Friday, February 26, 2010

How do you research a secret treaty?

Word on the street is that the United States is in negotiations about a treaty entitled, "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" or ACTA, for short. It's tough to nail down details because the parties to the treaty have (apparently) agreed to make the negotiation secret.

Can we get official information about such things? Probably not - that's the point of the secrecy. Our usual sources for treaty and other legal information will likely fail us. Since we can't get "official" information, can we at least get reliable information?

We could use Google to search the New York Times. Here's how the search might look: [ "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" ] And it appears they're following the story. But, it appears they've only got a small handful recent articles.

Compare WikiLeaks, a relative newcomer to the world of journalism. We could use Google to search Wikileaks: [ site: "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" ]. 47 results in many languages -- looks much more like unedited access to primary documents than a couple of New York Times articles.

The differences here between New York Times and WikiLeaks points to the important role that reputation plays in legal research. We rely on legal materials, in part, because we know where they came from. The law itself lays out many of those materials and we can navigate them predictably. But when the law (or, more cynically, politicians) prevent access to primary information, the legal researcher must turn to "shakier" sources. Journalists and news outlets spend much effort to verify what they report because ultimately they're trading on reputation. In turn, the legal researcher has to similarly bring a critical eye.

-- Patrick Flanagan

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

The excellent blog Boing Boing ("A Directory of Wonderful Things") regularly posts material related to the treaty. Check out this recent post:

It contains links to more of the site's coverage of the copyright treaty.