In 2003, HLS, the home of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, reached what you might call an early puberty with “Weblogs at Harvard Law.” Like all of the center’s projects, this one combined the practical and the academic. By launching a blogging community for anyone with a harvard.edu e-mail address, the Berkman Center aimed not only to create a community but to study it.
At a place that seems to love controversy, this might seem like a risky project. Webloggers famously relish their relative independence, and Harvard students, like their University President, are infamously opinionated. Free to voice strong, possibly confrontational opinions in a space funded by Harvard’s dollars, would the bloggers run into conflicts with the University?
If they did, the Berkman Center would be getting exactly what it was looking for. The center’s interest in intellectual property and Internet copyright law would meet with its interest in the community aspect of the Internet in an interesting marriage.
Though a few cases stand out, two years after the project’s launch and 650 blogs later, most blogs have been harmless. Students seem to have passed at the opportunity to humiliate publicly their most hated professors. Instead, and especially at the Law School, the blogs have built a surprisingly tame digital community for those who choose to use it.
But in a few instances, Harvard’s liberal blogging policy has gotten a few students in legal hot water.
Most non-Harvard bloggers don’t have to self-censor, but a posting that is a little too racy on these Harvard-sanctioned websites might force the Berkman Center to consider censorship.
“I’m worried about that,” says John G. Palfrey ’94, executive director of the Berkman Center. According to Palfrey, certain types of rhetoric, like hate speech, could possibly get censored, a threat that most bloggers don’t have to face.
As a precaution, the Berkman Center requires users to consent to an additional agreement: blogs that are tastelessly controversial might not be welcome on its servers.
The Center’s authority over the blogs’ content was briefly tested in 2003 by Derek A. Slater ’05, who posted internal memos from Diebold Election Systems, an electronic voting machine manufacturer, on his Harvard-hosted weblog. The memos, e-mails in which the company appeared to admit flaws in its voting machines, used across the country, had already been revealed on several other bloggers’ sites. Slater copied some of these memos onto his site, now titled “A Copyfighter’s Musings,” making him one of the bloggers Diebold complained had violated U.S. copyright law.
That made Harvard among the dozens of hosts Diebold asked to pull the e-mails, citing the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act as grounds for its decision. Harvard, like most of the other servers, complied, forcing Slater to take the information off his site. But even though Slater complied, the Berkman Center supported his position that Diebold’s action was unfounded.
Today, Diebold continues to attract the Berkman Center’s attention. After Slater backed down, retreating to the pages of “A Copyfighter’s Musings,” some other bloggers took Diebold to court, charging the company was wrong to force servers to take down the information when the company knew it was not actually a copyright infringement. Their win last October has been hailed as a landmark case in digital free speech by organizations that include the Berkman Center, which still lists a blog item about the case on its main site.
“Having a wide berth for freedom of speech is incredibly important,” says Slater. But he worries that in cases like Diebold’s, freedom is threatened. “Libel is being used to scare people with no credible reason.”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Third year HLS student Jeremy D. Blachman also pushed the envelope when New York Times revealed him as the “Anonymous Lawyer” of the eponymous website. “Anonymous Lawyer” was a fictional account of a pompous, sexist, high-powered attorney. The only catch was that Blachman didn’t mention that it was all made up. Though the site was not hosted by the Berkman Center, Harvard made the papers nonetheless, drawing attention to the possibility for blogging mischief.
“I was just trying to be funny,” says Blachman. “I didn’t expect to enjoy writing it so much.” By the time the Times article revealed the blog’s fictional nature, “Anonymous Lawyer” had already gained a loyal following. And while many of his faithful readers guessed at his identity, few knew who he was until the Times article went to press.
“Before I did ‘Anonymous Lawyer,’ I didn’t think anyone could really be anonymous,” says Blachman. He continues to post to “Anonymous Lawyer” and also updates a more factual blog, which is listed in the Berkman Center’s directory (http://jeremyblachman.blogspot.com/).
CONTROVERSIAL THESE ARE NOT
Blachman and Slater tested the limits of the blogosphere’s freedom, but so far, most of the blogs hosted by the Berkman Center are surprisingly inoffensive.
Many blogs in the directory seem to be one-post wonders, and others haven’t been updated for more than a year. Even when the blogs appear to be regularly updated, the best that their content offers is often “A Joke You Won’t Think Is Funny” or an announcement of the 2005 Special Librarians Association Awards.
The author of the the “Desultor” doesn’t attempt to hide anything. The writer proudly proclaims in the subtitle that the blog is “Now 30% more boring!”
Harvard blogs may not necessarily need controversial posts, but Harvard students have never been known for their timidity. Perhaps the Harvard community has a good, solid “Sex in the City”-style blog in its future, or maybe just a witty, radical political activist.