Two of the leading lights of the internet have come together to propose a “code of conduct” for blog commentary. Writer Tim O’Reilly (who coined the term web 2.0) and Wikipedia head Jimmy Wales have collaborated on a set of rules designed to stop anonymous commenters from posting "unacceptable" content. The rules also propose a deletion policy for comments that contain abusive, harassing or threatening content.
The code of conduct is still in draft form and is a six point plan to encourage encourages what it calls “both personal expression and constructive conversation”. The six points are: restriction of uncivil comments, only saying online what would be said in person, use mediation to solve disputes, taking “considered” action against attacks on others, no anonymous comments without email, and ignoring trolls (intentional inflamers).
While the code seems reasonable, it is attracting criticism from many in the internet community for being a restriction of freedom of speech. One updater changed the code to read “Feel free to agree or disagree with our completely unreasonable proposal that has a zero percent chance of changing the way anyone behaves, other than offering a soapbox from which Tim O'Reilly can preach to a bunch of people who aren't listening.” His (or her) comments were quickly reversed as vandalism. O’Reilly himself is unapologetic. According to him, freedom of speech is not at issue. As the code’s first sentence says “frankness does not have to mean lack of civility”.
The inspiration for the code of conduct is an online death threat. The threats were made by anonymous comments to American blogger and author Kathy Sierra. Sierra is a popular online writer and her blog is ranked in Technorati’s top 50. A couple of weeks ago she cancelled an appearance at a San Diego ETech conference. On 26 March she posted the reasons why on her blog. Sierra stated she was “at home, with the doors locked, [and] terrified” due to a succession of death threats. These threats were posted as comments to Sierra’s and two other blogs.
The threats began as banal putdowns and quickly moved on to crude sexual remarks. Then as Sierra said “the sexual garbage turned violent”. One comment thread read "fuck off you boring slut ... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob." Sierra went on to document how it evolved into death threats. Sierra described how they posted a photo of a noose next to her head, and one of their members commented "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size."
When someone posted her home address, she shut down comments and stopped updating the blog. Speaking about the blogosphere, Sierra said “I do not want to be part of a culture…where this is considered acceptable”. Sierra claimed that one of the other blogs which had the offensive comments was at Egr Weblog run by Chris Locke.
Locke was quickly contacted by Liz Tay, a journalist at Computerworld Australia for his side of the story. Locke made a detailed reply to Tay which he published on his website. Locke strenuously denied the death threats had anything to do with him. Tay asked if he agreed that the problem was caused by the “acerbic, misogynistic atmosphere in the IT industry.” Locke replied that “given that half the human race consists of women, it should not come as a newsflash that some of them -- in about equal proportion to men -- are stupid, venal, dishonest, or just generally annoying…last time I checked, having a negative opinion of a public figure was neither a federal offence nor an expression of misogyny.”
Prompted by Tim O’Reilly, Locke and Sierra exchanged emails and then the two had a discussion together which patched up their differences. The pair made a co-ordinated statement released on Locke’s website on 1 April. Sierra acknowledged Locke had nothing to do with the threats and Locke agreed the original material was hurtful and ugly.
It is not the only hurtful and ugly material loose in the internet. The American feminist blogger Jill Filipovic was another recent victim of cyber-stalking. She wrote recently how she was the victim of law school message boards who posted numerous pictures of her while making comments about, in her words, “raping and hate-fucking me, and debating whether or not I was fuckable or a stupid fat bitch.”
In this corrosive atmosphere, internet activist Andy Carvin decided he'd had enough and designated 30 March as Stop Cyberbullying Day. The women’s activist site BlogHer quickly came on board to support the day in defence of Sierra and “all women online”. BlogHer sees trolls as the cause of most the civility problems. BlogHer recommended ignoring internet trolls as the most powerful response. Their mantra is “It's not about us. It's about them”.
But Californian blogger Valleywag was more sanguine about the problem. He asks the question why do these debates between what he calls “web geeks” become so venomous? He quotes Henry Kissinger’s response to a similar question about academic infighting: It’s because the stakes are so low.