Course Info

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The Web Difference?

Digital Media, Culture, and the Law

Harvard Law School

Prof. John Palfrey & Dr. David Weinberger

Spring, 2008, v1.02

(Syllabus revised 1/28/08; certain to change over time)

Course Overview:

Spring term, Block E

M, T 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

3 classroom credits LAW-48372A Spring

2, 3, or 4 optional clinical credits LAW-48372C Fall or Spring, or 2 Winter

In this course, we will examine the claim of Internet exceptionalism and the implications of this claim in the context of the law and society. Is the Web something substantially new that is changing the fundamentals of who we are and how we’re together? Or is it just the next in the series of communication media humans have invented? What are the problems to which these changes give rise? Which of these problems are ones that we’d like to address through reforms in the law, technology environment, markets, social norms, or other yet-to-be-discovered modes of influence? This course will cover the legal and policy issues to which changes in the news media and entertainment businesses, wrought by the Web, give rise. Key doctrinal areas of inquiry include intellectual property, the First Amendment, defamation, and privacy. Students should be prepared to experiment with new technologies, including a course weblog, and to perform some coursework collaboratively. Course requirements include group coursework and a final paper, but no examination.

This course is particularly appropriate as an offering for those students who intend to take, or have taken, the Clinical Program in Cyberlaw at the Berkman Center.

Themes of the Course:

Some of the core themes that we will explore include:

   *  The Socializing of Knowledge: The West has a settled notion
     of what constitutes knowledge, how it is developed, and even its
     role in our notion of the real. Authority accrues to those who
     possess knowledge, and power and money accrue to those with
     authority. The Web is challenging the metaphysics and economics of
     knowledge. Rather than being the content of individual minds,
     knowledge on the Web – whether at Wikipedia or on a mailing list –
     seems to be developed through various sorts of conversations, often
     without regard to credentials. Is this degrading knowledge into mere
     tribally-held opinions, or does the socializing of knowledge surface
     and address weaknesses in the traditional notion?


   *  Economics of Peer Production and other forms of Collaboration:
     Certain uses of the Internet are giving rise to a challenge of the
     traditional conception of motivation in a market society. Scholars
     such as Yochai Benkler (HLS) and Eric von Hippel (MIT’s Sloan
     School of Business) argue that the open source movement,
     collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, and
     user-generated/consumer-driven innovation are examples of a powerful
     new economic force: peer production. These examples are alluring.
     Are they just academic distractions, or big changes in the way that
     markets work in a highly networked world?
   *  The Web as a Medium: The Internet is certainly a medium in
     one sense: It is something that stands between A and B and allows
     information to be passed from one point to another. And ever since
     McLuhan we’ve known that media affect the content of what passes
     through them. The Web as a medium is characterized most distinctly
     by the presence of links, and links do indeed shape how we write,
     and, quite arguable, what we write. But does thinking of the
     Internet (and the Web that runs on it) as a medium skew our vision?
     A medium is something through which a person sends a message, but
     the Web can also be experienced as that through the person herself
     moves. Is the Web a medium, a place, or something else?
   *  Is the Web Moral? Technologies usually resist moral
     classifications: A gun can kill the innocent or open a lock so the
     innocent can escape. The use of technology, and not the technology
     itself is subject to moral evaluation. Nevertheless, we can ask
     about the morality of the Web in two senses. First, are the intended
     and expected uses subject to moral evaluation? Second, is there
     anything about the architecture of the Web itself that lets us
     characterize it as moral?
   *  Internet, Campaigns & Elections: Many political
     campaigns, whether for an issue or a candidate, adopt an “Internet
     strategy” of one sort or another. From online fundraising that
     smashed previous records in the past cycle, to bloggers who broke
     stories of international importance or just covered the local PTA
     meeting, to citizen-journalism efforts that moved elections, to the
     luring of new voters into the political fray, the election cycles in
     the last few years in the United States and elsewhere around the
     world have given rise to headlines and head-spinning about the power
     of the internet to transform politics. The reality may be, however,
     that the Internet just allows campaigners to be more productive in
     the way they carry out traditional tasks, like raising money and
     organizing volunteer activity.


   *  Internet, Citizenship & Democracy: The Internet allows
     people to express themselves and to interact with large, powerful
     institutions – through means that were not possible before. The
     nature of citizenship, some argue, is changing rapidly. People are
     developing identities through their online participation that links
     them to other people in other cultures around the world,
     strengthening diasporan communities and increasing cross-cultural
     understanding. Some observers worry that the advent of electronic
     voting and other forms of e-government may make us lazier than we
     have ever been before when it comes to political participation.
     Others fear that we will surround ourselves not with new and
     challenging views, but rather use new technologies to create massive
     echo chambers for ourselves where we listen only to like-minded
     speakers.
   *  The Emergence of New Technologies: The course will also
     integrate discussion of emerging Internet-based technologies of
     relevance to the political and social sphere, such as blogging, RSS
     (Really Simple Syndication), podcasting, and social software. These
     tools enable power to be leveraged at the edges of the network, on a
     model that makes intuitive sense in the political arena in
     particular. These effects are reminiscent of the ways that eBay,
     Google, Amazon, digital music, and Voice over Internet Protocol
     (VoIP) have substantially changed large industries in the commercial
     arena. The flip-side is the emergence of Internet filtering
     technologies used by states to limit or block political speech,
     among other things, online.

Mode of the Class and Grading:

The course is based on a theory-and-practice model. Students are encouraged to participate extensively throughout the course, both in terms of discussion in the classroom and in active projects in lieu of traditional paper-writing. The course will also involve out of class online discussion, using a variety of software tools. The course has no prerequisites, other than a willingness to experiment with new technologies.

Each student will be graded on the basis of a group project (1/3), class participation (1/3), and a written piece, roughly 15 – 20 pages (1/3), which is due by e-mail (please send to John Palfrey, David Weinberger, and Seth Young) by May 11, 2008.

Class participation is an essential part of the class. You get equal credit for online and in-class participation, but you must do some of each. Online participation is via the course blog. You may adopt a pseudonym if you like, in which event, please tell us who you are. Comments on the blog count as equal to original posts to the blog.

The group project is an important part of the course. We expect students to work in groups of 3 or 4 to create a public space online that engages one of the topics that we take up in this course. The result of the project might be a wiki, a blog, an online video, a podcast, or the like. The point of the assignment is to engage with the media we are studying, to respond to the work of others that is available online, and to add to the world’s knowledge. Your project will be due at least 72 hours before class time, and you need to make the class aware of where to find your work online so that your colleagues can see your work prior to class. The classes available for working on the project are flagged inline below with an asterisk. On the class day for which your work is due, you will present briefly your argument to the class (not to exceed 10 minutes). You will also be an informal “panel” for the entire module in which the class falls, so please do the reading with extra care (that does not let everyone else off the hook, though!).