Truth or Swear: the Notary Internet

Two updates in the jurisprudence of free speech online this week help shed light on one of our favorite pastimes, the search for truth. The lawsuit against Wikileaks (that “entity of unknown form” according to the district court) was dropped. The AutoAdmit case (covered here), spawned a new lawsuit: Anthony Ciolli, an editor of AutoAdmit, was wrongly cited in the original Jane Doe suit, and has now countersued the Does, their lawyer, and ReputationDefender.

Both Wikileaks and AutoAdmit make claims that anonymity yields the truth. Wikileaks sees its public leaks as morally superior to private leaks (such as to a newspaper), since they are unfiltered (a point which I see as flawed). AutoAdmit, the law school admissions discussion board, is believed to provide frank guidance on applying to law schools (as well as law firms), since users post under the cloak of anonymity. Both of these demonstrate a “frank truth” in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, and regularly followed in Internet communities.

Of course there’s traditionally a better way at getting at the truth: swearing an oath. I fathom that this governs the legal and moral code in almost every human society. Except, of course, that society called the Internet. Despite John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independece of Cyberspace” claiming of “our governance will emerge,” there remain no Internet-wide system for due process. There is no way of administering an oath online. “Sworn truth” is not native to cyberspace in the way that frank truth is.

One reason that that Anthony Ciolli countersued was that it allowed him to issue a sworn statement out to the world. Now someone could suggest that Ciolli could have shored up his reputation by getting a blog. The main reason I’d object is that blogs are not generally used in that fashion. People end up polluting their blogs with a whole mess of thoughts which might detract from such serious declarations. They are idiosyncratic, and do not have standard navigation. Three years ago I suggested something called the Hearsay Network, which would link people and their opinions (many applications of this sort are emerging on Facebook, though haven’t gone as far as managing the evaluation of hearsay declarations). But I never thought to build oaths.

Imagine there were such a Notary Internet run by a nonprofit. Every major search engine would interface to it, such that a search for “Anthony Ciolli” would bring up notarized statements by people swearing under that name in addition to the conventional results. This could mitigate the effects of Search Engine Obfuscation as reported here last August. There would also be a nominal fee (paid to the nonprofit) for filing notarized statements; they would be greater than zero, but less than court & legal fees. In addition, the system could begin to develop an arbitration process for handling the online torts of defamation and privacy exposure if the injured party does not want to pursue it in the courts.

The oath is accepted as a test for sworn truth because there are penalties for lying: the crime of perjury. It’s not so clear that frank truth has a similar correcting mechanism. Neither Wikileaks nor AutoAdmit (nor many other online communities of discussion) appear to have any regular processes for evaluating the claims made on their site for truthfulness; everything is to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. It’s possible they get at the truth, but it may ultimately be irrelevant to their success.

Cases like Wikileaks and Autoadmit have always attracted a phalanx of civil liberties and media organizations for upholding speech for its own sake. There is inherent value in that. But truth is a desired value as well, and there ought to be a similar level of commitment to it on the part of the community builders of cyberspace.

Update, March 10th: Marc Randazza, a practicing lawyer and first amendment law professor at Barry University in Orlando (and Ciolli’s lawyer in last year’s lawsuit), gave it an endorsement over the weekend. Now all I need is a free speech balancer to do the same, and we’d be all set. Free speech balancers, I’ve learned, are less quick to make endorsements. I suppose that comes with the territory.