• Bloggers debate code of conduct (SBP – 22 April 2007)

    An article of mine from today’s Sunday Business Post, featuring comments from Damien Mulley and Tom Raftery.

    One of the central figures behind recent calls for a blogger’s ‘code of conduct’, Tim O’Reilly, now says his idea was misguided.

    The suggestion, however, has brought focus on the issue of civility online.

    Calls for a code of conduct first arose toward the end of March, after developer and former blogger Kathy Sierra blogged about death threats and abuse she had received on her own and other websites.

    Sierra, who contacted the police to follow up on the threats, criticised those who had hosted the abuse and decided to retire her own blog as a result.

    Both Jimmy Wales, creator of community encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, and O’Reilly, the Cork-born founder of O’Reilly Media, came out in support of Sierra and used her experience as the foundation for a formal code which aimed to root out abuse.
    The issue became a hot topic among bloggers, with many media outlets – such as the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times – quick to pick it up in the following days.

    ‘‘I think it got a lot of coverage just because it was related to a nasty incident,” said internet strategy consultant Tom Raftery of tomrafteryit.net.

    ‘‘In general, I’d be against the idea [of a code],but any discussion of it at the moment is badly timed anyway, because all discussions now refer to Kathy Sierra and you can’t have a rational discussion about things like this at times like this.”

    The immediate and overwhelming response to the suggestion was a negative one. Many Irish bloggers, including Damien Mulley, organiser of the Irish Blog Awards and owner of Mulley.net, detailed their opposition, saying that it was better to ignore abuse than to react.

    Raftery said he believed the suggestion of a code of conduct was well intentioned but never workable, something that O’Reilly seems now to agree with. In a recent interview with Wired Magazine, O’Reilly said: ‘‘I’ve come to think the call for a code of conduct was a bit misguided,” suggesting other routes to remove abuse from online debates.

    Even if a universal code of conduct were agreed, it would not change the legal protection that bloggers already have from their respective countries.

    ‘‘If [comments] are abusive to someone on their blog there’s not much you can do unless it crosses the line into libel or threatening behaviour. Then the law can take over,” said Mulley.

    ‘‘If they are abusive on your blog, then ban them and delete their comments. The Kathy Sierra thing was beyond lack of civility though. Death threats should be reported to the police, who are best equipped to handle these issues.”

    The issue of anonymity has also been a major part of the debate, with the original code calling on bloggers to block anonymous users, as they are the most likely source of abuse. But bloggers have argued that anonymity is not the sole reserve of abusers.

    ‘‘Anonymity should be respected if it is used for the right reasons,” said Mulley.” The press uses whistleblowers and tipsters, but they will not use or tolerate them if they are only going to be abusive about someone. Same goes in blogs.” But while there has been little appetite among bloggers for a formal code of conduct, Raftery believes most bloggers already adhere to its intention.

    ‘‘I have a comment policy on my website which states my right to remove defamatory or profane comments and I think it’s a good thing to let readers know the boundaries,” he said.

    ‘‘People, particularly bloggers, don’t like being told what they can and can’t do and, once people started talking about a code of conduct, it wasn’t going to work. But a lot of those opposed to the idea have their own codes already.”

    Raftery gave the example of prominent blogger Shel Israel, who has a ‘living room’ policy, which calls on readers to comment with the same respect they would show if they were sitting in his living room. Issues over abuse and anonymity are not unique to blogging.

    Chat rooms and message boards have the same potential to be anonymous and to use that to insult people without any comeback.

    ‘‘Before the internet and before newspapers, people were writing anonymous graffiti on walls slagging other people off,” said Raftery.” It’s just now they have a new technology that allows them to do it in a different way.“