September 22, 2006 12:35 PM PDT

Newmark reflects on the power of the Web

NEW YORK--As part of the inaugural celebration of OneWebDay, a worldwide tribute to online life, Craigslist.org founder Craig Newmark met with a group of law students to discuss everything from "The Colbert Report" to the headaches of Manhattan real estate.

Celebrations for OneWebDay were held in cities as diverse as Milan, Tokyo and Vancouver, and also in the virtual realm of "Second Life." In New York City, Newmark was slated to give a talk at Battery Park along with Meetup and Fotolog founder Scott Heiferman, Wired magazine publisher Drew Schutte and city council member Gale Brewer.

Beforehand, however, Newmark took time to speak with students at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, delivering a brief and casual lecture before opening up the room to questions and discussion.

He was introduced by Cardozo associate professor Susan Crawford, a OneWebDay organizer whose academic focus is on intellectual property and the law of cyberspace. "Because the Web is made of machines, we often forget that it's a social place, and Craigslist is a great exemplar of that," Crawford said.

Newmark's focus was, appropriately, on law. "We have a constitutional crisis in this country right now," he said, talking about Craigslist's work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and its advocacy of freedom of speech and information online as well as its focus on privacy issues. Craigslist, after all, has proven controversial with its insistence on largely unregulated content that's kept in check by "flagging" on the part of users rather than by a surveillance staff. EFF advocates "like us because we give them many exciting opportunities on the bleeding edge of Internet law," he said with a laugh.

In addition to speaking about the legal issues that plague the Internet, Newmark also zeroed in on the Web's potential as a people-powered crime-fighting tool. Citing the obvious example of citizen journalism, he praised it for its "eagerness to speak truth to power." Nevertheless, Newmark acknowledged room for improvement, particularly with regard to the quality of editing and fact-checking on blogs and other forms of citizen media.

Additionally, he spent time on the subject of wikis--not only the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, but others like Congresspedia, which has been responsible for unearthing some lobbyist-related corruption recently.

But Newmark, ever self-effacing, downplayed his own role in Internet crime-fighting and insisted he's an advocate, not a hero. "I don't think I'm Batman," he said. "I'm more like McGruff the crime dog."

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