Blogger’s Code of Conduct: a Dissection

Why dictating online conduct is a bad idea

Due to the recent kerfunkle over the Kathy Sierra affair, Tim O’Reilly has now proposed a “blogger’s code of conduct” (covered with no less than a front page article in today’s New York Times.) In this entry, I will dissect the code and highlight why I think such a code is a bad idea.

June 26th of this year will mark the 10th anniversary of the ACLU vs. Reno decision in the supreme court, which struck down the communication decency act and extended first amendment protection to the Internet:

The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.

It is based on that legal grounding that I believe that codes of conducts will generally result in lowering the value of internet speech. The last sentence, in particular (“he interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship”) represents what I believe to be the most outstanding statement as to why Internet speech needs to be protected. That said, let’s now go into a dissection.

We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. We present this Blogger Code of Conduct in hopes that it helps create a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation.

I, too, believe in frank and open conversation. The establishment of rules (or codes) seems to act as a way to “close” conversation, even if it is in a way that is limited by certain boundaries and while I agree that frankness and lack of civility are not equals, a question immediately arises as to who considers what proper civil discourse? Looking back at the creation of the United States and the institution of the Federalist papers, civility has generally been seen as the enemy of openness. The discourse between the US founding fathers was far from civil (even, in the celebrated case of Hamilton vs. Burr, ending up in a disagreement on civility ending up in a duel that greatly shortened the life of one of America’s greatest genius.) So, from the opening statement, we are already faced with an interesting challenge: how do we “encourage both personal expression and constructive conversation” while at the same time trying to clamp down on disagreement through that dangerous weapon called civility?

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

I generally agree with that comment but the challenge here is that it leads to immediate censorship. If I disagree with a comment on my blog, this statement basically puts me in a position to forbid that comment as I do not want to take responsibility for it. So, at this point, I am being forced to decide that comments on my site will have to agree with my own view or I have to take responsibility for comments that I disagree with. How many bloggers will be tempted to act as censor in those cases?

We are committed to the “Civility Enforced” standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we’ll delete comments that contain it.

Deletion works as active form of censorship and also introduces an interesting legal question. As editor of the comment section, one would then become liable for every other comment that made it through, increasing the possibility of people being prosecuted because of the comments on their sites. Without censorship, they could be seen more along the lines of common carriers and would find themselves faced with a greater chance of winning such case. By agreeing to delete, they could face a tough battle.

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:
– is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others

Once again, let me harp on who gets to define those terms. What constitute abuse? Is saying that “I believe so and so is a dimwit for saying…” considered a type of abuse?

- is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,

Libelous is a word with a lot of legal weight to it. This opens up a whole set of legal issues around how people talk online. The appearance of falseness can be enough to trigger a lawsuit (but not enough to win) and this portion seems to also fly in the face of a lot of established law (Zeran v American Online, for example). Another question about this section is “knowingly false”: to whom? to the owner of the blog? to the writer of the comment? to the person the comment is made about? to other parties?

- infringes upon a copyright or trademark

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, O’Reilly, AOL, etc… are all trademarks. I have not put a TM after every single one of those trademarks in posts I write on TNL.net, which technically makes me in violation of this effort, from a trademark standpoint.

For the purpose of this post, I am quoting the substantial majority of the post by tim O’Reilly, which would technically put me in violation of his copyright. However, Tim has a Creative Commons License so he’s granting me some rights. Unfortunately, the rights granted by the CC license also say that you can’t reuse the content for commercial purpose: I run adsense ads on this site, which could be considered a commercial effort so, as such, I would technically be in violation of Tim’s copyright AND CC license. Under the terms of this, quoting substantial portion of copyrighted content would be a violation of the code. This means that blogs now have a choice: write only original content without extensive quoting or don’t run ads. It’s a tough choice for many bloggers.

- violates an obligation of confidentiality

Enron, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate are only a few high level cases in the United States that involved a violation of confidentiality. Recent such violations could include the revelations about Abu Ghraib prison and Walter Reed. None of these stories could exist without such violation. Would it be a good thing to purge them?

- violates the privacy of others

This is a higher standard than what is currently given in any other media. Public persona are not given privacy protection in traditional media. Should it be different online?

We define and determine what is “unacceptable content” on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]

Who is we here? And why a “case by case” basis? This seems very dangerous to me, especially with the express notion of those standards changing at any time with no notice.

2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

I generally agree with that but what about people using the anonymity of the Internet in order to avoid reprisal. If that standard is held, then it will do a lot to clamp down on information that could have been useful but, because it is about powerful people, can’t be disclosed without fear of reprisal.

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

Does that mean that every person that’s talked about it contactable? If the president of the United States makes a comment, how do I connect privately to him before responding publicly? Does my sending him a letter constitute such private communication or do I need to wait for an acknowledgment of receipt?

When we encounter conflicts and misrepresentation in the blogosphere, we make every effort to talk privately and directly to the person(s) involved–or find an intermediary who can do so–before we publish any posts or comments about the issue.

Same as above. What if the attempt is not answered? Does that make it OK? Do we need to vet every comment beforehand? Should I send this to Tim and wait for his comment before I publish it? What if he sits on it: does that quash the story altogether?

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

What type of action? What constitutes an unfair attack?

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible–see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.

Once again, how do we contact them? What if they don’t respond?

If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn’t withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

Isn’t that already codified by existing law? Why does a code of conduct need to codify this? It’s already a given that such thing must happen (lack of cooperation with law enforcement can carry heavy fines and imprisonment). Which law enforcement authorities should we cooperate with: all of them? Only some? For example, if the Chinese government, Syrian government, Iranian government, South Korean government or other type of government where freedom of expression is not as expressively granted as it is in the United States contacts us, should we comply? I say no, but this code appears to say yes.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

Going back to my examples regarding the pentagon papers, Watergate, Enron and others: those would not have existed without anonymous comments. How does this code deal with that?

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

What happens if they hide behind a free email service? Is that OK? If so, what is the value of this statement?

6. We ignore the trolls.

This seems to be in violation of the rest of the code as ignoring them means giving them a free pass? If we delete their comments, we’re not ignoring them.

We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don’t veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them–“Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

If that’s the case, why should they be deleted then? This last section seems to contradict the rest of the code…

Because of such lapses and because I believe that “the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship,” I have to say that this code is not only a bad idea but one that should strenuously be rejected by members of the blogosphere.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://strominator.com David Strom

    Tristan, I disagree with you. As a blogger and site owner, you have a responsibility to present commentary and discussion, certainly. But when small minded people post threats and comments that cross the line, you certainly can delete them. There is nothing wrong with accepting anonymous postings that are responsible, or disagree with your positions, as this one does. But not when I say something illegal, or immoral, however you wish to interpret them.

    I am all for reasoned and civil debate. What I am not for is cyber-bullying, and promoting illegal acts. There is a big difference between saying that I don’t agree with your position, and saying that I will do you bodily harm.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    David,

    I don’t think we really disagree here. The question is who gets to decide what crosses the line. And what is considered illegal online.

    I’ll take an extreme example: A follower of Moktada al-Sadr posts an entry on his blog on wordpress.com asking to join the protest and force the US troops out of Iraq. A Kuwaiti commenter disagrees with him and says that people who follow the party line from Iran should be executed.

    In this case, you have two promotions of illegal acts (forcing the US forces out of Iraq through violent protest and execution of dissenters) from two different parties on a US-based blogging service.

    One could argue the commenter is cyber-bullying the author of the post.

    Which body of law applies in that case? Iraqi? Kuwaiti? US? That’s the kind of can of worm such argument opens.

  • http://www.google.com erin m

    You make some good points. I hope Tim’s draft evolves. Don’t have more to share on that but I’ll address two of your concerns:

    1) (TM)ing trademarked words could be easily solved with an in-line word filter if one wanted to get anal about CYA.
    2) Create a non-commercial template for posts violating commercial-use reprint copyrights. IOW, a post using an ad-free template does not directly profit off another’s work and would probably meet the spirit of such a CC license. Again, anal, but easily implemented by most CMSs.

  • http://www.candleboy.com/candleblog/ Bill Simmon

    Tristan,

    Were the Blogger’s Code of Conduct a law to be debated in front of the SCOTUS, or a code or rule with any sort of teeth behind it, I would agree with all of your points and aggressively rail against it. It is not fit to be a binding agreement of any kind, but nor was it intended to be. I think by parsing the language of the code, you’ve entirely missed the point. There is no arbiter of the code and so there can be no recriminations for its misuse. “who gets to decide?” you wrote in an above comment and that’s just it… you do — it’s your blog. This is how it is now and how it would still be, even if you adopt the code or portions of it: you moderate and set the tone for your own blog as you see fit. The point of the code is to shift the culture of the blogosphere so that those of us who prefer civil discourse over crazy troll flame wars can stand up and say so, even if we each disagree about the vagaries of the code’s language. It’s like a bunch of bloggers standing up and saying “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” There can be no censorship without teeth and this code is all gums.

    Anyway, here’s my post about it (somewhat more eloquent, I hope).

  • http://www.google.com erin m

    Hmmm, that you have comment moderation seems like you support some sort of conduct policy, right? And that by employing comment moderation wouldn’t that be the same as your counterpoints to item number “1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog” and portions of its sub-points? That you make yourself a comment editor and thus make yourself liable for content? Or is moderation simply an act of spam protection for you and you let everything through?

    Gad, there are really no good solutions to the social ills esp. when the prevailing attitude of the current U.S. administration is perceived as so hostile to its citizens’ basic rights. But then I am sure that in the long-run the internet will find a way to honor the U.S. Constitution, other cultural constructs, and ultimately social justice without running roughshod over its legitimate users and unintentional abusers.

    Yeah, right. Where there’s a word and offense to be erroneously inferred, there’s a person wanting censorship. That’s right, I’m talking about you Willis. And Thailand. And Turkey. And China. And et al. :(

  • Jack

    Just a typo comment: “ending up in a dual” – I think you meant “duel”.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    Erin: Agreed that creation of a separate template *could* work but let’s not forget that most blogs tend to comment on other posts (and, as a result, a lot of posts would be non-commercial in nature). That could defeat the whole CC approach to life (hmm… come to think of it, I feel a future post coming on :) )

    Bill: But if it’s only a question of self control, we already have that. Then why do we need a code? Adoption of a central code means agreement with some form of central authority doesn’t it?

    Erin (again :) ): I do indeed moderate comments and do so for two reason: first and foremost the spam (as any bloggers know, it’s one of the scourge of comment areas) and the second is egregious abuse. For example, one of the comments I received on this thread was purporting to be from Tim O’Reilly (dumb move listing an address that isn’t really his :) ) That one comment didn’t make it through. Otherwise, I tend to let everything through. The main reason for doing so is that there are few trolls and the conversation (whether I agree with a reply or not) is often more interesting than my own post. There’s also a certain challenge in taking that approach, though as I have found similar types of death threats or insults as the one Kathy Sierra received. Those types of comments don’t make it through (unless there’s real value in the rest of the comment). I’m starting to think that maybe a way to redact posts out (strikethroughs with a mouseover highlight saying that this portion of the post was struck out by the editor) could be a way to solve this but so far I haven’t used that approach yet.

    Jack: Thanks for that. Should be corrected by the time this reply is posted :)

  • Rob Bryan

    You seem to be criticizing Tims piece as if it were a proposed set of regulations to be enforced upon bloggers everywhere. I take it to be a statement by one blogger (and those others who choose to agree with him) as to how he intends to run his blog. Reading it in that light, as it seems obviously intended, none of your objections make any sense to me.

    I mean, you require people to put in a name, and delete comments you deem to be spam. You have rules for how you run your blog. Tim seems to be saying it’s a good thing if people have rules for how they run their blog, and are upfront about stating them, so here’s one set of such rules.

    On the copyright issue specifically, quoting Tims piece in order to comment on it is not infringing, it’s fair use. And you do not infringe any trademarks by talking about Pepsi without putting a TM after it. You infringe on the Pepsi trademark only by selling your own soft drink and calling it Pepsi.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    Rob: I was dissecting the piece as Tim himself wants to see this become a standard (see his previous piece):

    At our brainstorming session at Etech, Kaylea Hascall suggested something like the Creative Commons badges that sites employ to label the re-use rights provided for their content. This would let people know which sites to avoid, if they aren’t willing to put up with foul language and insulting comments, and as in the blogher guidelines, let people know in advance what level of discourse is expected.

    Explicit labeling of “danger zones” is probably not going to take off (I can’t imagine sites labeling themselves “flaming encouraged”), but the idea of sites posting their code of conduct might gain some traction given some easily deployed badges pointing to a common set of guidelines, as Kaylea suggested.

    I consider such a think dangerous in that he suggests that not wearing that yellow star (or scarlet letter) will instantly mean you’re to be avoided. That attitude is very scary to me.

    On the copyright issue, it actually is infringing to quote such a large portion. If I were quoting only a segment, I would not be infringing. However, because I quote pretty much all the article, I probably am infringing (but that’s something that a laywer could probably argue either way). Another question I didn’t raise in my post is “what do copyright and trademark have to do with civility?” It’s odd to find them in that laundry list of prescriptions. In what way is copyright or trademark violation an indication of the level of discourse expected?

  • Ryan Forrestal

    even if this code gains wide acceptance its completely non-binding (kinda like those moral contracts we all signed in high school “i wont drink and dad will be my DD”. how many people actually lived up to those?). so unless codes of this sort are found binding in court, or a single unified code of conduct becomes an industry wide requirement (ie. ISPs wont host sites that don’t adhere to said single unified code. think the comics code authority) i don’t think many of the legal or censorship issues will really come to fruition.

    instead i think what’s really distressing is whats only touched upon in Tristan’s article. the mysterious “we” (essentially all of those people who decide to utilize and enforce the code) have would be setting themselves up as the moral authority of the web. its a bit sanctimonious. they know better than we do and they’ll let us know if we do something wrong.

    “When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible–see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.”

    this line of the code doesn’t talk about policing ones one comments. it talks about the mysterious “we” contacting and chastising other people for what appears on sites “we” have nothing to do with.

    think about that, with wide acceptance there will be a bunch of people out their who think its their moral duty to contact you every time you publish something inaccurate. the current state of affairs (you write an article, some one writes a response, and over time one gigantic link filled story develops that covers every angle)take a big hit. now you’ve got people writing you and telling you what your doing is wrong, and you should stop in fairly condescending way. i think the sheer annoyance this code would bring about would be its biggest problem (notice that this chain of events also violates the parts of code that bar trolling and pissing contests).

    on another note there is no guarantee that practitioners of the code will all agree utilize it in the same way. think about this: a white supremacist blogger signs on to use the code. He starts blogging terrible things about jews. Now thats all well in good, because in this case “we” is a white supremacist and doesn’t consider antisemitism to be offensive. But he does find semitism to be offensive. now either we get a (very apropriate) backlash against this blogger from the jewish community, or he enacts the section i quoted above. he starts to email proprietors of jewish websites and admonish them for posting offensive material. either way angry people begin to gang up on our nazi friend. and what does he do. he hides behind the bloggers code of conduct. this happens enough times (racists, the tasteless, blatant trolls) and blame will begin to shift to the code it self. and when that shit storm comes a callin its going to land firmly on Tim O’Reilly and/or whoever else sets up the code of conduct. now they certainly aren’t at fault when people eventually pervert their goal, but the media as a whole tends to present the narrowest possible angle in regards to these types of events (in this case bloggers creating a shield for offensive material).

  • Rob Bryan

    Well, I still think being up front about how one intends to run ones blog is a good thing. I can see your concern if this particular code became a pervasive standard, and everyone knew what the gold star meant or whatever. Honestly, I just can’t imagine this gaining that kind of traction. I see the upside of people thinking about what their “code of conduct” ought to be as bigger than the threat of this ones imperfections become oppressively universal.

    I do agree that copyright and trademark are weird inclusions in a civility-oriented code of conduct.

    And I still don’t think you’re infringing Tims copyright. Your purpose in quoting him is what matters: you have quoted his piece in order to illustrate your arguments about it; this is clearly fair use. If one wishes to be safe in asserting such a defense if it comes to doing so in court, it is best to have quoted as small a portion as possible. But the size of the portion is not an absolute standard, and is only relevant for lawyers arguing about whether you’re lying about having quoted him only for illustration. Here in the court of common sense we can note that you’ve made a detailed, point-by-point critique, and it’s only reasonable for you to have quoted each point you address. My point is that when I say you’re not infringing, I don’t mean that nobody could possibly sue you or that they would definitely lose; I mean that in my opinion they ought to lose (and in this case I’m confident they would).

  • http://www.candleboy.com/candleblog/ Bill Simmon

    if it’s only a question of self control, we already have that. Then why do we need a code? Adoption of a central code means agreement with some form of central authority doesn’t it?

    I haven’t seen any form of central authority or arbiter of the guidelines proffered and my support for the code would vanish if that happened. The code is a show of solidarity. I have a “support EFF” button on my blog that tells my readers that I support bloggers rights, that I am conscious of fair use issues and free speech issues and that I am against warrantless wiretapping. Every link I put on my front page is an indicator of the blog culture that I align myself with. So it is with this code and the badges — it’s a message to the rest of the internet that at my blog, I won’t tolerate aggressive, violent, misogynistic ad hominem attacks on me or my commenters and that I reserve the right to delete these comments at my own discretion. Yes, my commenting policy may already say as much, but an organized movement sanctifies the message and allies my blog with others that feel the same way, and hence, the message carries more weight (ideally).

    The same is true with my EFF button. I could post two or three paragraphs about how I feel about the internet and individual rights, but it’s much easier for me to post the EFF bug (and ideally get people to go there and become EFF members).

  • http://opengeek.blogspot.com Doug Dingus

    Either people give a shit, or they don’t.

    IMHO, no amount of this kind of thing is really going to make one bit of difference to those, who simply do not warrant this level of consideration.

    So, why bother then?

    I see this as a kind of holier than thou approach to establishing what should otherwise be social norms. Instead of having to work out some framework, that will be flawed, why not instead take the time to engage one another and resolve things, just as we always have?

    Incidents are gonna happen no matter what.

    So, the difference then is we get to say, “You broke the code!”

    Are you kidding me?

    Why not just say what the problem really is. If there really is a problem, then it’s easily articulated and supported by facts right?

    What I see as most dangerous is the tendancy to label some bloggers and or participants as being ‘bad’ when the reality, considered with tolerance and objectivity front and center, is they may simply be different, and or not understood.

    For the most part, words are just words. How angry we get, upset, etc… is largely up to us! If we go down this path, we will sharply reduce the value of our online conversations to that which would not offend anybody and that’s fucking useless!

    I’ve put some profanity here. I did it to underscore a point; namely, that we all are participating because we want to and that comes with a price. Said price is having the strength of character to take the time to understand each other and act accordingly. Does a profane word really bother you? Would we all be better off not using them? How and when is using them acceptable and not? It goes on and on and on…

    This debate has been going on since we’ve had language! Do we think we can just come out with a quick and dirty set of rules that makes everybody happy because we have an Internet now?

    Get real. Get back to what drives you. Enjoy the others and do what you can to keep the peace. Try assuming the other guy really meant no harm and reason from there first, rather than the other way around. If you have an excuse not to be angry, then take it and we all are better for it.

    There. All the rules any of us needs.

    This stuff is not hard, unless we want it to be.

  • http://jergames.blogspot.com Yehuda Berlinger

    I wrote my own code of conduct a week before the Kathy affair. It avoids many of the problems you pointed out.

    http://jergames.blogspot.com/2007/03/blogger-code-of-ethics.html

    Yehuda

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    As a moderator one has the responsibility to call folk to task when they get out of hand. Something like: Behave yourselves! That, and the absolute right to delete anything you want to delete.

  • blogesota

    You are parsing with a microscope here. All that was suggested is that people take ownership of their property and be accountable for their behavior. And have some manners. And as far as I can tell, it was intended to be voluntary.

    I’m afraid that all this “freedom” pollutes many, many corners of the internet. There are sites that I don’t read anymore due to the flaming and bad manners. There are also sites that have lost their integrity and have crossed the lines of common human decency. Go ahead and post whatever the hell you want. i don’t care. But it would be nice if people would be nicer, fairer, kinder, and more constructive. Sometimes the blogosphere looks like a big, stinky pissing contest. And I don’t like it.

  • Taodon

    I know, let’s a have a code of conduct for everything we do in our lives! Why stop at blogging? We should censure speech so we avoid the risk of offending someone! Why stop at speech? In order to truly be a free and loving society, it is the thoughts themselves we should attempt to curb. Since blog comments and speech themselves comes from the thoughts of individuals such as myself, I find it reprehensible that we would allow people to go thinking all willy-nilly whatever they want!

    In other words – I don’t care who O’Reilly thinks he is – he should use his code as a bookmark in a certain Orwell novel. This boils down to one thing – silencing dissent – and it doesn’t matter how pretty you make it look.

  • tde

    I understand that this O’Reilly guy is supposedly some grand internet poo-bah or something, but this idea is some of the most lame-ass naval gazing I have come across in a long time.

    Just to amplify a couple of points you raise: Suppose you are a young Iraqi fortunate enough to have a internet connection. Would he have to post your real name in a blog before he could offer your comments about what is going in in his country? No matter what he says – there is a good chance he will piss off somebody who might kill him. So all of this lofty talk about civility is nice for a bunch of Americans comfortably sitting in an office somewhere – but there is a larger world out there. (Also the same thing could be said of someone in the states who comments about personal issues – abortion, gays, etc.)

    The “connect privately” is particularly dumb. Suppose you read a comment that strikes you as idiotic in a blog. Do you have to seek out that person to try to get them to come around to your point of view before posting a comment pointing out how idiotic they are? Suppose you do manage to get a commenter to renounce his or her stupid previous comment – do they then try to remove it from the comments section? Do you send in a joint comment in which the former idiot renounces his or her prior idiocy? If not, then the comment is just floating around out there unchallenged.

  • NanuqVT

    I admit I skimmed through a lot of the discussion on this site, but the thing I did not see highlighted is that Kathy Sierra’s blog/life has effectively been censored by the threats she received. That weighs pretty heavily in my mind against concerns over “censorship” in the blogosphere. And the fact that the most vicious stuff was posted to her because she’s a woman. Anyone seen a guy geek threatened like this (unless, perhaps, he comes out as gay)?

    I give points to Tim for proposing the standards. Most other comments from guys that I’ve seen (Bill Simmon being an exception) are all about clutching their electronic crotches protectively and whining about being electronically emasculated by online “censorship.”

    Besides, the proposed standards, not all of which I agree with, represented by a proposed “badge” are like labeling a food “all natural” whatever that means: says who? It’s mostly self-imposed standards and marketing to a particular audience. It means you care about what’s going on your site.

    Ten years ago I ended up leaving newsgroups (arguably the predecessor to blogs) because of the viciousness of the flame wars. Boring and nasty.

    I don’t know the answer. I respect the proposal for creating an active response to intolerable violence. I disagree with some of the specifics. I don’t run a blog.

    NanuqVT

  • http://www.derekscruggs.com Derek Scruggs

    Taodon,

    I know, let’s a have a code of conduct for everything we do in our lives! Why stop at blogging? We should censure speech so we avoid the risk of offending someone! Why stop at speech?

    Many of us do. For some it’s the Bible, for others the Koran. For others it’s about philosophy, so they put a link to RedState.org or Daily Kos on their blogroll.

    They do so as a choice. Same deal here. No one makes you do it, and even if you violate it it’s not like you’re going to jail or anything.

    Voluntary self regulation. I don’t remember that being in any of Orwell’s books.

  • http://opengeek.blogspot.com Doug Dingus

    Re: Sites unreadable today because of [something objectionable].

    So?

    There are other places to go, and always people willing to engage others in a better way. If the sites do not self-police, the competition will solve the problem. This is simple and effective and has always worked. It will always work.

    IMHO, each of us is responsible for earning the respect of our peers. Some of us don’t care, and that’s the core of the problem. No code will fix this, thus it’s all largely a waste of time.

    I’ve helped to clean up a site or two. It takes some work, requires some regulars to lead by example and consistantly work to bring out the others doing the same. From there, some moderation, banning, etc.. can weed out the bad elements, leaving a community that has a pretty high chance of success.

    What options a given community has, depends on it’s alpha members, the moderation system in use, and the software.

    Want a more solid discussion? Make sure your alphas are up for that, eliminate anon comments, or (and I said OR) introduce some decent moderation. Where moderation is concerned, it’s either up to a few regulars, distributed among the users, or bottle necked through some filter or user combination.

    I participate in sites where the discussion rules are very open, but a sign up is required to post. This limits the sporadic hit and run type stuff and encourages regular contributors that are actually interested. The occasional holiday fixes most problems. Once in a blue moon a user gets banned.

    One aspect of this site I find interesting is that a ban is not for ever most times. If you want to keep your handle, you take a vacation and work it out with the admin. If this does not fly, or has failed a coupla times, you lose that handle and must return with another. That calms people down somewhat as it’s always easy to tell who is who.

    Many of these blog sites have non-structured comments that just anyone can engage in. This post is an example of that. Good for capturing speech, but bad for community purposes.

    I submit that the active structuring of a community and it’s users is the best defense against this kind of thing. If you can get the community norms, and actually get a community running, the participants will value it far more than they do some gratification and will then behave.

    Don’t do this and you will have trouble, code of ethics or not.

  • Bob McInnis

    Derek,

    Apparently, we should have a code of conduct on everything we do in life. Our selfishness, self-centeredness, uncaring, bigoted, biased, mean spirited, grandstanding behaviour should be evedince that we are incapable of self regulation or limitation. This isn’t a free speech issue, there isn’t a slippery slope. If you want the ‘right’ to express your opinion then accept the responsibility to identify yourself.

  • http://agentultra.com/ j_king

    I’ve been involved in “online speech” since my days connecting to BBS’, Usenet, etc. I’ve been talking since a young age as well — communicating freely with those around me; even encouraged to speak my mind. As I grew older, I learned to value of my freedoms and have kept them close to me. To this day I still believe that any consequence that anonymity and free-speech may have is worth the sacrifice for its benefits.

    I’m no stranger to death threats or being beaten to an inch of my life. I’ve received some online and many more right to my face. While I was in high school, or out in the world scraping to get by. Every once in a while I’d meet someone who didn’t like me, my ideas, what I stood for — and wished me harm.

    Not once have I ever asked for assistance from the law or some regulating body. I’ve always felt that the law did it’s job well enough to protect me in the event something should happen and someone actually does something illegal (like attempting to inflict harm upon me). The police are a phone call away in such events. And if the threats ever became consistent enough to bear warning; it could be investigated at my discretion with just a simple phone call.

    Our world does not need more regulation. We don’t need more babysitters and whiners reaching out and making sure we’re monitored and in-line with the regulated norms. I don’t want someone telling me what ideas are acceptable, what speech is acceptable, where and when I’m allowed to talk freely. The moment that happens is the moment we’re no longer free. In such a world, don’t be surprised if suddenly you’re no longer able to challenge the laws governing you. You’ll become a prisoner of your own fears; and worse — you could lose your humanity.

    Governance is not a tool to control the behaviour of others.

    We control our behaviour.

    We don’t need a code of conduct to control speech online. If this woman felt harassed and thought this person would do something to her; there are already methods at her disposal to protect herself. I’m certainly not giving up my freedoms. I’m not afraid to keep them.

    Question is, are you?

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

    Great job on this, Tristan.

  • Paul

    I think that whoever runs the site can make the rules. I don’t agree with the proposition that engaging in the policing of one’s site, whether to get delete flaming comments, to getting people back on track, or whatever is “censorship.” However, if the blog owner wants to censor the site, let him.

    I also think that you have to distinguish between whistleblowing and telling secrets. FWIW, I think that raising whistleblowers to an elevated status is a mistake. I also don’t subscribe to the view that there should be no secrets, which is an view implicit in teh critiquie above. Sometimes people telling secrets are blowing the whistle, and sometimes they are telling lies to cover their own mistakes. Sometimes people are telling secrets that they shouldn’t be. People who have an obligation to maintain confidences shouldn’t be publishing them on a blog or on the web.

  • http://gailwilliams.wordpress.com Gail Williams

    Nice list of possible issues. (I was thinking along some of the same lines, detailing many of those pitfalls of the draft code with slightly different examples. I’d add signicicant concerns about the binary choice simbolized by a sherriff badge icon and an explosion icon. There are not binary styles in hosting a conversation or contributions. One additional thought I had that I would like to add to the mix is posted at
    http://gailwilliams.wordpress.com/2007/04/10/civilty-codes-of-conduct-and-sustaining-community/
    as “what happens if you display a blog badge but somebody feels you didn’t live up to it? Is that false advertising?”
    Excellent roundup, happy to find your post on smartmobs.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    Ryan: Great point about the mysterious we. It’s something that’s been bugging me more and more :)

    Rob: Thanks for the Kudos.

    Bill: In the initial post, the mysterious we was a point of contention. I think that your analysis of it as equivalent to the “support EFF” type of campaign is on point and part of the reason that, while I am a supported of the EFF, I do not have a badge for it on the site. The reason being that I support a fair number of the EFF activities but also have some disagreement on some others. So my support is not 100% (unlike my support for Creative Commons). And that’s where it get difficult, especially on something as broad as a code of conduct.

    Doug: A well reasoned argument on labeling people as bad.

    Yehuda: I’ll read it and comment on your blog.

    Eli: Isn’t that the way every online forum has always run :)

    blogesota: I am indeed parsing with a microscope (dissection, microscope… god, my blog is feeling more and more like a lab every day :) ) but what you point to is that you don’t read sites you disagree with. However, do you think they should be censored?

    Taodon: isn’t that in itself and extremist attitude :)

    TDE: Agreed

    NanuqTV: Kathy Sierra was not censored; she self-censored. A very big difference. And it’s not just women getting the rough end of the stick. By recent count, I’ve been outed as gay (I’m straight) and called a child molester (I’m not) in public forums (fora?) all because of stuff I put online. All this had done is helped me grow a thicker skin.

    Jon: I’ll read and comment on your site.

    Derek: I think your analogy about choice is a good one. Self-regulation is OK (look at that little CC badge in the corner of this site :) ) but my objection to the initial offering was that it was presented a centralized regulation, which I disagreed with.

    Doug: This site only has the “appearance” of unstructured free for all. I still moderate comments on the site, though I do let most of the stuff through (basic rule: spam is a no-go, personal attacks that do not further the dialogue (ie: “this guy’s a jerk” and no other commenting vs. “this guy’s a jerk because …”) don’t make the cut and things that are outright falseness (like the 3 Tim O’Reilly with free email addresses that were obviously not really Tim) don’t pass either). That said, I can probably count the number of times I’ve censored stuff that wasn’t spam on both hands (the fake O’Reillys moved it past 1 hand :) )

    Bob: Anonymous comments should still be OK though. However, they should be taken with a mountain of salt (that’s a lot of grains :) )

    j_king: Well put but haven’t you ever run into situations where that’s been tested, where your own boundaries were confronted with that reality? For me, that’s where the difficult test is. During the Republican convention in New York, I volunteered for the ACLU and found myself defending the free speech rights or people I thought were complete kooks. It was a weird position to put myself on the line to protect speech I completely disagreed with. Since then, though, I consider myself changed in the sense that I see the true value of free speech and am wiling to lay on the line for it. The US founding fathers were willing to die for it and so it is our duty to attempt (as closely as we can) to follow that tradition and protect that right.

    Jeff: Thanks :)

    Paul: I think you’re on the right track here. Basically, house rules :)

    Gail: Will read your post and comment on your site :)

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    tnl.nettnl.nettnl.nettnl.netTim O’Reilly follows up. I’ve posted the following comment on his blog (but it looks like it might have been moderated out):

    Tim,

    First of all, thanks for starting the discussion here. While I generally agree with the idea that more civility would be nice, I am still concerned that certain people might think that honest disagreement is equal to uncivility. I’d like to quote some of the portions from my dissection of your original proposal, which I believe this posts does not address yet:

    he establishment of rules (or codes) seems to act as a way to “close” conversation, even if it is in a way that is limited by certain boundaries and while I agree that frankness and lack of civility are not equals, a question immediately arises as to who considers what proper civil discourse? Looking back at the creation of the United States and the institution of the Federalist papers, civility has generally been seen as the enemy of openness. The discourse between the US founding fathers was far from civil (even, in the celebrated case of Hamilton vs. Burr, ending up in a disagreement on civility ending up in a duel that greatly shortened the life of one of America’s greatest genius.) So, from the opening statement, we are already faced with an interesting challenge: how do we “encourage both personal expression and constructive conversation” while at the same time trying to clamp down on disagreement through that dangerous weapon called civility?

    I think, if I hear you well on this that you would deal with this by making the code more granular. Am I correct in my understanding? If the system is about expressing a policy, as you mentioned, isn’t it about that policy being more restrictive (or will you have binaries on each of the items, allowing for opt-in and opt-out on each item?)

    let me harp on who gets to define those terms. What constitute abuse? Is saying that “I believe so and so is a dimwit for saying…” considered a type of abuse?

    The question I have here is that it seems like a very tricky ground, one person’s entertainment is another person’s abuse.
    Let me take an extremist example here to amplify this point: battles around porn have often found feminists and religious conservative in the same camp opposing nudity in magazines. They see it as a form of publication demeaning women. However, a substantial portion of the male public sees it as attractive and does not consider it demeaning.
    The reason I am taking this extreme example is that the extreme is generally where most people feel uncomfortable (witness “People vs. Larry Flint”). Community mores are difficult to deal with, especially when it comes to the internet (and its subset the blogosphere) because each community may have different standard. So, for example, what is considered acceptable (or even civil) forms of speech on a left-wing blog would be considered a violation of civility on a right-wing blog (and vice-versa). How does your code cover those areas? This is where some of the really difficult issues arise.

    3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

    Does that mean that every person that’s talked about it contactable? If the president of the United States makes a comment, how do I connect privately to him before responding publicly? Does my sending him a letter constitute such private communication or do I need to wait for an acknowledgment of receipt?

    When we encounter conflicts and misrepresentation in the blogosphere, we make every effort to talk privately and directly to the person(s) involved—or find an intermediary who can do so—before we publish any posts or comments about the issue.

    Same as above. What if the attempt is not answered? Does that make it OK? Do we need to vet every comment beforehand? Should I send this to Tim and wait for his comment before I publish it? What if he sits on it: does that quash the story altogether?

    You are still not answering the questions raised to that effect. What if one doesn’t have the contacts. You are privileged in that you generally can reach out to the people you write about due to your status/role in the industry. However, most of vast unwashed are not. How can they connect or be connected to? And what happens if a person does not want to be connected to? Can one write about them or not?

    For example, I did send you a copy of my post over email but still haven’t seen a response. Was I irresponsible in posting it before you commented? If that’s the case, could one easily quash entries/articles they don’t want to see by simply refusing to respond?

    4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

    What type of action? What constitutes an unfair attack?

    So I disagreed with your post and thought it was an unfair attack on the people on the Internet who believe in a more open framework. I took action by posting my reply to you about it. However, I broke the previous point of connecting (in that I didn’t wait for you to get back to me). The other question is what’s an unfair attack. In that previous sentence, I called the attack you made on those people unfair. Does that make it so? If that’s the case, what if someone else now says that it wasn’t? How do you arbitrate about those two points of views?

    We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don’t veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them–”Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

    If that’s the case, why should they be deleted then? This last section seems to contradict the rest of the code…

    Is that now part of a more granular framework?

    Also, a question is as to how you do this on a global basis. In a follow up comment I made on my blog, I asked another complex question:

    A follower of Moktada al-Sadr posts an entry on his blog on wordpress.com asking to join the protest and force the US troops out of Iraq. A Kuwaiti commenter disagrees with him and says that people who follow the party line from Iran should be executed.

    In this case, you have two promotions of illegal acts (forcing the US forces out of Iraq through violent protest and execution of dissenters) from two different parties on a US-based blogging service.

    One could argue the commenter is cyber-bullying the author of the post.

    Which body of law applies in that case? Iraqi? Kuwaiti? US? That’s the kind of can of worm such argument opens.

    How do you address such a thing?

  • http://blog.guykawasaki.com/ Guy Kawasaki

    Tristan,

    It seems to me that the people who most need to abide by such a code are the least likely to agree to it. This is like saying that if a country is in the United Nations, it won’t do anything bad.

  • billg

    It’s incorrect to assume that we can avoid responsibility for anything published on our blogs simply because we didn’t write it. It is our choice to host a website and it is our choice to accept comments. It is our choice to edit or moderate those comments. No one forces us to do those things. We can easily disable commenting altogether.

    Inherent in that kind of responsibility — a publisher’s responsibility — is the need to recognize that the measure of acceptability is not our individual preference, but our understanding of our audience. Content written by others — comments — should not be edited or deleted simply because it stakes out a postion contrary to ours or our readers.

    We should not publish content that might put ourselves or others, including the people who wrote the content, in legal or physical jeopardy. We should not publish content that appears to have been created for the primary purpose of delivering patently offensive attacks on other people. (Admittedly, these our judgment calls, but making those is part of what we sign up for when we become publishers.)

    It’s only our choice that allows others to publish content on our blogs without our prior intervention. The technology provides us the opportunity to vet comments before publishing. That we usually choose not to moderate is analagous to a newspaper choosing to publish all submitted letters to editors without reading them. Would anyone reasonably argue that newspaper is not, then, responsibile for the published content of those letters?

    That said, on a practical note: A lot of commenting pyrotechnics are confined to long, usually off-topic, threads started by a comment that triggers the avalanche. I’d like the ability, as the blog owner, to collapse that thread into a single line on the comment’s page. I’d like readers to be able to expand it, but only in their browser. That would mimic a capability that seems to available in a lot of forum software, but it would be a handy tool for bloggers, as well.

  • blogesota

    ::blogesota: I am indeed parsing with a microscope (dissection, microscope… god, my blog is feeling more and more like a lab every day :) ) but what you point to is that you don’t read sites you disagree with. However, do you think they should be censored?

    I did not say that I avoid sites I disagree with. On the contrary!

    I said that I avoid sites where bad manners overwhelm constructive discourse. People really seem to get “into” flaming and bitching and games of “gotcha” and I hate that.

    I don’t think anyone should be censored ever. But managing your own site is not censorship. How could it be?

    Once again, the original proposal was a call for voluntary controls that support civility. For the same reason that we throw rowdy filmgoers out of the movie theater and send bratty kids to the principal’s office, we can stop disruption on our sites. If we wish to. That is NOT censorship.

    I’m a big supporter of banning and deleting misbehaving posters. A misbehaving poster is NOT necessarily someone I disagree with. It’s someone with bad manners, who posts off topic, who basically behaves like a little prick.