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Tech Industry

Why we don't care about Josh Wolf

CNET's Charles Cooper says the jailed blogger's plight is another example of Valley quietude when it comes to getting involved.

I'm so glad the media scrum surrounding Anna Nicole Smith is dying down. There are so many more urgent stories begging attention these days. Such as Britney Spears' latest whereabouts. Meanwhile, a San Francisco video blogger named Josh Wolf remains in the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, Calif., where he continues to set new records as this country's longest-serving journalist behind bars.

Wolf's family and friends understandably can think of little else. He's become the poster child for a variety of free speech advocates who say his imprisonment vividly symbolizes the loss of press freedoms in post-September 11 America. You might assume more people would be listening, but Wolf's plight has failed to capture the public's imagination.

On a whim, I tried an Internet search. Google came up with 1.84 million mentions of Wolf's name on the Internet. Not bad, but far behind Britney, finishing second with 38.1 million. Anna Nicole naturally remained the people's favorite with a whopping 54 million hits.

I obviously stacked the deck here. When it comes to what folks find more compelling, large breasts always trump freedom of speech. What could be more American?

Still, this is more than just an additional proof point that our dumbed-down era still has room for further decline. Wolf's plight remains disturbing on several levels--not the least being the near-absolute silence from Silicon Valley or the tech plutocrats who chart the future of this multi-billion dollar industry.

It's not as if this crowd doesn't know how to voice its concerns. When self-interest is involved, there's no shortage of talking heads eager to bloviate.

In case you haven't followed the story closely, Wolf videotaped a July 2005 demonstration in San Francisco protesting a meeting of the G8 economic summit. The local district attorney wanted the unedited footage to assist a police investigation into violence which marked that night. The 24-year-old refused to turn over the full video to a grand jury. Because prosecutors brought the case in federal court, where there are no shield law protections, Wolf had two choices: comply or go to jail.

As of today, he's spent 185 days in jail and could remain inside until the grand jury's term expires in July.

Civil liberties-minded folks are upset about the press freedom issues raised by Wolf's imprisonment. But Wolf's self-proclaimed status as a video blogger also opens a Pandora's box the fourth estate would just as soon see remain shut. More than any case I can recall, the Wolf case reflects the changing way journalism is being practiced in the age of Internet bloggers.

In 2006, a California appeals court rejected Apple's attempt to force a couple of blogging sites to disclose their sources. The court didn't buy Apple's argument that the bloggers failed to qualify as legitimate journalistic enterprises. But the court decided not to decide the tricky question of what constitutes "legitimate journalism." To do otherwise, said the judge who authored the opinion warned, would be to imperil the very values the First Amendment was intended to protect.

Unfortunately for Wolf, he caught a bad break. If prosecutors had tried the case in state court, California's shield law would have applied. Wolf could have argued he was practicing the craft of journalism by virtue of his role as a news blogger about current affairs. It did not matter who his employer was. The state would have had its hands full trying to disprove that claim. I doubt that many of my colleagues in what's come to be known as the mainstream media would welcome Wolf into the fraternity with enthusiasm. But times are changing--fast.

What hasn't changed is Silicon Valley's collective quietude when it comes to getting involved. Considering the counterculture roots of so many who laid the foundation of this business, I expected to hear people weigh in. But the tech industry has been silent during the entire time Wolf has sat in prison.

It's not as if this crowd doesn't know how to voice its concerns. When self-interest is involved, there's no shortage of talking heads eager to bloviate. So it was that several stars from the high-tech firmament dutifully trooped to Capitol Hill last year when Congress debated Net neutrality legislation. No less a personage than Google CEO Eric Schmidt publicly lectured how those who understand such things need to educate government about the Internet's role in society.

Probably a good idea, too. How about extending that noble concern to a disquisition on the Wolf case and the importance of free Internet journalism--practiced in a myriad of ways--in that same society?

"It's rare that we as a company would get involved in something like this," said an executive with one computer company I spoke with. "There are so many other issues to deal with."

That's why I wonder. Who really cares about Josh Wolf?