Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Code of Conduct

Following the furore surrounding the horrific online assault on Kathy Sierra, which I believe is now a police matter, Tim O'Reilly along with similarly minded Internet mavens, have come up with a first draft of a proposed "code of conduct for bloggers". It has six main points. I'm quoting the code in full below with my own comments following each section:

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.

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

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

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:
- is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others
- is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,
- infringes upon a copyright or trademark
- violates an obligation of confidentiality
- violates the privacy of others

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.]


Whilst Mr Atrocity takes responsibility for the words on this blog, I certainly don't take responsibilty for those of my commenters. That is madness. Who am I to judge what is acceptable content to you? Let us go through Mr O'Reilly's bullet points.
  1. Any comment abusing someone else is unacceptable. So if someone writes that Tony Blair is a lying hypocrite who has destroyed the last vestiges of cabinet government for his own selfish ends I should delete it because it is rude about our Prime Minister? I don't think so.
  2. Content that is libellous is the responsibility of its author. I think expecting blog authors to audit and fact check every comment is barmy. Newspapers don't manage to do a very good job and they have professional staff to attend to the task. The law as it stands already deals with libel quite adequately so this edict is surplus to requirements.
  3. The copyright infringement question is intersting because it depends under whose jurisdiction the infringement is alleged to have taken place. In the US there is the notion of fair-use and yet in spite of this major corporations try, daily, to bully individuals with whom they disagree by threatening copyright infringement or violation of a trademark. The bully-boys of big business do not need any more assistance. Once again, the law as it stands provides for this.
  4. Violating an obligation of confidentiality is generally wrong, but without it Watergate would not have happened. It is also dependent upon who is obligated to whom.
  5. Similarly, violation of the privacy of others is hugely open to interpretation and potenital abuse and bullying.
The closing comment invalidates everything that goes before, "We define and determine what is "unacceptable content" on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list." What does this mean? In effect the whole screed says, "please play nice by our rules even though they are so vague as to be meaningless and even if you do figure out what they mean we may change them any time it suits us". That's no good. Point 1 is therefore worse than useless, it defines no rigid parameters whilst at the same time sounding draconian, heavy-handed and authoritarian.

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

This poses the question, "to whom?" I am certain I have written things on this blog that I would not repeat in front of my mother and I've also written things that I probably wouldn't say if they were to be identified with my real-world persona rather than that of Mr Atrocity. There are of course many people who know who Mr Atrocity is, but I'm glad I have this online personality I can use to shield myself when I write as I think it enables me to be more honest with you.

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

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.

Why? This presupposes that the author of the "offensive" comment wishes to have a private debate or indeed cares what you might have to say to them. Civilised discourse can only happen between two consenting parties. Trying to take the moral high-ground with someone who doesn't care is an exercise in futility and is for whose benefit exactly? I also fail to see what I private exchange would achieve that a public post would not. If a comment is made in public, a response in public seems not unreasonable. A flame war in public is no worse than one private. Indeed a public flame war merely demonstrates to the rest of us that these two people are dunderheads who should not be taken too seroiusly in future. It would enable us to be more selective in our future reading and God knows we need to be able to do that.

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

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.
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.

Once again, terms are not defined here. By whose judgement are we deciding the level of offense? Certainly those who are making threats of a violent nature are cruel, hateful people, but they are already breaking existing law in most nations and thus this code of conduct is not necessary; the law already provides for dealing with these people. Co-operation with law in these instances is not an option, it is a legal requirement. Point 4 provides for nothing that is not already extant.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

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.

This is the killer as far as I'm concerned. The previous points are either irrelevant or just say "play nice" in faux legalese. Point 5 would have us do away with freedom of speech on the Internet. If you cannot be anonymous, you cannot guarantee freedom of speech. This is a self-evident fact; it cannot be done. For this reason alone I would never sign up to this code of conduct. I do not respect most anonymous comments because I like to know about the persona who has made the comment in order that I can glean some kind of context, but I will defend utterly the right to comment anonymously. Either allow no comments, or allow all.

6. We ignore the trolls.

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.


Once again, it is unnecessary to add this, it is what every halfway sensible Internet user already does. Anyone who has taken the trouble to read the proposed code of conduct this far is smart enough to know that trolls exist purely to try and cause misery. Like the playground bully wanting attention, attention is what they thrive on. We deny them that already if we are sensible; we do not need a code of conduct to spell it out as if to innocent children.

To sum up then, this code of conduct consists of intellectually lazy homilies towards "being nice", one proviso to remove freedom of speech and one statement of the blindingly obvious. I don't think it's a particularly good piece of work and I'm not playing ball, sorry.

If I were to offer one constructive suggestion it would be the following: I think the blogging world is looking at this issue arse-backwards. I believe that anyone should be able to comment on a blog but I think that blog-reading software should enable the reader to apply filters to the content. Most of us who have worked for companies that have intranet message boards have set up e-mail filters to ignore posts from certain individuals who are either repeatedly offensive or painfully stupid and I see this as the solution to unwanted comments or posts in blogging. If you do want to read person X's comment or post it should be possible to filter them out. Similarly, if you believe that anonymous posters are cowards whose opinion does not count then you can make their opinion irrelevant by filtering it. Since e-mail can already do this I don't see that it would too hard to implement into a browser or news aggregator.

I'm sure this code of conduct is very well intentioned and for the most part I probably abide by the spirit of it but as a document it is mostly unnecessary and in some parts fundamentally flawed.

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