Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Should Blogs Have a Seal of Approval?

April is the 10th anniversary of the blog, and there is no better indication of how contentious the medium has become than the growing number of calls to regulate it.

The current darlings of wannabe regulators are so-called codes of conduct, guidelines on what is and is not appropriate in online discussions and stuff like whether people are allowed to comment anonymously.

The issue has come to a head because of an epidemic of cyberbullying, mostly infamously the death threats and other vile forms of intimidation directed at Kathy Sierra, who blogs on high-tech issues and found herself in the crosshairs because of a dispute on whether inflammatory comments made on blogs should be deleted.

Leading the charge for codes of conduct is big-time blogger Tim O'Reilly, who perhaps not coincidentally is a PR man. O'Reilly has posted a draft of a sample code on his website.

The draft includes these headings:

Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

Ignore the trolls.

Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.

On the whole, these guidelines seem reasonable and substantially jive with the comments policy at The Moderate Voice, where I coblog. And as a commenter notes at O'Reilly's blog, this is how people should behave to each other in general, not just in the blogosphere.

O'Reilly says that codes of conduct are not a form of censorship, explaining "That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech. Free speech is enhanced by civility."


But where I part company with O'Reilly is how he would try to enforce good behavior: Through multiple codes of conduct with corresponding logos not unlike movie ratings -- in effect Good Blogkeeping Seals of Approval -- that would indicate whether a blog accepts anonymous comments, obtains second sources for gossip and breaking news and certain other predetermined parameters.
O’Reilly notes that these codes would be voluntary, while David Weinberger tells The New York Times that "The aim of the code is not to homogenize the Web, but to make clearer the informal rules that are already in place anyway."

Weinberger, who is an Internet expert and Harvard Law School fellow, should know better.

Like it or not, codes of conduct will have a constraining effect on a medium that is best when it is free form:

* Will I feel pressure to agree to a conduct code and post a logo at Kiko’s House because my blogging peers do?

* Will merchants and political campaigns be reluctant to place ads on blogs that don’t hew to a code of conduct?

* Will blog host providers like Blogger and WordPad pull the plug on bloggers who don’t sign on?

* Will codes of conduct become springboards to government regulation?

As it is, the legal implications of blogging – most pungently whether a blogger can be sued for a libelous comment left by a reader -- are just beginning to be sorted out, while codes of conduct don't really deal head on with what I believe is the most pressing blog-related issue -- harassment of woman bloggers like that experienced by Sierra.

O'Reilly got Jeff Jarvis's snark up at Buzz Machine:

"This effort misses the point of the internet, blogs, and even of civilized behavior. They treat the blogosphere as if it were a school library where someone — they’ll do us the favor — can maintain order and control. They treat it as a medium for media. But . . . it’s not. It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do. And if I don’t, you can judge me accordingly. Are there rules and laws? Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual: If I libel or defame you on the streetcorner or in a paper or on a screen, the recourse is the same. But I don’t put up another badge on my fence saying I won’t libel you. I just don’t. That’s how the world works. Why should this new world work any differently? Why should it operate with more controls and more controllers?"
Instapundit was one of the first blog that I bookmarked six years ago. Glenn Reynolds is underwhelmed and predicts endless infighting over the terms of the codes of conduct:
"I certainly don't believe that deleting nasty comments is an assault on free speech. Commenters can always get their own blog -- why should they have a 'right' to have their comments appear on other people's blogs. The downside, though, is that once you start deleting comments people will tend to hold you more responsible for any comments that you don't delete."
While Daniel DiRito motors right past these concerns at Thought Theater and uses an everyday analogy to make the same point:

"Anyone who has been blocked from merging into traffic from the onramp or had another vehicle veer suddenly into an opening the size of a small Yugo just in front of them at 60 miles an hour during rush hour or been flipped off by an otherwise perfectly normal looking housewife understands that badges serve little purpose in informing others of the behavior to be expected. . . ."

We’ve got a very slippery slope here, folks, and it doesn't seem like big thinkers such as Reilly and Weinberger are grasping the negative consequences of what on its face seems like doing the right thing – and could end up being all wrong.

Besides which, there already is an alternative available to Good Blogkeeping Seals of Approval. It’s called the DELETE key.
I blog because of the freedom it affords me. Constraints on that freedom no matter how well intended ultimately will have the effect of limiting it.

Image: Interactive map of the blogosphere by Matthew Hurst

1 comment:

Geoff_Livingston said...

I am wholeheartedly behind this effort. There's nothing to be lost from a code of ethics that's opt-in.