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Law Rules

How we resolve our disputes

Entries in internet (2)

Monday
Jun132011

Popping the "information cocoon"

Sometimes, reading a New York Times book review can be better than reading the book. This past weekend, a review of the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You prompted me to think about how people can be trapped inside their own “information cocoons.” Google and other internet search engines, as well as Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, apparently spoon feed us information they think we would like to see, based upon our past searches and selections. Their algorithms personalize search results and rankings according to the searcher’s previous internet history. The book details how and why this is done, as well as exploring the political and social implications of search engine personalization. The book review raises the question of whether governmental regulation to achieve more “serendipitous discovery” is desirable.

This topic is important in understanding how people make decisions and why disputes and conflict arise. Perhaps this is one of the reasons many people perceive an increase polarization and hostility in recent public discourse. When the information you receive on the internet is tailored to complement your previous disposition, you are less able and likely to see the other side’s point of view.

In dispute and conflict resolution, it is sometimes necessary to pop a person’s “information cocoon” to help him or her understand the other side’s position and the risks of continuing the conflict. Mediators often must test a participant’s underlying presumptions by engaging in “reality checks.” Another way to think about this process is to pop the information cocoon. Where are the parties to the dispute getting their information? Are they familiar with the other side’s sources? If not, it may be worth their time to take a look. 

Good litigators must know the other side’s case as well as their own. Good negotiators must be similarly prepared. If internet search engines and social media are making that more difficult, we must be aware of it and be prepared to deal with it. Removing the filters from our search engines would be a good start toward diversifying our information sources. Mediators should be prepared to point out this problem to parties in dispute in order to help pop their information cocoons.

Saturday
Oct242009

Don't shoot the messengers -- enlist their help

In a decision that is being applauded by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed a civil lawsuit brought by the Sheriff of Cook County against Craigslist (Dart v. Craigslist, 09 C 1385).  Sheriff Thomas Dart, along with law enforcement authorities in 43 states, had tried to get Craigslist to screen and prevent posting of ads for sex services.  Craigslist is a for-profit company, with about 30 employees based in San Francisco.  It claims that it has done all it could do to discourage and prevent such ads.  Sheriff Dart, however, was not satisfied.  Claiming that Craigslist ran the biggest prostitution service in the country, he filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Craigslist’s adult services listing (formerly “erotic” services) constituted a public nuisance under Illinois law.  The District Court dismissed the case, finding that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) preempted state nuisance law in this case.  The CDA provides that no interactive computer service can be treated as a publisher or speaker of information posted on the service by other people.  (Isn’t that an interesting way of promoting decency in communications?)

While the District Court’s decision is undoubtedly correct as a matter of federal law, it is hard not to sympathize with Sheriff Dart.  With state and local government budgets being squeezed by declining tax collections in the current recession, law enforcement agencies are looking for help wherever they can find it.  The internet has taken prostitution out of red light districts and made it available at the click of a mouse.  Shouldn’t those who profit from spreading the offensive messages bear a large share of the cost of enforcing the law?  Maybe ISPs should be treated more like newspapers than telephone companies.  No one wants to shoot the messenger, but don’t we at least have the right to expect them to help enforce the law?  Especially when the messenger is profiting handsomely from the enterprise.