Sidewiki as Sunstein’s electronic sidewalks

by on September 29, 2009 · 5 comments

This week Google unveiled Sidewiki, a tool that lets users annotate any page on the web and read other users’ notes about the page they are visiting. Professional Google watcher Jeff Jarvis quickly panned the service saying that it bifurcates the conversation at sites that already have commenting systems, and that it relieves the site owner of the ability to moderate. Others have pooh-poohed the service, too.

What strikes me about the uproar is that Sidewiki is a lot like the “electronic sidewalks” that Cass Sunstein proposed in his book The concept was first developed in detail in a law review article by Noah D. Zatz titled, Sidewalks in Cyberspace: Making Space for Public Forums in the Electronic Environment [PDF]. The idea is a fairness doctrine for the Internet that would require site owners to give equal time to opposing political views. Sunstein eventually abandoned the view, admitting that it was unworkable and probably unconstitutional. Now here comes Google, a corporation, not the government, and makes digital sidewalks real.

The very existence of Sidewiki, along with the fact that anyone can start a blog for free in a matter of minutes, explodes the need for a web fairness doctrine. But since we’re not talking about government forcing site owners to host opposing views, I wonder if we’re better off with such infrastructure. As some have noted, Google is not the first to try to enable web annotation, and the rest have largely failed, but Google is certainly the biggest to make the attempt. As a site owner I might be worse off with Sidewiki content next to my site that I can’t control. But as a consumer of information I can certainly see the appeal of having ready access to opposing views about what I’m reading. What costs am I overlooking? That Google owns the Sidewiki-sidewalk?

Cross-posted from Surprisingly Free. Leave a comment on the original article.

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