Monday, April 9, 2007

Free speech, hate and accountability

The shameful treatment that Kathy Sierra has recently suffered in the blogosphere has stimulated debate on topics ranging from misogyny to hate speech, anonymous postings, and censorship. The death threats made against Ms. Sierra for her unforgivable act of being a woman with opinions reminded me of a study about what has happened to human decency online.

Psychologist John Suler speculated in CyberPsychology & Behavior that flaming and other forms of anti-social behavior may be caused by a disconnect of "the brain's social circuitry" in the online environment, resulting in a loss of empathy with the person on the receiving end of the message.

Angela Rozas of the Chicago Tribune laments that "The Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate: information at our fingertips, global discourse, every man's opinion could be heard. But 12 years after I opened my first e-mail account, I have grown weary of the hate littering our e-world. Perhaps it's time we start policing ourselves. No more hate messages by anonymous posters. Every posting should require a name, address and telephone number. That information could be shielded from public view, and though some people might make up names and phone numbers, the requirement for submitting them might reduce the number of hate-filled messages left online."

It would seem that a code of conduct is sorely needed. Some have been offered already, by BlogHer for example. Now, as reported in the New York Times, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales have joined the call for greater civility and perhaps "several sets of guidelines for conduct" on different blogs and sites.

The counter argument to this proposal is that limiting visitors to a site in what they may or may not say, or removing comments that violate a site's specific code of conduct, amounts to censorship. Free speech, after all, is the essence of the blogosphere. How do you balance one person's right to express himself or herself, and another person's wish not to become a target of abuse, slander and threats?

Blogs and social networking sites may not be legally responsible for remarks posted on them by visitors. Nevertheless, we're still ethically responsible for safeguarding the rights of everyone who visits our sites. Having grown up at a time and a place where hate speech was all too common -- practically the norm, in many circles -- I can testify that threats and abuse aren't used to stimulate a lively debate or promote the free exchange of opinions. The only purpose of hate speech is to isolate and silence its target.

As a policy for open communication, "Free Speech for Me, but I'm Going to Make You Shut Up" seems questionable. Site owners have a duty to monitor their sites, and people who post comments should be accountable for their words. Abusive anonymous postings are an exercise in cowardice, not free speech.

I'll admit that it's going to be devilishly hard to devise a code that equitably distinguishes hate and abuse from legitimate, reasoned expressions of opinion. But if we're serious about the growth of the blogosphere as an open forum, it's worth the effort to try. I agree with Tim O'Reilly's remark, "one of the mistakes a lot of people make" is "believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech. Free speech is enhanced by civility."

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