The problem with trying to fix the world

I’ve been thinking about the suit against Craigslist and why so many forms of regulation just won’t work in a new world of control at the edges. The Times reported:

If the lawsuit, filed by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, succeeds, Craigslist will be forced to follow the same rules newspapers do in their classified advertising listings, screening each ad to make sure no antidiscrimination laws are violated. That means ads like the ones the lawyers’ group said it spotted on Craigslist in a six-month investigation would be banned.

But here’s the problem: When we had a small number of centralized repositories of ads — gatekeepers — it was easy to impose this kind of regulation. It is possible, though expensive and ineffective and inefficient, to do so with online gatekeepers.

But it is impossible to clamp down on such speech the distributed world, where I can post an ad on my blog and it can be found via Edgeio or Oodle or Google. Then who are you going to sue? The search engines for finding it? The enablers for providing the functionality to me? Or me for exercising free, albeit inappropriate, speech? The control is at the edges and it’s much harder to regulate the edges.

(Full dislosure: Craig Newmark is a personal investor in the news startup I’m working on.)

  • Mumblix Grumph

    Honestly, I think many of the “civil rights” cases are a damn joke. Have you seen the list of “forbidden” words that you can’t use in a newspaper ad?

    # Adult
    # Bachelor
    # Couple
    # Mature
    # No Children
    # One Person
    # Retired
    # Sex (may be OK in advertising for roommates)
    # Single
    # Two People
    # Christian
    # Executive (such as large executive home)
    # Handicap (not suitable for)
    # Integrated
    # Membership Approval
    # Mentally Ill
    # Religious
    # Religious Landmark (near St. Mark’s)
    # Older Persons
    # Senior Citizens
    # Physically Fit Person (ideal for)
    # Private (private community – no; private drive – OK)
    # Race
    # Restricted
    # Senior Discount

    Does refusing to allow any of the above terms make newspapers into the moral equivalent of Dr. King or Rosa Parks? Is this what the Fredom Riders were striving for?

    I think that a renter should be allowed to rent (or not rent) to anybody he wants. Does that mean “no blacks, no Jews, no gays” etc? Yep…a landlord should be free to be as big an a__hole as he wants to be with his private property, and everybody should be free to protest that guy and publicly call him on it.

    I work nights and do NOT want to live next to loud kids playing outside my window during the day. Where do I go to rent “kid-free” if no one is allowed have an “adults only” complex? Am I a villian if I want to rent from such a place?

  • Hunter McDaniel

    I completely agree with your point that the regulations “don’t scale” to a world of distributed content providers. But it can work the other way, too – forcing distributed content providers to follow the same regs as legacy providers is a way to destroy their scalability and put the legacy providers back in charge.

    I see much the same argument in the “copyfight”. While the focus is on what teenagers do with their music, the real problem is that copyright law in all its current glory is only practical for large enterprises who can maintain a legal staff. It simply doesn’t scale to a world where there are hundreds of thousands of bands creating and distributing their music.

    And without going too far afield, I saw this same argument when I helped found a charter school 12 years ago. Partisans of the “regular” schools felt it was unfair that we chose not to burden ourselves with all of the regulatory handicaps they had put on themselves.

  • I really hope this makes people realise not just the futility, but the offensiveness, of so much of the regulation forced upon individuals and businesses.

  • Jorge

    Let’s worry about Globalization, one country at a time. Our country needs to create laws and enforce them here on our home turf first, and other countries should do the same, period.

  • Jeff

    It’s difficult, but doesn’t seem to be impossible, to clamp down on information in our modern world — look at China. Or, look at all of these Internet companies who are ready to roll over and turn information on their users over to the government without the government providing a warrant.

  • afsvfan

    move craiglist to china, they do good job at censorship.
    it can give thousands of people new jobs.
    censorship can be good for the economy.

  • “Who are you going to sue?”

    That is an easy question to answer.

    They sue whoever has the most money.

  • I can’t see why self regulation wouldn’t work. If I’m ignorant and decide to rent to a tenant with a lower credit score because I’m of the same race then I’m going to make less money than an unbiased competitor. And eventually I’ll go out of business due to the smarter competition.

    Though I bet lawyers love well meaning, ill informed legislation. I don’t have a problem with lawyers, just the fact that they can get legislation passed by lobbying.

  • I.F. Stoner

    Actually, websites/serach engines/portals are protected by law, Jeff. Called the “Newstand Defense” in common law, mere distributors not involved in the creation of the printed material at usse escape tort liability except in most extreme cases. That way, Ishmael at the corner newstand can’t be sued for the next time the NYT suffers a gang brain-fart.
    They’d probably also escape under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which immunizes “passive conduits.” You really ought to know that one by heart, Jeffeleh. It’s your best friend as a blogger.

  • “Blogger Scale” Needed
    After reading many blogs and the comments that accompany them, there seems to be a need to better describe political bloggers. The convention of party affiliation or words like right or left doesn’t always capture the character of their writing. Perhaps something on the order of a logarithmic scale – such as the Richter Scale is in order. Here’s what is proposed:

    1-3 on the Scale might be described as “Independents”. This includes people who are not politically inclined, and have no particular ideological bent. They are often the pragmatic folk who post on the meat and potatoes issues they think might affect their daily lives. Though they are a large group, say about 30% of the American population, they are under-represented on blogs. Posting requires more energy than these low scorers on the Blogger Scale usually care to expend.

    4-6 on the Scale encompasses many Republican and Democrats. They have a political philosophy, and can articulate their position on issues based on fact and analysis. The tone of the writing usually stays within the bounds of reasoned discourse. They may defend a point with passion, but not so much so that they cannot see all sides of an issue and other points of view. An exchange of ideas occurs within this range.

    7-8 on the Scale begins to depart from logic, and here is where posting starts to reflect zealotry more than reason. The thinking process begins to assume a one dimensionality, often expressed in anger, personal attacks, name calling, and profanity. Right now, the far left seems to be over-represented in this range. It may be that frustration at the current Republican dominance of most Governorships, both houses of Congress, the Presidency, and the new Supreme Court Appointees have pushed more on the left to this extreme. Bloggers in this range trade salvos from their entrenched positions.

    9 is where the blogging gets nuts. Here reside the true Bush hating conspiracy theorists, the White Supremacists and other fringe denizens of the blogging world. The posts are readily identifiable by the high degree of hatred they contain. Single issue obsessives on both sides of “hot button” issues find a home here. Tirades and rants are all that remain. The skewed reality of these unfortunates precludes any attempt at discussion. They are grossly over-represented in blogs as they seem to never tire of their “serial blogging” posts.

    10 is reserved for the just plain insane. Reverend Phelps and Harry Belafonte live together in their own little universe. The posts of a 10 are so extreme that they reach toxic levels. Reader beware, exposure may be hazardous to your health.

    This new system has practical value for the blogger. Blogs themselves can be assigned a numerical rating on the Blogger Scale, giving potential readers a useful insight into the contents. Some may prefer the interplay and thoughts of a “5-er” blog, while others may like the heat of a good “7.5-er”. “10” blogs might be accompanied by a warning before entering the site.

    It can be helpful in dealing with individual bloggers as well. Comments of bloggers might be rated and averaged on their profiles. “Oh, I made the mistake of responding to an “8’s” post, boy did I flamed.”
    It might even help to moderate the discourse on blogs a little. No E-bay member wants a bad rating. Maybe bloggers would try to avoid being a “8”. Of course “9” and “10” raters are beyond redemption, but perhaps many “7” or “8’s” could be saved.

    “Blogger Scale” Needed

  • mikenyc

    All these regulations do get annoying, I agree. But no, owners shouldn’t get to rent to whomever they wish, Mumblix Grumph. I can’t stand it when my hallway is filled with screaming kids, but that’s an issue I take up with the building. That doesn’t mean they should have the right to not rent to parents, Jews, blacks, etc. That’s a big civil rights issue.

  • Andy Freeman

    If not renting to parents is a civil rights issue, you can’t take it up with the building when the halls are filled with screaming kids. Or rather, “the building” can’t do anything more than tell you to get stuffed when you complain.

    I note that senior developments are allowed to discriminate against kids.

  • Its really a none issue, if the US government starts forcing companies to censor what they are and aren’t allowed to post then the people will go to companies outside of the US that provide the service.

    The best example of this is online gambling.

  • Why can’t we all just get along?

    When me and my big brother don’t get along, my Mom goes nuts, but that doesn’t mean she’s crazy, but she does like Planters.

    I hope one day people would stop being mean to each other, and just be friends and eat cake!

    Great blog, JEFF! I hope you have a nice weekend, and eat lots of cake, but be careful, it will make you fat!

  • mikenyc

    Apologize for getting us off issue, but when the hallway is filled with screaming kids, we’re still aloud to make a noise complaint, and the “building” doesn’t tell us to stuff it. They tell the parents they can’t let their kids run up and down the the public hallways screaming. That doesn’t mean the owner should be aloud to discriminate against parents when renting.

  • sbw

    Will someone dare admit the obvious? It was a stupid law in the first place that made newspapers the PC police for the government.

  • J

    Agreed. If a landlord wants to restrict rentals in violation of antidiscrimination law, why is it a newspaper’s responsibilty to police that? It’s insane. And people calling themselves “Civil Rights” lawyers should be ashamed for trying to enforce speech restrictions on anybody, newpaper or online.

  • Ralph Phelan

    “Then who are you going to sue?”
    How about the guy who placed the offending ad? He’s the one doiing the actual discriminating.

  • Andy Freeman

    > They tell the parents they can’t let their kids run up and down the the public hallways screaming.

    And the parents tell “management” to get stuffed.

    Under the “can’t discriminate against parents” laws, management can’t do more than ask nicely, and even too much of that will be deemed harrassment.

    The only threat that management has is eviction for disturbance and parents can always win that one with “kids make noise, so evicting us for disturbance is discrimination against children”.

  • zf

    There are valid and serious reasons for having laws that protect against housing discrimination. That said:
    – yes, they do get ridiculous. there is a difference between looking for a roommate to share close quarters with and between an apartment complex manager
    – yes, it should be the lister and not the publisher whom the law should “correct”
    – if you have a problem with kids running down your hallway, work your butt off, make a lot of money, and get a house with a big garden. yes, not being able to afford that might suck. being poor sucks. but what would suck more would be being poor and not being able to find a decent apartment because you have kids.

  • So someone hits my car. They offer me eight hundred dollars plus they want to take my car. My car still runs great and I don’t really care that the hood is bent a little bit. So we don’t settle. So then I think o.k. let’s see if they will let me keep the car and collect the $800, after all the wreck was not my fault I should receive something. So they tell me “It’s a law that if we total your car you can’t keep it” So I am totally screwed. I didn’t settle so I drive around in a dented car and never receive no money for it, or I give them my car for $800. What kind of car can you buy for $800?

  • teresa, to avoid being hit the second time take the money and buy a bike.