Blogfest In Hooville: The Regulatory Challenge

Virginia’s blogosphere marked an important milepost Saturday with the gathering of some 50 bloggers and other digital-media publishers in Charlottesville at the “Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth,” hosted by UVa’s Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership.

The bloggers came in all sizes and stripes, from teen prodigy Kenton Ngo, the 14-year-old author of the 750 Watts blog, to grizzled newspaper veteran Frosty Landon, the former executive editor of the Roanoke Times who now runs the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Participants included office holders, former office holders and would-be office holders. Lawyers, lobbyists, citizen activists and gadflies all took part.

Most encouraging, I found, was the attendance of four respected political journalists: Jeff Schapiro and Pamela Stallsmith with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mike Shear with the Washington Post (who has his own blog) and Bob Gibson with the Charlottesville Daily Progress. As much as we bloggers like to torment the “old media” for its failings, we also crave its credibility and legitimacy. We were glad to see that serious journalists deemed the summit worth attending.

The most important thing about the blogfest is that it happened: Bloggers who had known each other only digitally got to put faces to the names. I agree with Will Vehrs’ characterization below that the Summit got off to a slow start with a couple of “good government” sessions only tangentially related to blogging. But the pace definitely picked up with a presentation by Chris Piper with the Virginia State Board of Elections. Piper offered bloggers a dose of harsh reality. The good news is that the politicians are paying attention to what we’re saying. The bad news is, they don’t always like what they hear, and there seems to be increasing interest in regulating what we do.

If there’s one thing that can unite bloggers of all political persuasions, it’s any threat to their untrammeled freedom of speech and right to free expression. For the most part, the audience responded negatively to the idea of regulation by politicians. At the same time, it should have been clear to anyone who listened carefully that bloggers do not publish in a vacuum, free of constraints. Bloggers must come to grips with the following:

1. State election law. The State Board of Elections has the power — like it or not — to compel people to report their campaign contributions. That extends to the blogosphere. Anyone who blogs for a candidate in coordination with that candidate or his agents must abide by the same reporting requirements as someone who donates any other “in kind” contribution. This won’t affect most bloggers who, for the most part, are free agents. But it will affect bloggers for hire. Left unanswered is what recourse the state has when shills blog anonymously or under pseudonyms. In practice, state election law may prove difficult to enforce.

2. Libel. Freedom of speech does not include the right to slander and libel people. End of story. The blogosphere thrives on rumors and innuendo, much of which borders on libel. It is only a matter of time before a blogger gets sued.

3. Privacy. We have not yet seen the emergence of a blogger paparazzi, but that day may not be far away. In one recent incident, a Virginia blogger reported online the substance of an elected official’s private conversation he had overheard. The politician was incensed, prompting queries to the State Board of Elections. Cell phones now come equipped with cameras, making it easier than ever to invade someone’s privacy by taking his picture and posting it on a blog. It’s only a matter of time before a blogger offends a politician, who then seeks retribution through regulation.

The bloggers at the Summit didn’t come close to resolving any of these issues. Getting hyper-opinionated bloggers to agree on anything may prove as frustrating as prodding Iraqis into agreeing on a constitution. But if Virginia’s blogosphere is ever to achieve the legitimacy of the old media, if bloggers are ever to reach the audience and attain the credibility we desperately want, we need to begin setting standards for ourselves.

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