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The Brief on Groklaw - page 3

The Scope of Groklaw

  • November 5, 2007
  • By Roy Schestowitz

Q: About a year ago, the notion of "crowdsourcing" was introduced. It was akin to open-source reporting and a few months ago, some people argued that it failed miserably due to lack of consensus, hidden interests, and complexity. What would be your advice--from an editorial point-of-view--to those who fail to coordinate a joint (or multi-player, so to speak) publication? What model would be most effective?

PJ: I'd say you need a pyramid setup in any collection of information. Consensus can't work as well. Some people know more than others about a subject, so they need to have more influence. That is the essence of a meritocracy. You want no barriers to entry to contribute information. That informational flow must be totally free. But as it filters upward, you need people you can trust, who actually are skilled in that area and have the expertise to know what is valuable information and what is junk. And you need a person at the end of the process to make final decisions. That is how Groklaw is set up. So is the Linux kernel.

It certainly can and does happen that folks contribute information without even knowing why it matters legally. I might recognize an angle that they have no awareness of because they have no legal-related training or experience, but they still end up contributing the most meaningful piece. Or members will see some technical point that I absolutely wouldn't have noticed or known about at all. I have people who are skilled in that area to advise me on picking out the gems there, and I am not so foolish that I overrule them, because I know what I know and what I only sort of know. So everyone contributes what they know best. Over time, I find out who is good at what tasks, so that's what I ask them to do more of.

But you have to have a final decision maker, or a group. Otherwise, you end up doing nothing but discussing process and whether or not to do Z or X or Y.

Q: The depth of coverage and scale of Groklaw is immense. How do you manage to locate past writings of yours and organize resources that you use to conduct research?

PJ: I wrote it, so I remember it. I know how Groklaw is set up, and I remember the general order of events, so I can go through the Archives by date or by keyword. We also have a search engine. Computers are wonderful, but so is the human brain. When you have a lot of human brains working together, it's powerful. The other day, for example, I wrote an article about a SCO filing, and I didn't remember one very important detail about the APA between Santa Cruz and Novell, an amendment which altered the terms. An anonymous reader left a comment that reminded me of that amendment. That happens a lot. And when it happens, I'll add it to the article, to make it more useful not only now but for historians.

That is the secret of Groklaw, so many thousands of skilled people who each may remember one piece of the whole that the rest of us forgot and when you add all such contributions together, it's really valuable. I learn a lot from Groklaw myself.

Q: Have you ever had any regrets about being unable--whether because of time constraints or physical capacity--to closely follow and cover a particular issue?

PJ: Yes. There have been several cases I wanted to follow in more depth but just lacked the time.

Q: At times, Groklaw appears to set its focus on ethical and humanitarian causes. Were there any times when you felt like you could serve your readers better by stepping outside the realms of technology altogether in order to cover completely different topics? Let's assume that preferences, background, and interests of the existing readers are not an issue here.

PJ: No. I like doing what I'm doing. I care about being a decent, ethical person, and obviously the entire community felt a moral outrage at what SCO was doing, so that's probably why you got that impression, but Groklaw isn't cause-based. I'm realistic, and I have no illusions about remaking the world. I'm merely trying to explain one piece of it.

Groklaw is an experiment in applying open source principles to legal research, and that is where we'll keep our flag planted. It's not about causes. I don't belong to any such organizations personally.

I try my best to explain in accessible language what is going on in the courts. That's it. There is one cause, I guess you could say. Groklaw is intended to be a bridge between the legal and the technical communities, so they can cooperate.

When they each understand what the other does and why, they can help each other so that eventually court decisions are more solidly based on how the tech actually works, what it can and can't do. I see that cooperation as an urgent need, for two reasons: everyone today can be a publisher on the Internet. So everyone needs to understand how the law works. And second, computers and the Internet are new enough that many lawyers and judges are not yet up to speed on the tech, and that can result in decisions that are unworkable or just legally bizarre. That causes pain, cynicism about the law, and even market results that are counterproductive and very costly to fix. So spreading technical knowledge to the legal community and legal knowledge to the tech community is ultimately helpful in preventing such problems. That's the hope, anyway.

This article originally appeared on Datamation, a JupiterOnlineMedia site.

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