05/29/2012 06:41 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Privacy, Human Rights at Legal Frontiers of Digital Media

New markets, copyright, IP addresses, freedom of speech, human rights and, of course, privacy -- these were the hot topics of the Legal Frontiers of Digital Media Conference, which was jointly sponsored by the Media Law Resource Center and Stanford University's Center for Internet & Society. The two-day event provided a crash course in emerging legal issues surrounding the distribution of content on digital platforms.

Remarking on the impressive turnout and lively discussions, organizer Sandra S. Baron, executive director of the New York-based Media Law Resource Center, elaborated on the conference goals of shedding light on "the legal side on the intricacies of the technologies" and educating participants about "some of the key legal traps" and "some of the ways to manage them."

Beyond the legal community, the conference drew a wide audience from international policy groups, publishers, media corporations to small start-up entrepreneurs and journalists to academics and students, undergrads and grads in digital media, all of whom came to hear the perspectives of digital media and law experts from AOL, Inc., Dow Jones & Company, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Evernote Corp., Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft Corp, Pandora, San Jose Mercury News, Warner Brothers, Yahoo, and venture capitalists such as August Capital, Blumberg Capital, CMEA Capital.

The Monday sessions commented on the future of journalism, the problem of monetization, copyright, the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and complex questions about which human rights principles and laws US-based internet companies should apply when operating overseas in environments.

Many audience members were Internet veterans, who have spent years confronting legal issues with content distribution on digital platforms. Fred von Lohmann, senior copyright counsel at Google, reflected on how copyright has been an issue since the earliest search engines. Asked how to address the various obstacles of digital platforms, he cheerfully sloganeered "As we say at Google 'launch and iterate,' " by which he meant the best approach for digital media companies, since the waters of copyright will remain murky for some time, is simply to launch content, learn from the inevitable public and legal response and then improve. The "launch and iterate" mentality allows for experiments in freedom of expression as well as public participation.

The conference theme of "frontiers" articulated a keen urgency to protect the diverse and far-flung reading and writing publics, who use digital media. Thus, much of the discussion centered on the limits of involvement in countries that restrict freedom of expression and the potential impact on human rights in those countries. Addressing the increasingly global operation of Internet platforms, panelists asked how to prevent the industry from sinking to the "lowest common denominator" of free speech as defined by regimes in authoritarian countries.

Ebele Okobi of Yahoo! offered the example of Yahoo!'s decision to abide by Singapore's laws even for their operations in their Vietnam site, and also raised questions about employee safety in countries less open to free speech.

Such questions also impact North American and European contexts, where U.S. and European norms differ greatly and the average user may understand neither free speech nor defamation and how to better educate the public on what is permissible and legal in a world of often notorious "over-sharing" in social media.

The second day began with Internet privacy issues. Nick Doty of University of California, Berkeley and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) helped explain the operational side of social media and how privacy works in such companies as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Pinterest. A chill set over the room as Doty reminded the audience of experienced digital media users of what they should already understand:

"You know that your smartphone has GPS and maybe you also know that it embeds your photos with your current location. Well, anyone who later receives those files, through social media or some other means would then have access to information about where you were at the time...." The implications were clear that such access to information could lead to serious harm if not sufficiently protected.

Indeed (even self-induced) over-exposure from social media has consumers worried -- as many still continue to participate in a culture of incessant sharing. The conference hoped to address these consumer concerns, especially as users become better educated about social media and ask more questions about their privacy.

Most striking in these sessions was the impression that all social media companies assert their interest in privacy and their anxiety about consumer and press responses.

"Privacy more than ever is a brand issue" insisted Jay Mohanan, Deputy General Counsel at Zynga Game Network Inc. Surely, it's in the interest companies to secure privacy and it's good business to let consumers know about such efforts. Industry has a lot to lose if it fails to secure privacy for consumers.

Consumer privacy keeps social media companies awake at night:

Many commented that the lack of privacy could stifle further innovation. Nick Doty, for example: "If we don't figure out privacy issues, we'll miss out on the next awesome social media service."

Facebook's legal counsel Susan Cooper related her company's efforts to institute "privacy by design," that is, to build privacy into the platform for easy consumer use. She confessed how nerve-wracking it is trying to produce evermore concise and accessible privacy options, and to wake to a thunder of consumer and press reaction.

Some audience members responded that such anxiety about privacy on the part of an industry is a good thing. One conference aide, Stanford University undergraduate entrepreneur and engineering/physics major Kevin Shutzberg tweeted:

"Are the social media privacy issues about what these websites could do with our data... or about what they are doing with our data?"

Law professor Neil Richards of Washington University commented on the different approaches to privacy in the university, which tends to worry about principles and consumers, and the industry, which is driven by profit:

"Academics tend to ask 'how and in what form should privacy be protected?' while privacy lawyers tend to ask 'how can we do what our client needs to do while still respecting privacy?' Often these questions can end up in the same place... " But the interests differ.

UCLA PhD candidate Luis F. Alvarez-Leon elaborated on the tension between monetization and privacy:

"To me the central concern of the conference -- but also for the immediate future of the digital economy is the balance between economic growth and the consequences of using information as its main commodity."

Panelists from the industry asserted the problem lay more with "third parties" and "rogue apps," who may not comply with social media companies' protocols. From the perspective of the venture capitalists who offered some visions of the industry future on the last panel, privacy issues needed to be solved to insure that new "frontiers" will open and that consumers will have confidence.

"We are living in a world where data is the platform" said David Hornik, of August Capital.

For Saad Khan of CMEA Capital, use of this data is a prime concern.

Stanford University Symbolic Systems major, Reid Spitz, who was fascinated to learn that "venture capitalists are looking for ideas that fundamentally change the way we use the technology that's already available to us," also learned an old lesson anew: "the trust of the users is key."