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With Gawker's campaign over on Indiegogo right now to raise funds to purchase a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack, rewards-based crowdfunding is currently having its Skokie vs. the neo-Nazis moment.
For those of you that aren't First Amendment lawyers, the case of the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group, vs. the Village of Skokie, Illinois was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977. The court held that the racist group's right to march through a predominately Jewish neighborhood (which was also home to at least one holocaust survivor) with swastikas on full display was protected by the first amendment.
The point is that the court has found time and again that the protections of the First Amendment are quite broad, and must be applied equally, even to groups and speech that the vast majority of Americans find abhorrent. This is why we all know about the Westboro Baptist Church today.
In the crowdfunding world thus far, which is made up almost entirely of privately-held platforms, Indiegogo has been the one major platform that has opted to operate in the spirit of our First Amendment (and also in the spirit of laissez faire economics) with an "anything goes" attitude. There are, of course, some limitations to what can be crowdfunded on Indiegogo -- neo-Nazi groups actually couldn't use the site for anything that promotes hate, for example -- but for the most part It has been far more permissive than the other widely recognized platform, Kickstarter.
So far, it's seemed to me that Kickstarter's curated approach and Indiegogo's policy of openness have complemented each other nicely and helped grow the industry by offering a (potentially) high profile home for projects of all types. If Kickstarter feels too much like the cool kids' playground, you can always take your project to Indiegogo, and if Indiegogo seems a little too all over the place, you can refine your campaign to be a better fit for Kickstarter. We have our crowdfunding Ying and Yang, and all is well.
At least it was, until Gawker decided to thrust this monstrosity of a campaign into our happy little world via Indiegogo.
No stranger to sensationalism and questionable methods of acquiring a scoop, Nick Denton's flagship gossip blog is looking to crowdfund $200,000 to pay Somali drug dealers for a video of embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine and slurring (in more ways than one) the names of his political adversaries.
A Gawker editor and two Toronto Star reporters have seen the video in person, but its owners say they require the six-figure amount to hand it over for publication, claiming to want the money to move out to Calgary and start a new life.
No matter how you spin it, Gawker's Indiegogo campaign is asking for money from the public to give to crack dealers and further humiliate a Canadian politician (who clearly seems to have a problem).
Indiegogo's Terms of Service do prohibit using the platform to pay drug dealers for drugs, but it's apparently fine to pay drug dealers for video footage.
And perhaps it should be. Like the protections that America's First Amendment provides for everyone, even hate-mongers like neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptist Church, maybe the crowdfunding world needs a platform like Indiegogo that can be a go-to venue for even the most base campaigns, like Gawker's Crackstarter.
But I sure as hell don't plan to contribute.
- Eric Mack is Managing Editor for Crowdsourcing.org. He has covered business, technology and politics for more than a decade for major outlets including CNET, CBS, AOL, NPR, Wired, and the New York Times. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter and Google+. Also be sure to follow Crowdsourcing.org on Twitter and join our Crowdsourcing community on Google+.