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Internet censorship and Digg democracy

Censorship on the ‘Net is a fiery issue currently burning holes through the web in unusual places. It’s contentious, debatable and causing some consternation for some. So why is the idea of calling for some silence or some order on the web the cause of so much dismay?

And just how could Digg be the saviour or free speech on the web?

Well, we’re going to find that out right here…

First of all, I want to qualify the focus of this article: in reference to the Tim O’Reilly call for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct, I’m not going to reverse engineer his ideas into something else. Nor am I going to go through them with any level of detail. I shall glance over them superficially and maybe add to as I see fit.

Of censorship and other animals

I wanted to leave my entry into this recent debate a little late because when Tim O’Reilly had his say I knew for a fact that his comments would stir up a debate and more commentary would emerge, which would all add much greater value to what had originally been said.

Now that the smoke is starting to clear, there are very visible edges to this debate, which have in some ways Balkanized, leaving some quite clear in their views.

Additionally, I’m not going to go into a he-said-she-said too & fro of comments, citations and endless references. People reading anything on Blah, Blah! Technology are typically mentally well equipped enough to have in their minds the various arguments for and against.

One comment in particular by Andrew Goodman over on Traffick struck a chord with me:

“I’ve never been one for codes of ethics, especially not codes that emerge suddenly from particular actors in emerging industries. In search marketing I’ve written in the past that a ‘benign anarchy’ can be better than a cartel-like phony codification / certification process.”

Which in simple terms is taking the informality of the open dialogue and then overlaying it with more formal, maybe hierarchical structures, which to all intent & purposes, kills, or at least stymies the spontaneity of things.

Speech is speech is speech

What I keep seeing within the various comments emerging from this debate is a very strange misunderstanding of what censorship means.

And I think this is because there’s an even more strange and worrying misunderstanding of what is permissible in terms of personal conduct on the web.

For a moment or two, I’m going to ask you to forget that the web exists and instead image you and some friends are in a park somewhere. Some of you are drinking, some aren’t. A few of your friends have invited some of their friends. Most of you don’t know who these guys are.

Around you in the park are families with kids, people playing sports, couples neckin’ and some fat guy sunbathing with his shirt over his head. You actually think he might have died of heat exhaustion.

You discuss actually going over to see if he’s OK. You laugh, you joke and before long, there’s a discussion underway.

One of you who’s been drinking laughs a little too loud, but that’s OK. The guys who are friends of friends pull out a stereo and start playing some music. They start to drink, too.

Hours pass and the conversation is chugging along. One of the friends of friends – many of which have been drinking – adds his two penneth worth: “Hey! Why don’t we go and wake the fat guy up?” Holding a handful of ice from the chill box, he suggests pouring the cubes onto his chest.

Clearly this is a stupid idea, and it’s shot down. His idea refused, he turns the music up. A couple of them start wrestling on the floor. They get rowdy, raise their voices and the air turns blue with expletives.

The other people in the park look around too see what’s going on. At this point, they don’t care that it’s just the idiot friends of friends making the noise, or that they’re not really with you. Those with kids would prefer you either shut up or leave.

At this point, those core friends who came to the park to just talk and chill turn to those that invited the idiots to ask them to send their friends away.

Feeling more than a little responsible for them, and more than a little embarrassed, they ask them to leave. Grudgingly, they do so, but only to a far-flung corner of the park, fortunately far enough out of the way to be of no new nuisance to anyone else.

You get a nod of thanks from some guy with his kids playing Frisbee, and while all of this was going on, the fat guy got up and left.

I’m not going to paint any more pretty pictures with words because it’s not needed. You know yourself how applicable certain behavior is at any given time, and so does Tim O’Reily, too:

“There’s an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I’m not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.

There are many real-world analogies. Shock radio hosts encourage abusive callers; a mainstream talk radio show like NPR’s Talk of the Nation wouldn’t hesitate to cut someone off who started spewing hatred and abuse. Frat parties might encourage drunken lewdness, but a party at a tech conference would not. Setting standards for acceptable behavior in a forum you control is conducive to free speech, not damaging to it.”

We delete spam comments, right? Why do we do this? Because they don’t add any value. So why tolerate inflammatory or just plain stupid comments that equally add no value?

The web is not in any way intrinsically different to real life, yet different values and weights are applied to the same customs, which I find truly bizarre.

In conversation, when someone says something stupid, your brain actively censors these comments. If asked later what Idiot A said, chances are, you wouldn’t be able to remember! So why should the web differ?

While the idea of some kind of code of conduct hasn’t been dismissed out of hand, the implementation of a code of conduct for ‘bloggers / ‘blogging is where the debate will ultimately gravitate:

“Of course no one should favor restrictive, tight-assed ‘you should communicate in this way’ moralizing for the blogger community. Whoops, I just moralized. I meant, I don’t favor it.

Someone started a productive debate, and from the tone taken by some of those who comment on blogs, many people have lost the ability to debate or to even acknowledge the substance of the other guy’s argument before dismissing it.”

For those that have been on the web for some time, the idea of codes of conduct aren’t in any way either unusual or new. Almost any forum of repute and note that you’ll sign up to will have such rules in place. Transgress, and you’re out.

So why should ‘blogging be in any way less liable to these rules?

Diggmocracy to the rescue?

Maybe there’s something that sits somewhere between what we consider censorship, but still allow people to just say whatever pops into their head?

What if I told you that such a thing already exists?

It’s possible that Digg may well have started something, by way of introducing a certain democracy to the web which has an interesting way of solving the problem of web censorship that could potentially placate both parties.

On the one hand, if someone’s just talking crap, they get marked down and their comments are greyed out and collapsed down so that they’re only revealed by actually clicking a disclosure button. But uniquely, their comments remain.

Sure, there’s room for abuse here, too. But it’s a better system of regulation than the non-system of regulation that exists right now.

The problems we have now are a product of the free-for-all mentality that’s become the accepted way rather than the extreme. In time, the same checks & measures that exist in the really real world will migrate to the web, and the idea of censorship will be an anachronism.

My view is, if someone comes onto my ‘blog and becomes abusive to me, I’ll defend myself. However, if they become abusive towards other people, then I will actively remove their comments.

To me, my ‘blog is an extension of my home. When I entertain guests, I am honour-bound to shield them from such abuses. Simple as that.

Free speech is not the right to talk crap, insult people and generally be an idiot. While I will always defend the rights of the individual to exercise their individuality, if those individuals are incapable of recognizing their failure to offer something of value to everyone else, or to remain at least reasonable and calm, then someone has to make that decision for them.

That’s not censorship, that’s citizenship…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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