One of the first topics I discussed in this blog is the need to move away from anonymity so that people can be held accountable for what they say, and the Internet can become safer place for all. Recently Kathy Sierra was viscously attacked and the result has prompted a huge outcry from professional bloggers, who often are the target of similar attacks, for a uniform code of conduct. This code, at least as initially proposed by Tim O'Reilly, would include restrictions like the outlawing of anonymous accounts.
Coincidently, Don Imus, a "shock jock" radio show host who has been broadcast nationally for 35 years, was put on suspension for two weeks and huge numbers of people are suggesting he be fired for an racially charged remark he made on air. This remark falls well short, at least in terms of criminality, of any of the threats Kathy Sierra received over another network we call the "Internet," which has a global reach but is not regulated, at least in this country. Some are using the Sierra incident to suggest a larger, and very real, similar problem needs to be solved.
On top of all of this we have the emergence of a new class of PR firms, ones that go into blogs and either promote your agenda or discredit your competitor's agenda by concealing their motivation. This is rightfully called "propaganda," and could be as easily done by a government as it could be done by a private entity.
It is my belief that, given the increased focus on all of this, and the potential for, and evidence of, misuse of blogs, the argument for regulation will increasingly be impossible to counter and, at least here in the U.S., the FCC would be the most likely to step up with rules we then would all have to follow. (The FCC has been looking at regulating some aspects of the Internet for quite a while.)
The only way I know of to delay this, as I doubt we will ever be able to stop it, is to put in place a set of voluntary rules and adhere to them. A good start is the Blogger's Code of Conduct. In its current draft form it is compelling, but lacks the teeth needed to prevent government regulation.
The code says bloggers take responsibility for what they say and will police their blogs to make sure others follow a clear set of rules, preventing the offending behavior in third parties who post comments on the site. It follows with a set of practices which require personal, offline contact before escalating in public.
One of the most intriguing parts is the one that says bloggers will stand up for our peers and protect them from attack, and cooperate with law enforcement to bring the attackers to justice.
Another intriguing part is a pledge to ignore trolls. Both of these last two are an attempt to directly address the offending behavior with a response appropriate to it.
Finally, the code suggests that hosting companies review their terms of service to ensure impersonating sites or sites simply set up to harass bloggers be appropriately dealt with.
Regulation Would be Worse
These rules are voluntary and self-enforced, and probably not that much different than how many of us would like to operate now. But for many this reeks of censorship and goes against the freedom of the Web that we have all enjoyed.
However, like anything else, if you abuse a freedom to harm others, eventually the government will take it away. That is the path we are on, and government regulation would take these "suggestions," expand them, and make them enforceable rules with civil and criminal penalties.
The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters tried a much stiffer set of rules, which has held formal regulation at by for a number of decades. There are even rules, that many think cross over into censorship, about what you can broadcast given the time of day. (Cable gets around some of this because it's considered "private."
You can see a clear difference in the scope and power behind the TV/Radio Rules and those that have been proposed for bloggers. This is probably due to the fact that individuals, and not companies, are driving the rules, and the fact that many of us have relatively progressive governments. But, with the increased misuse of the Web, regulations are coming as is increased accountability for our actions, even after the fact. This last suggests that adopting this code of conduct for yourself and for any sites you or your company control would be a good idea.
Given that things can live on the Internet forever, I think it wise that we as bloggers or readers take these blogger guidelines to heart. This isn't just to prevent more aggressive regulation, which will likely come regardless of what we do, but to make sure we can be proud of what we do and those that come after us can be equally proud.
There is one guideline in particular that resonated with me and that is to not say anything on-line we wouldn't say in person. There is a follow-on statement at the wiki that suggests this is OK if you are trying to avoid physical intimidation. Anyone who knows anything about tracking IP addresses would tell you that you should not trust the Internet to hide you from someone crazy enough to actually cause you physical harm.
In the end, we are seeing a change in the Internet, and perhaps this is a good thing. But I wonder if, as a result of a few poorly behaved individuals, we aren't throwing the baby out with the bathwater.