God save us from the Queen’s censor

Tim O’Reilly’s foolhardy effort to wash the blogosphere’s mouth out with soap has a dangerous new ally: Tessa Jowell, the UK’s secretary of state for culture, media and sport. The peril is great: government deciding what is civilized conversation. In my Guardian column on O’Reilly’s proposed blogger code of conduct, I said that I did not want schoolmarms telling me what to say. It is all the worse for that schoolmarm to have the power of government behind her.

Jowell said this in a speech before progressives and at the Guardian’s Comment is Free, where today she is to answer questions from readers who, thank God, oppose government interference in our conversation. In her speech, she said:

But change never comes without challenges.
I welcome the initiative by Web pioneer Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, for a “Blogging Code of Conduct”.
The wonderful, anarchic, creative world of the Blogosphere shouldn’t be a licence for abuse, bullying and threats.

There is a need for serious discussion about maintaining civilised parameters for debate, so that more people (and women and older people in particular) feel comfortable to participate.

And just who sets those parameters? Who defines civil conversation? Who enforces that? How? Where are the limits of that interference with free speech? It there is not a license for abuse, do you favor licenses for civility? Who issues those? Who can revoke them? Yes, I know the UK does not have the privilege of a First Amendment, but surely a government minister should understand the principles of free speech. Apparently not. In her Comment is Free post, Jowell said:

The internet is a vigorous and now invaluable part of the public realm, or what I prefer to call “ourspace”. Ourspace, whether physical or virtual, includes those places and spaces where people meet as equals; where public engagement and debate takes place.

Ourspace is part of the “commons” of the UK and something that goes much wider than just the state to include, for example, public service broadcasting; the arts, culture and sports; parks and other public open spaces; and of course the internet – in short, spaces where all feel welcome to participate, to enjoy themselves and to learn.

That is a dangerous principle she puts forth there: the internet as the equivalent of government property. She continues:

User-generated content on the internet – citizen journalism – is just one welcome example of “virtual ourspace” being used in this way. But as power shifts increasingly into the hands of citizens, responsibility must follow. The internet is transforming the way the government interacts with people and the way people interact with one another. But change never comes without challenges. . . .

Blogging took off earlier in the US and the blogging community has become a powerful political force there – I hope the same happens here. But surely its full potential to benefit civil society cannot be realised unless the quality of online debate itself is civilised? Surely we do not want online discussions simply to mirror the often aggressive, boorish and pointless exchanges that sometimes pass for debate on the floor of the House of Commons, and which are such a turn-off for voters?

Note, then, that she is proposing holding the citizens to standards their “leaders” need not follow.

She concludes:

Some commentators have suggested that the idea of a code of conduct shows the growing maturity of the blogging community in the US, although some of the more virulent attacks on the suggestion (and on O’Reilly and Wales themselves) have shown nothing except the immaturity of some users. But perhaps, taken as a whole, this proposal is a rare example of a good lesson for us in Britain to learn from American politics?

Gotcha, Jowell: Right there you’re saying that people who disagree with O’Reilly and Wales show nothing but immaturity. Perhaps they just disagree. Who’s to say? You? God forbid.

Some of the comments addressed to Jowell at Comment is Free:

How can people be so naive that they have decided that censoring is a method of “increase the quality of internet debates”?

Who decides whats offensive?

It amazes me that people actually think they are being progressive by proposing censorship. . . .

Why should the govt have a say-so on (a) the drafting of such a code (b) the enforcing/sanctions of it, beyond the laws of the land? . . .

Tessa – how very naive and middleclass and patronising of you. Whilst there may be some tedious and boorish voices on the ‘net they are generally outnumbered by the authentic voices of the many who feel unrepresented and disenfranchised by ‘professional’ politicos like yourself. Instead of trying to smuggle in censorship of the ‘net under the guise of ‘acceptability’ wouldn’t you be better employed lobbying for a code of behaviour for MPs that corresponds better with what most people outside of Westminster see as honesty and morality? . . .

I am all in favour of civility but am very concerned that the Government should be looking to enforce it. It could very easily turn into another kind of bullying. . . .

Yet again NuLabour seek to suppress voices that don’t fit with their incredibly narrow, self-interested views. Civility is down to the individual and the individual alone, not for the Govt to impose. The Govt itself is staggeringly rude and insulting to the populace time after time. What’s worse is the very real likelihood that ‘off-message’ posts get deemed rude or abusive simply because they do not tally with the establishment’s particular mindset. Is calling Patricia Hewitt a liar abusive? Certainly it can be demonstrated that she’s a liar (to the House of Commons too…see http://nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com/ for how she has lied over the MTAS fiasco). I’d bet though that comments to such effect would fall foul of Jowell’s notions of civility. Tessa’s message is “Keep a civil tongue in your head while we crap on you from a great height” . . .

Do you not understand the perception the people of this country have of your government’s control-freak mentality, and the way this confirms many people’s worst fears about The Left and its tendency not to trust The People?

Considering the current political environment – where your government is perceived as increasingly authoritarian, and indeed considered by many to be encroaching on the territory usually occupied by those called ‘dictatorial’ by passing laws to fundamentally alter the relationship of citizen and state (ID databases, restrictions on legitimate protest within a mile of the seat of government, detention without trial, &c.) – do you really think it is a good idea to even be talking about State interference in Freedom of Expression? Do you not understand that this is an area best left to individual moderators, other users and the existing laws regarding (for instance) Libel? In short, self policing.

  • Proud to be Anonymous

    “This is G o o g l e’s cache of
    http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2007/04/draft_bloggers_1.html as
    retrieved on 23 Apr 2007 13:11:52 GMT.
    G o o g l e’s cache is the snapshot that we took of the page as we crawled the web.

    Google is neither affiliated with the authors of this page

    End Quote

    Google owns Blogger.com. Has Tim O’Reilly contacted Google with the section of his proposed code that must (by ipso facto) also apply to the platform as well as the blog administrator?

    In an interview with Wired on Friday (13th) to promote his latest web 2.0 conference,O’Reilly said: “I’ve come to think the call for a code of conduct was a bit misguided.” The admission came two days after a post on his Radar blog entitled “Code of Conduct: Lessons Learned So Far”. In it he wrote: “I was proposing a modular set of terms of service, so somebody could say, ‘I don’t want this kind of behaviour.’ Now, a lot of people already do that, so it’s really much ado about nothing.”

    The O’Reilly Saga continues in his comments section with commenters
    posting ridiculous off-topic subjects and silly Youtube links. O’Reilly says he knows the person who attacked Kathy Sierra. He gets the victim and the perpetrator together on CNN – then somebody pumps up the NY Times publicity machinery for both the victim and the perpetrator. It doesn’t take a genius to see who may be benefiting from this little fracas.

    Then O’Reilly starts blaming a random responder (Lessons Learned So Far) as being one of the attackers…and…he’s started deleting and prioritising the “best” replies, ones that mirror his opinions, which are severely lacking in substance. So, the entire “Lessons Learned So Far” thread must be accessed and read from the Google cached copy.

    When bloggers respond from their websites, the sources seem to have been obliterated once the post is published – most of the track backs lead to O’Reilly’s Radar Website – and (duh! – as an Internet expert!) he is unaware that there are persistent error messages generated in his responders’ posts, so that it becomes a hit and miss game whether the post actually gets published or not.

    Perhaps Tim’s involvement relates to this little gem.

    Sierra’s current gig, along with her partner Bert Bates, is
    developing and producing the bizarre new Head First series of books for O’Reilly.

    P T B Anonymous

  • Proud to be Anonymous

    Re: Call for Code of Conduct by Tim O’Reilly

    The Kathy Sierra business needs closer examination because I think something might be getting overlooked. Kathy Sierra published the IP number on her website

    headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2007/03/as_i_typ e_this_.html

    of the alleged perpetrator of these threats that turned out to be someone using an ISP in Madrid, Spain (according to the IP number).

    Once the victim, Kathy Sierra, had collected the evidence of a crime against her, she purportedly sent it to the Police, whereupon it should have been subject to secrecy on the grounds that the perpetrator wouldn’t get a fair trial if the details were made public. And what happens next? The whole scenario is sent to the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and many other minor news outlets. This seems to prove that there’s NO EVIDENCE of any CRIME having been committed against Kathy Sierra or anybody else. It would be logical to express ones anguish to the world if one had been stabbed. But without seeing the blood, the story remains fictitious.

    BY PUBLISHING the IP number of the perpetrator Kathy Sierra has probably inadvertently stalled any further investigations into the crime. I don’t suppose she has even been given a crime number and I suspect the Law Enforcement Officers concerned pointed out that there is a delete button on her computer.

    BY PUBLISHING THE IP number of the alleged perpetrator of a crime, she has committed a crime herself.

    wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_address (http)

    IP address legality in Europe

    It is important that this significant difference in legal status be understood, because Websites that provide for third-party interception of IP addressing information and Traffic Data, without website visitor consent, are committing a criminal offence in the UK by virtue of the regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, where through the requirements of European Council Decision 2005/222/JHA, such Website owners face serious sanctions, including the winding up of their businesses, being debarred from running a business and more than 2 years imprisonment.

    P T B Anonymous

  • I think your “gotcha” moment is a little strained.

    “Right there you’re saying that people who disagree with O’Reilly and Wales show nothing but immaturity”… actually, she said “some of the more virulent attacks” show nothing except immaturity.

    Not quite the same.

    I think there’s a dodgy concept underlying the ideas proposed by O’Reilly, Wales and others that insinuates that the rule of law doesn’t apply on the internet. It does. They just don’t know how to apply it properly.

  • Jeff, Thank you! You are taking a strong stand on the single most important battle we need to win in the next few years. When the printing press was invented, government quickly introduced licensing, prior restraint, and censorship. When broadcasting was invented, government limited the number of players, licensed frequencies, and made renewals subject to meeting conditions for “responsible programming.” In the US, the battle we must win right now is against Net Neutrality legislation which, although arguably benign in itself, opens the door for centuries of government regulation and censorship. Steve Boriss, Washington University in St. Louis (http://thefutureofnews.com)

  • BW

    I happen to think that proposing that other people stick to your personal code of conduct shows “nothing except immaturity.” When you’re 10 years old, you get upset about words. When you’re an adult, you’d think you could read or hear them without whining.
    I feel the same way about politics and how grown men still feel they have to belong to one group or another, like a gang. Didn’t they outgrow that around high school?
    I think I’ll just give up and accept the fact that there are people out there that, no matter what, just can’t get it through their heads that their standards are not necessarily the “right one.”

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  • Point taken, Bobbie. Except who’s to say which are the “most virulent attacks” and which display “nothing but immaturity.” Once she and her code-setters are in the position to determine that, then all are suspect. That’s my point. She sets herself up to judge whether someone’s response has no value. As an individual, of course, that is her full right. But as a government official, it’s quite different.

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  • Bittorent

    Why are Americans obsessed with our monarchy? No Brit would ever dream of writing his headline, as this really has nothing to do with the Queen. Please leave her out of this argument. But hope you enjoy her visit to the USA!

  • LawrenceUS

    I was online at the Guardian today and also a few weeks back when Jeff Jarvis posted on the same topic. I’m pretty sure that the British government official at the Guardian chat agreed that government censorship is a nonstarter: “no intention to turn this into legislation” she said, or words to that effect.

    A voluntary code would force bloggers to disclose what kinds of content they permit at the site. Many sites are flooded not only with harassing posts, but also the posts of trolls, publicists, marketers, lobbyists and astroturfers. On the one hand, I’m supposed to be “sophisticated” enough to identify the fraudulent posters and thick-skinned enough to ignore all of the deliberately provocative posts. On the other hand, the whole point of such activity is to influence people who aren’t sophisticated, so they’ll get distracted or harassed off the board by the trolls, or fall under the influence of the publicists.

    “Our readers are sophisticated” and “Smooth Operators Welcome” seem to be contradictory messages; the paid operatives aren’t hanging around discussion boards just to be ignored by savvy people. If the blog is connected to a traditional journalism site — say, the online presence of a major newspaper — then the “wink wink” approach to such activity becomes a big standards-and-practices problem. Voluntarily disclosing that “We do not monitor for fraud or abuse under the Bloggers’ Code” seems to be the least the site operator could do.

  • Benjamin

    Whilst I have doubts about O’Reilly, one should realise that free speech is not absolute. It’s not “in real life” and it can’t really be on the net, if the net is to function properly.

    Bullying and slander on the grounds of race, age and rampant mysogyny can be needlessly hurtful and oppressive. I don’t know how to deal with it, but it is less constrained on the web.

    But perhaps if Jeff showed a little concern about these genuine underlying issues rather than simply saying the govt is all bad, isn’t the govt minister nasty, etc, then there may be progress.

  • As a woman and an older person, I resent the notion that I need some sort of special consideration to “feel comfortable” online. I’ve been online since 1995 and blogging since 2003, and quickly learned to just avoid blogs and websites I don’t like.

    I certainly don’t want somebody deciding for me what I will and won’t “feel comfortable” with.

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