I’m a proponent of Tim O’Reilly’s blogging code of conduct. I understand there is a storm of disagreement with some of the provisions O’Reilly proposed, which are seen by some as violations of internet freedom. Others don’t see a reason for trying to codify what many blogger already do, that is police their comment section. But what many of these folks neglect to understand is that blog abuse is a plague that degrades not just individual blogs, but the entire blogosphere.
I’m disappointed to read in Wired that Tim seems to be backing off the code of conduct. He’s let all the naysayers dampen his enthusiasm. But whether or not the code ever gets enacted he’s raised some terrific ideas that should be discussed for a long time to come.
I’d like to see Tim pressure blogging platforms develop better controls for bloggers to moderate their comments. I’ve been writing about this for several years. One of the main reasons I left Typepad two years ago was that not only couldn’t I control spam; I couldn’t control trolls and other abusers. Sure, I could delete a comment once it was published. But why should I suffer the indignity of even seeing the comment published to begin with? I didn’t want some of these disgusting comments to see the light of day even for a second. But there they sat open to public viewing until I found them and zapped them. I also had no ability to identify problem commenters and ban them from my site. It was come one, come all. And come they did–the haters, the ranters, the vulgar.
As a result, I moved to WordPress and have been much more satisfied with the flexibility of its comment moderation features and plugins that provide extra functionality. Now, I can not only ban someone’s IP from my comment threads, I can ban someone’s IP from even accessing my site. If some nasty site tries to send its readers my way to attack me en masse, I can bounce all visitors from a specific domain back to the original referrer. Because most trolls come to you once with a hit and run comment and then leave, I’ve activated a feature which moderates first-time commenters. This eradicates an enormous amount of the bile I’ve experienced. There are holes of course. Trolls with dynamic IP addresses which change randomly can still get through. But there are few of these cases.
Some other tips regarding trolls. If someone’s really annoying me and comments multiple times over long periods I’ll do research on them. One such commenter was using a New York City government IP address. So I looked up the domain administrator and reported the commenter’s abuse as a potential violation of the city’s telecommunications policy. Another fellow was particularly bothersome so I did some research on him. He was an associate in a New York law firm. When he started taunting me at third party blogs, I posted a public comment at the site letting him know that his law firm might not appreciate some of the things he was writing to and about me especially since I’d asked him to cease and desist long before. I haven’t heard a peep from either of them since.
My approach to this involves being flexible. There is no one size fits all regarding blog abuse. But I do believe in being proactive and not sitting back passively. If someone is bullying you you’ve got to let them know you won’t take it. You have to be prepared for a certain level of contentiousness in a political blog. But once someone steps over the line and treats you as anything less than human, you should stand up for yourself.
As a result of this debate, I’ve learned about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Jeff Jarvis considers it little short of a miracle at protecting bloggers from being liable for the bad behavior of others:
Section 230 says that we are not responsible for content created by someone else on our sites. It was created because before that, if a site said it would police content and missed something, it was held more liable than if it had not tried at all. That came out of what was known as the Prodigy case. The result was the site owners didn’t touch anything and so nastiness could only fester and grow. So Section 230 holds that we cannot be held responsible for what others create and we have the right to kill what they do create on our sites. That is vital — vital — to free speech
It is the darling of the free speech absolutists including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And I have to say that I see the value of Section 230. If someone posts a threat at your blog against another individual and then goes out and murders that person should you be held liable merely because you provided the venue for the threat? I don’t think so.
But I definitely see the drawbacks of Section 230 as well. It becomes a crutch to hide behind so that you can deny any responsibility for anything on your blog. The blogger who hosted the image that threatened Kathy Sierra’s life disclaimed any responsibility for what was on his blog. But doesn’t this belie common sense? Perhaps he doesn’t have a legal responsibility for a nutcase posting a noose next to Kathy Sierra’s picture, but why didn’t he immediately recognize that the offender had gone too far and take it down? Sure he took the entire site down once Sierra complained. But why did he even need her complaint to act?
Likewise, in the case of my blog impostor Blogger is hiding behind Section 230 in denying responsibility for the pornography, defamation and mock anti-Semitism featured there:
Regarding your defamation…allegation, Blogger.com and Blogspot.com are US sites regulated by US law. Blogger is a provider of content creation tools, not a mediator of that content. We allow our users to create blogs, but we don’t make any claims about the content of these pages. Given these facts, and pursuant with section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, Blogger does not remove allegedly defamatory, libelous, or slanderous material from Blogger.com or BlogSpot.com. If a contact email address is listed on the blog, we recommend you working directly with the author to have the content in question removed or changed.
So there you have it. Blogger has the right to remove any site it wishes under its terms of service. But it not only has no obligation to do so even if the material is pornographic, anti-Semitic or personally hurtful–it outright refuses to do so.
So in this sense, I think blogging platforms like this one use Section 230 as a lazy man’s way out of taking ANY responsibility for content on their servers. And I think it’s a crying shame.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.