Internet as a supplemental tool to the standard shoe leather and phone calls, and checking records, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the source of the information, why is this information being presented to me as a journalist. There’s no difference in the way a reporter goes about responsibly, professionally asking questions, making sure that the information he gets is accurate, is fair, and it’s balanced. Because it’s on the Internet doesn’t absolve us of that responsibility to make those decisions, to make that determination before we print, publish, or in this case post information to the Internet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Abrams, you have written that–I read a law journal article in which you said that you go to journalists and you say you’re going to be regulated to the extent that you’re not responsible. But you said you can’t really say that to the Internet. Explain what you meant by that.

FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, what I meant is that there will inevitably be a level of irresponsibility on the Internet, so long as it is free, indeed, so long as it is as free as we would like it to be, so long as it’s as free as the Supreme Court has indicated it will be. The Internet is likely to remain essentially unregulated by government. And lawyers like me are not going to be able to get up in court, representing Internet users and say, in effect, look, Judge, trust us. You know, we work hard to get our stories right. We have a lot of editors; we do this; we do that; we check. You don’t know all the stuff we know that we don’t put on the air. I can say that for a broadcaster. I couldn’t say that for Mr. Drudge. I couldn’t say that, presumably, for a lot of people who use the Net. Now, I shouldn’t have to say that, but the fact remains that it changes the dynamics of the way law is going to be created if the defense of the speech cannot include a level of reassurance that even if more, rather than less, speech is allowed things will still be okay.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does that lead you to any conclusions about anything that should happen, Mr. Abrams?

FLOYD ABRAMS: Look, I don’t think we can demand, even ask, of everybody that’s got a Web site that he or she ought to go out and act like a mini journalist before he or she says anything, but I do think people have got to understand that when they’re speaking to tens, hundreds, thousands, and more people, when they’re communicating with them, it is not like making a phone call across the street to a friend, and that you do take on some greater responsibilities and some greater risks.

DANIEL WEITZNER: I would actually suggest that there are some assurances that we could provide. I hope we don’t have to provide them to a court, but I think we can provide them to the world, that a critical difference between speech on the Internet and speech, for example, in a newspaper or on television, is that speech on the Internet is susceptible to nearly instantaneous response. In preparation for the show I did a little World Wide Web search on Blumenthal and Drudge, and I threw in a few other terms to narrow the search. And what I came up with right away was not only the original posting and some of the later postings and some of the Washington Post articles, but I also came up with the fact right away that Drudge retracted whatever it was that he said. So I think that there’s–and also the fact that Blumenthal was suing him, and that there’s some reason to question what Drudge was really saying–question the veracity. So I think that there are a lot of ways that we can have some assurance that this can work out in a positive way, that we can keep speech open, without risking huge unreliability.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve Geimann, one solution would have been–and please tell us about this–because it just happened this afternoon–news producers, people from newspapers and television stations could have somehow graded what’s on the Internet and said, this is news or this isn’t. Explain that effort and what’s happened with that.

STEVE GEIMANN: There has been for several months an effort to try to use the software technology that allows people to filter material arriving at their PC. How is that technology going to react with news sites, news content on the Web? Internet Content Coalition–a small group of content providers–and software producers–had been talking about this for a while, and it raised a lot of alarms for a lot of professional journalists because we take great exception to anybody trying to regulate, rate, or otherwise impose any kind of restrictions on what it is independent professional journalism does in this country.

Late this afternoon they announced after a day-long meeting in New York City that they had chosen to not get involved in applying any sort of rating to any news content on the Web, to have an open news arena, if you will. I think that’s a good decision. I think that was the wise approach to take at this time. We should not, however, relax our guard that this does away with the problem of trying to rate Web sites. There is technology that will allow people, providers, users, Internet service providers, to make these determinations without any involvement on the part of journalists. Responsible, professional journalists have to maintain their vigilance that an independent press in this country prevails in print, in broadcast, and on the Web. So the action today basically admitting that they could not come up with any kind of rating I think was a good step, a first step, but we can’t let our guard down. The technology is out there. We have to address it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Abrams, looking at the history, knowing the history of the way that the relationship between law and newspapers and law and television stations has developed, what do you see ahead for the Internet?

FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, the courts take very seriously what level of historical protection we as a people have afforded people in different media. The fact that newspapers, for example, have always gotten the highest level of First Amendment protection has really helped journalists who work for newspapers through the years, and broadcasting, which has gotten a sort of watered down level of protection, unfairly I think, has led to less protection historically. The Internet starts ahead of the game. I mean, we are starting fresh, and we’re starting fresh with a new means of communication, which begins at a very high level of legal protection. That’s very good. That’s very important. But it may also mean that, as we’ve said, people who run the Web, people who have their own Web sites, may have to accustom themselves to the fact that this is not just a little chat they’re engaged in but something more than that. Maybe they’re going to have to say–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Abrams, I’m going to interrupt you. I’m sorry.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We don’t have any time left. But thank you all very much for being with us.