Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (left) and police chief Kathleen O’Toole (third from left) stand with Seattle city neighborhood leaders at an October 2015 press conference.Nextdoor
SEATTLE—On Wednesday, the Seattle Police Department tried its hand at an online question-and-answer session to hear feedback from its citizens, and the department chose a burgeoning online platform to host its first-ever online “town hall”: NextDoor.com.
Users can only access NextDoor forums—a service that is used nationwide—based on their verified address.
That makes neighborhood-specific pages semi-private groups, but there’s also content that’s marked for broader, city-wide access.
The city’s town hall meeting fell into the latter category.
Unlike a real-life police town hall, however, the Q&A session had additional restrictions. Only NextDoor users who could confirm their address could listen. More problematic was the fact that the proceeding was subject to NextDoor’s terms of service, which blocks users from publicly reposting any content from the site.
A Seattle reporter found this out the hard way when she was warned by—and then banned from—the site for reposting questions posed to SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and her responses.
“A clear violation of the state public disclosure act”
The message Barnett received from a NextDoor representative, who was identified solely by the name “Bobek,” clarified that her quotes from O’Toole were fine—it was the quotes from other users that he said violated NextDoor policies.
“If you want to include comments from NextDoor members, you have to secure their permission to do so,” he said.
Barnett told Ars that such a request doesn’t hold muster with Washington state law, at least in terms of a town hall-styled event.
“This would be like demanding that TV cameras stop recording at public meetings when citizens are commenting,” Erica C.
Barnett, an independent City Hall reporter, told Ars after breaking the story on Wednesday. “It is a clear violation of the state public disclosure act, which states that communications with public officials, like the police department, are public record, with exemptions for things like police report redactions.”
Enlarge / If you want to join NextDoor.com, you’ll need to provide proof of identity in one of these three ways.
A reporter is alleging that using such a restricted forum to host official police correspondence with citizens may violate Washington State law.
NextDoor requires that its users confirm their address in one of three ways: by having home or mobile phone service attached to a mailing address; by having a credit card attached to a mailing address; or by getting a code mailed in postcard form to their place of residence—which can take three to five business days, according to NextDoor.
Without going by one of those three methods, users simply cannot create a NextDoor account.
In this town hall’s case, that not only limited the ability to submit questions but also the ability to review which questions were posed, which ones were answered by SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and how she answered them.
Thus, should a Seattle citizen not have a way to confirm a current mailing address, or prefer not to disclose that address to a third-party social network, they can’t see the event’s full record.
No meaningful response, for now
NextDoor has been built with civic engagement in mind, including dedicated tabs for “local agencies” in most major metropolitan areas.
In our cursory search, we found NextDoor profiles for other official City of Seattle agencies such as the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities.
In October, NextDoor commemorated the one-year anniversary of its “partnership” with the city of Seattle by hosting a press conference with Mayor Ed Murray—complete with a giant NextDoor banner.
In the case of the population-dense city of Seattle, NextDoor.com has a lot of use by citizens on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
Barnett has previously reported on users in some parts of the city complaining privately to each other about homelessness, and even using screengrabs to compare those online-forum conversations to how those complainers spoke at public City Hall forum events.
Ars sent questions to the Seattle Police Department asking why it chose a closed forum for official police correspondence with citizens—and whether it will eventually publish the full transcript of both questions received and responded to. When reached by phone, SPD’s public records department asked Ars to submit its questions via e-mail, which we did.
Ars will update this report with any response.
In the meantime, Seattle’s mayor responded to Barnett not by e-mail but by Facebook comment, saying: “I think you raise important questions [about NextDoor], and I have requested a review.”
UPDATE 6:13pm ET: Barnett has publicly confirmed that her NextDoor account was later reinstated, but only after she’d reported on being booted from the site.