April 17, 2003

What Blackboard May Be Thinking

Edward W. Felten writes, regarding the Blackboard lawsuit:

Most businesses know that it's wise to honor the values of their customers. So you've got to wonder what Blackboard was thinking when it sued to block a conference presentation last weekend.

Blackboard's customers are colleges and universities. As Karl-Friedrich Lenz observes, these are organizations that hold freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry as central values. Seeking an injunction against both speech and inquiry, as Blackboard did, and making that injunction so broad, has got to rub many of Blackboard's customers the wrong way.

With respect, it seems to me that there is a fundamental reasoning error here, of excessive generalization. That is, the logic seems to be:

1) Blackboard's customers are "universities"
2) But "universities" value free speech
3) So Blackboard's actions are contrary to the value of its customers

This is a very appealing chain of inferences. But it's also a chain with many holes. First off, the idea that customers-are-universities conflates many different factions. Are they selling their product to students? To professors? Even deans? No, they're selling to the administration. It's not hard to consider that the specific administrative buyers, might not be as dedicated to free speech and open security investigation, as the computer-science department. Indeed, in large organizations, it's not unknown for one faction to consider something that upsets another faction to be a positive rather than a negative ("If those bloody X'ers over at Y are against it, it must be good!")

There's also people who might be more critical of the overall idea that universities support free-speech. They certainly do in some cases, but that's another generalization in itself. But that's a whole different topic.

Moreover, are Blackboards customer's only universities? That doesn't seem so - they have Government and Corporate customers. Having a few universities squawk might be an acceptable loss in the short run if the tough-guy image helps with government and corporate customers. Indeed, the press release tends to spin this way, in terms of action-against-competitor which might be viewed well by another business.

I'm not claiming that Blackboard analyzed things to this level of detail. Or even thought about the issue at all. But we should be wary of preaching to the choir, and then concluding that opponents are behaving in an utterly irrational and incomprehensible manner

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on April 17, 2003 01:28 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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