Neighborhood Name License, part 2 – Content Restrictions and their Chilling Effects

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neighborhoods with prohibited symbolJackson Heights, New York, February 7, 2016 – The draft Licensing Agreement for the city’s neighborhood domain names has several significant limitations. In a previous post we wrote about a “Without Cause” clause that allows the city to withdraw the right to use a neighborhood domain name at its whim – without explanation and without cause. We opined about this limiting the ability of a developer to garner the resources necessary to create an effective dotNeighborhood.

Today we’re focusing on more substantive problems, content limitations presented in the draft Licensing Agreement. There, in Exhibit B, the Acceptable Use Policy, one finds “Prohibited Content,” which details a dozen restrictions on categories of information that can be presented. We have serious problems with five of them.

Prohibited Content #1: “campaign-related materials or partisan political materials;”

We’ve always imagined the dotNeighborhoods as significant new venues for presenting and considering the qualification of candidates for elective office. Who better knows the needs of the neighborhood and the qualification of candidates than the neighbors~voters?

The first problem with the campaign prohibitions is the lack of definitions. What is “campaign- related” and “partisan?” Is there an impartial watchdog to enforce it? Who appoints its members? How are violations enforced?

But perhaps we should take a different approach. If we’re trying to create a better democracy, keeping money from polluting the candidate selection process, which we do very well here in New York City, perhaps the Licensing Agreement should require that dotNeighborhoods maintain a “campaign zone” where election materials can be posted free, or for a nominal fee. The license might also require that when elections approach these zones provide a prominent space on the dotNeighborhood’s home page announcing “It’s Election Time” and provide links to candidate promotional materials. There might be some restriction on the nature of the materials – for example, length limitations on video materials – intended to level the playing field by reducing the necessity for significant investment.

Prohibited Content #2: “offensive sexual  material, as described in New York Penal Law § 245.11, as it may be amended from time to time and/or material that contains image(s) of a person, who appears to be a minor, in a sexually suggestive dress, pose, or context;”

We don’t have a problem following the prescriptions of the state penal law, but when the prohibition gets into the “and/or materials” that extend its reach, we get concerned. We wonder who is going to determine the type of dress, pose, or content that is suggestive. Who is it that selects these censors? What are their qualifications? What penalties may they impose? And who sets the rules they are to follow?

Prohibited Content #3: “words that match, contain recognizable misspellings of or are otherwise recognizable variations of any of the seven words identified in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978);”

Here the city imagines that the 7 filthy words and their variations are going to be hidden from the tender eyes and ears of youth. Here again definitions are a problem – “recognizable variations?” And what’s the remedy and who enforces it? Must the operators of the dotNeighborhood keep a vigilant eye on every comment posted?

And beyond the spirit offered here, isn’t it a bit silly for New York City to proscribe the words its residents use? The “Filthy Words” pertain to a national broadcast TV standard, not what New Yorkers say on their neighborhood websites. Let the First Amendment rule here.

Prohibited Content #4: “promotes unlawful or illegal goods, services or activities;”

Obviously we don’t want the dotNeighborhoods promoting illegal activities. But does livestreaming a non-permited rally constitute promoting an unlawful activity? Must the operator of a dotNeighborhood keep watch over all posted content, checking for parade permits before allowing a link? Again, a problem with definitions and regulatory enforcement.

Prohibited Content #5: “image(s) or information that demean an individual or group of individuals, on account of actual or perceived race, creed, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, whether children are, may or would be residing with such victim, marital status, partnership status, disability, or alienage or citizenship status as such categories are defined in § 8-102 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York (as it may be amended from time to time) or, for those categories not there defined, as they are commonly understood;”

Again, this is well intended, but adding the concluding phrase “as they are commonly understood” leaves too much room for abuse by the regulatory apparatus.

Chilling Effect

If you add all these ambiguities of definition together with the city’s recourse to the “Without Cause” clause, you end up with a chilling effect that will crush speech, innovation, and experimentation in the neighborhoods: a Sword of Damocles capable of jerking the basic platform away without cause.

Next

Our next post on the draft Licensing Agreement will focus on the innovation eviscerating requirement that dotNeighborhood operators receive prior approval from the city before adding secondary level domain names (here).

 

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Neighborhood Name License, part 1 – CAUTION: “Without Cause”

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(Commons Photo courtesy of sporkwrapper.)Jackson Heights, New York, February 2, 2016 – The deBlasio Administration’s licensing initiative for the neighborhood domain names is currently accepting applications. So if you’re a neighborhood activist or budding media mogul, and want to activate Astoria.nyc, ConeyIsland.nyc, GreenwichVillage.nyc, Harlem.nyc or any of the 380 other reserved neighborhood domain names, submit your applications now. (Here’s the application.) Successful applicants will be notified on February 12.

While we’re extremely supportive of the initiative, there’s a clause in the draft Licensing Agreement that diminishes the likelihood of serious parties investing the necessary resources, a “without cause” clause in Section 3.b of the draft Agreement which states:

Either party may terminate this License Agreement without cause (effective immediately);

We wrote the mayor’s office about our concerns (this one and a few others that we’ll post on soon) and were told they were reviewed “with the Law Department and while we are unable to amend the terms per your request, we have certainly noted your requests.” So seemingly, while the version of the Licensing Agreement shared with us says “DRAFT—NON-FINAL & DELIBERATIVE,” so far it seems changes will come from the city sans consultation with residents.

As we stated above, we love the “dotNeighborhoods” and see them providing a fantastic opportunity to improve engagement and provide a civic toolbox that will facilitate innovation and improve the quality of life. (See our Adding Internet Mojo To Neighborhoods pages.) Indeed, we gave serious thought to applying for the JacksonHeights.nyc domain, but the “without cause” clause forced us to hold off. How could we approach investors and garner the necessary resources without the city providing a serious commitment?

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UPDATE, February 5, 2016

This past December we contacted several elected officials about the “Without Cause” clause and the hardship it would impose on an entity seeking to garner the resources to undertake the development of a dotNeighborhood in a serious manner. We heard back from one recently, who informed us that in checking with their office’s attorneys, they were told that this was a standard clause in all city contracts. We checked the city’s agreement with Neustar Inc., the holder of the contract to operate the .nyc TLD for the city, and found no such reference. (See the city’s contracts with Neustar here.) When told of our finding a representative from the same city official said their office had received complaints from others about the situation and would be looking into it.

We don’t doubt that eager city lawyers try to impose a ‘Without Cause” clause whenever they can. And perhaps they sometimes impose it. But if the administration is serious about adding the Internet’s capabilities to improving the economic and social quality of life in our city’s neighborhoods, this clause has got to be removed “Without Delay.”

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2015 – The Year of the dotNeighborhoods

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neighborhoodJackson Hts., New York, January 18, 2015 – One of the unheralded achievements of the de Blasio administration’s first year was saving the neighborhood domain names – Astoria.nyc, Bensonhurst.nyc, Chelsea.nyc, etc. from the auction block. Under Bloomberg, these historic names were slotted to be sold off during the Landrush period to whoever had the biggest bank account. But under the guidance of Mayor de Blasio’s Sr. Adviser Jeff Merritt, the names were reserved:

The City of New York has reserved roughly 400 neighborhood names for use by community groups to develop new online hubs for civic engagement, online organizing and information-sharing. Neighborhood names will be available beginning in Fall 2014 and will be licensed to community groups through a competitive application process.

In order to be eligible for a .nyc neighborhood name, the lead organization must meet the following minimum qualifications: (a) registered as a not-for-profit, public benefit corporation or local development corporation, and (b) located within the neighborhood for which a .nyc domain name is sought.

Neighborhoods have been a long-time focus of ours. (See our dotNeighborhood wiki pages.) We’ve imagined vast unrealized social and civic potential, hamstrung by inadequate communication. Our most noticeable involvements with them was a collaboration with the New York Internet Society and Wikimedia-NY that explored the potential of neighborhood wikis. (See NYCwiki.org). So we were delighted by this development.

Over the next year a considerable part of our efforts will focus on making the most of these dotNeighborhoods. We hope to plan a pilot project with the following components:

  • Organizing – Write an on the ground plan for ways to engage local residents and organizations to support the venture. This will include ways to determine local training needs and integration with existing entities – digital and traditional.
  • Technology – Create a system with five components:
    • Centrally gathered neighborhood data: demographics, maps, economic info, government programs and grant information. Here we will look to collaborate with the city administration and entities such as Beta-NY.
    • A host system that includes a wiki component enabling everyone to record and publish a neighborhood’s memory. (For example, see Davis Wiki.)
    • Features that support discussion, decision making, and organizing.
    • An app for engagement while roaming the streets, with 311, service reviews, and peer connections.
    • A business model.
  • Best Practices – Establish a process for sharing ideas with other neighborhoods.

We invite the many who’ve indicated supported for our dotNeighborhoods initiative to limber up their minds and/or fingers and get ready for a most exciting year. Those who do not receive our dotNeighborhood notices should sign-up using the form at the lower left below.

NOTE 1: A paper on city neighborhood names was presented at a November 2015 “The City As A Commons” conference in Bologna, Italy by Connecting.nyc Inc.’s Thomas Lowenhaupt. See it here.

Note 2: We’ve published a series of pags on dotNeighborhoods. See them here.

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