May 28, 2024

Why So Much Attention to "What's a Website?" Judge?

One of the benefits of talking to the press is that reporters often ask thought-provoking questions. Recently Noam Cohen, a New York Times columnist, called and asked me why the Net community gets so excited when a public figure professes ignorance about the Net. It’s natural for people to chuckle at Ted “Tubes” Stevens or George “Internets” Bush; but why devote so much e-ink to them? This was the topic of Mr. Cohen’s latest column, which quotes part of our conversation.

The latest victim of Net outrage was a British high court judge, Peter Openshaw, who reportedly said during a trial, “The trouble is, I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a web site is.” Predictably, the Net responded with derision.

Like most folk tales, the Technologically Ignorant Policymaker story has legs because it connects to a deeply felt concern of the community. In this case, it’s the worry of Net folk that policymakers will cluelessly cripple the Net. One ill-considered comment is not by itself a big deal, but it becomes a symbol of a broader problem.

It’s worth noting, too, that in the case of Stevens and Bush the storyline resonates with the speaker’s reputations – fairly or not, neither Stevens nor Bush is thought to be particularly curious or well-informed as policymakers go. Fewer people know about Judge Openshaw, but his comment must have resonated with concerns about judges in general.

Though cathartic for Net folk, these incidents do have a down side. The next time a judge or policymaker hears technical jargon he doesn’t understand, he’ll be a bit less likely to ask for a clarification. And it’s better to ask a question and learn the answer than to stay in the dark.


  1. Although I’m generally inclined to cut people some slack when it comes to understanding the finer points of computer technology, I have to admit that I’m less charitable when it comes to people in positions of authority. The difference between the President, Senator Stevens and the judge and my Dad is that they have the power to influence the development of, and access to, that technology. Dad doesn’t. If Sen. Stevens were sitting on the Ways and Means Committee it wouldn’t be considered unfair to expect that he develop more than a “dummies” level understanding of the Tax Code. I’ve known alot of judges over the years who were very conscientious about gaining expertise in the kinds of matters that came before them, whether it was environmental regulation or medical malpractice. We appoint physicians to be Surgeon General and lawyers to be Attorney General in recognition of the fact that medicine and law are extremely complex, specialized fields that require professional training and experience. As for the President, it’s been awhile since we’ve had someone in the Oval Office who considered it his duty to actually understand the details of the matters that came before him. For a long time it was actually seen as a vice. I think the end result of that approach very predictably got us where we are today. As for the whole Al Gore “invented the Internet” slander (we of course all now know that he didn’t actually say what was claimed), back at the time I too jumped on the bandwagon to ridicule the Vice President — and am ashamed of myself for being so easily manipulated. I, and many others, owe Mr.Gore an apology for that.

  2. Do you honestly think any of these politicians REALLY decide what’s going to happen? Do you think they actually write the laws they pass?

    Your Representatives in Govt. have been bought and paid for. They don’t learn know nor care about the affect the laws they pass have, beyond the affect they have on themselves, namely an increase in their own personal wealth and power.

    When Congress attempts to destroy the internet through legislation please do not get mad at them, for they are just corrupt and selfish people. Be mad at the powers that pull the strings, the real behind the scenes power people who want nothing less than to enslave the whole world.

  3. That depends — what are their term limits? 😉

  4. QrazyQat says

    We’re hardly talking about technology; we’re talking about things so basic my aged mother knows what they are. And in the case of people like Stevens we’re talking about people who have been working on legislation regarding that tech for years — how long do they get this “I shoul;dn’t have to know anything” pass?

  5. What are lolcats?

  6. Qat:

    I’d rather they get even the basic basics from the parties, or from a special master appointed for the purpose. Because if they read a dummies book and misunderstand something, or the book is mistaken or misleading, then the understanding of the more complicated stuff will be compromised as well. Looking back over the history of technological jurisprudence, it’s quite possible that much more damage has been done by judges who thought they understood the technology than by ones who didn’t…

  7. Tomer Chachamu says

    ‘Just try to explain to some people that Al Gore honestly is a smart technophile, and see how far you get. They simply will not accept the concept. He isn’t “One Of Us”, so he can’t be anything but a moron.’

    But what does Al Gore know about lolcats?

  8. QrazyQat says

    You would want someone to make decisions based on what they thought they understood from a Dummies book?

    They should get some of the most basic basics before they start — certainly one would expect anything remotely complex to be covered during a trial or hearing by one of the contending parties. So, yes, a Dummies style book should be a start, but your suggesting that they would make their final descision based on just that is either incredibly ignorant of how a hearing would work, or a very silly strawman.

  9. In that case in the UK, the actual evidence involves allegations of usage of internet sites. So one would have thought that the judge and jury should have a rudimentary understanding of the terminology and basic principles.

    I think we have reached the stage where he that can best bamboozle the judiciary and legislature, wins.

    Which is probably what is going on in Congress at the moment with the purveyors of the Clouseau system that was mentioned here a while back.


  10. Qat:

    You would want someone to make decisions based on what they thought they understood from a Dummies book? (No offense to those books, but they’re typically light on the kind of subtleties that, as Matthew Skala observes above, may be crucial to a good decision.

    There’s an interesting discussion at Bruce Schneier’s blog about a case where the fact that someone apparently didn’t have a password to access someone else’s computer wasn’t considered a bar to their giving third-party consent for a warrantless search. It appears that the judges did indeed consider some of the technical issues involved. More important for purposes of this discussion, I think, is the disagreements among technically savvy people about what safeguards you might have to put on a computer to have an expectation of privacy and what technical steps police should take to ensure that their warrantless searches are permissible.

    It’s hard, reading that discussion, to come to the conclusion that wrong decisions are being made simply because people don’t understand the technology.

  11. QrazyQat says

    Is it really too much to expect that someone whose job is to make decisions about X to do some tiny bit of learning about X before embarking on their job? Like skim through “X for Dummies” or the like?

  12. To go a little further than Seth Finkelstein, it’s also a way of defending (consciously or unconsciously) against the fact that many of “Us” don’t necessarily know what we’re talking about either. Anyone who engages in technical discussions will quickly find that there are relatively few terms (forget “web site”, try to define “object-oriented programming” or “chip layout”) on whose meaning everyone agrees precisely. Usually some Potter-Stewart style handwaving can get us around most of the problems, but sometimes it’s precisely in the differences about definition of terms that the crux of the rest of the argument lies.

    Of course, if you’re trying to develop a priesthood, jargon whose meaning changes depending on whim or context is a fine way to keep outsiders away, and to engage in internecine struggles. (Not a terribly good way to make actual progress tho.)

  13. If politicians/judges/lawyers/laypersons are so curious about what the intertubes are, they should just go to Wikipedia or something. If the judge was genuinely curious, he can be excused. But Senator Stevens, who is basically in charge of the Internet, was completely clueless about how the internet works. It would be like putting me or Ed Felten in charge of the Department of the Interior, and then getting up in front of everyone and saying “A forest is just a bunch of wood.” I’m sure the hippies/treehuggers would be up in arms, just as the techies get up in arms when someone with either direct control or influence over technology has no idea what he’s talking about.

  14. Your post is extremely diplomatic. But it’s far broader than “… Net folk that policymakers will cluelessly cripple the Net.”. Per Matthew Skala’s comment above, it’s that anybody who isn’t One Of Us is a blithering idiot who cannot possibly understand the first thing about a topic. Just try to explain to some people that Al Gore honestly is a smart technophile, and see how far you get. They simply will not accept the concept. He isn’t “One Of Us”, so he can’t be anything but a moron. When he got smeared about his Internet comment, it was started by a very deliberate hit-job from a sleazy “journalist” who was playing to the net.libertarian mindset. There’s many factors at work, including notable paranoia-mongering (even if the Internet does have people after it).

  15. I think it’s related to an unusual feature of the computer and networking communities: they lack credentialing systems for doling out respect and admiration. Unlike in most other fields, it’s not the graduate degree or job title or money earned that signifies that you have made it. Instead, it’s a measure of your perceived knowledge (or lack thereof) that separates the wizards from the peons.

    What this has led to is pedantry as extreme sport. Techies pore over every statement made by others to quickly assess whether they are in the presence of one who deserves respect.

    Lawyers can be pedantic, but techies are more pedantic. If a lawyer sees another laywer write “de minimus” instead of “de mininis” or confuse his infras and his supras, we may chuckle a bit, but we won’t dismiss the rest of his argument or assume the worst about his skills as a lawyer as a result of such slip ups.

    Note that I’m calling this behavior “unusual,” but I’m not necessarily saying it’s a bad thing. The computer world is much more of a meritocracy than any other field going, thanks in large part to its garage hacker roots, and extreme pedantry may be a less laudable side effect. But it helps explain, I think, why the Senator Stevenses and Judge Openshaws of the world are so ridiculed.