On the Web, how free is too free for speech?

On Blogs

April 15, 2007|By Troy McCullough | Troy McCullough,Sun Columnist

There's a lot to like about a new proposed bloggers' code of conduct, but plenty of bloggers want nothing to do with it.

The code, written by the highly respected Tim O'Reilly of the O'Reilly Media publishing empire, calls for bloggers to take greater responsibility over their blogs in an effort to raise the level of discourse online. It calls for clear labels to tell commenters what is and isn't allowed. It suggests eliminating anonymous comments, ignoring those who are itching for a fight and confronting those who are the most abusive. And finally, it suggests that bloggers not say anything online that they wouldn't say in person.

O'Reilly's proposed code came about after a friend of his, blogger Kathy Sierra, came under attack, receiving a series of extremely disturbing anonymous death threats on her site and on others. The threats against Sierra (for more details, see her post here: http:--headrush.typepad.com/creating_pas sionate_users/2007/03/as_i_type_this_.html) exemplify the latest of what seems to be an endless stream of ugly, vulgar, vitriolic speech that sometimes spews forth onto the Web. O'Reilly and others say it's time to reclaim the medium in the name of civility.

"We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation in ways that were long missing from mainstream media and marketing-dominated corporate websites," O'Reilly writes. "But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. There's no reason why we should tolerate conversations online that we wouldn't tolerate in our living room."

It's a well-reasoned and thoughtful plea. And it's also misguided, a lot of bloggers say.

"Tim O'Reilly's well-intentioned Blogger Code of Conduct is an attempt to come up with a voluntary set of behavioral norms that will keep blogs civil and honest," wrote Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing. "However, I was very uncomfortable with Tim's draft, as it seemed to preclude real anonymity and invite censorship."

Others were even more succinct: "This is a complete load of sh--," wrote Jay Andrew Allen on his blog The Zero Boss. "Let's not start talking about self-regulation when, in the main, the blogosphere self-regulates just fine as it is."

"While we're at it," wrote Silicon Valley blog ValleyWag, "how about an ombudsman, required ethics courses at J-school, and regulation by the FCC? Because that's worked so well for America's breathtakingly turgid daily newspapers, and bland network news."

Dozens of prominent blogs - some of the most influential online voices - have voiced their opposition to the code, but one of the most lucid criticisms came from an anonymous blogger known as The Sufferable Ass:

"There's no real debate about the appropriateness of the attacks on Sierra," the blogger wrote. "The blogosphere leapt to her defense. The outcry was overwhelmingly in her favor. The offending blog was taken down. The wheels of justice are in motion to punish the perpetrators. Really, what more do you think you can accomplish at this point?

"Here's the question," the blogger added, "do we embrace free speech on the Internet or don't we? If you really believe in the promise of the new Internet age, then you need to accept the consequences that come with the freedoms of this new medium. To do otherwise is to begin down a slippery slope that will lead to the diminishment of open communication."

That's a slope many bloggers aren't ready to head down.

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