There is controversy about a proposed code of conduct for blogs, described in The Guardian:
It is the combined work of Tim O'Reilly, inventor of the phrase Web 2.0 to describe the next generation of interactive communications, and Jimmy Wales, founder of the communal encyclopaedia Wikipedia. They have posted a seven-point programme that would attempt, they say, to address the plethora of abusive comments on the web, while preserving the free spirit of the medium. Point one of the code is that anyone signing up to it would commit themselves to a "civility enforced" standard to remove unacceptable comments from their blog.
Unacceptable is defined as content that is used to abuse, harass, stalk or threaten others; is libellous or misrepresentative; or infringes copyright, confidentiality or privacy rights. Anonymous postings are also to be removed, with every comment requiring a recognised email address, even if posts are made under pseudonyms.
Point six encourages bloggers to ignore "trolls" making nasty comments that fall short of abuse or libel. "Never wrestle with a pig," is the advice. "You both get dirty, but the pig likes it."
To back up the code, they propose a "civility enforced" badge marking sites which subscribe to the guidelines, and an "anything goes" badge to denote those that do not. The proposed guidelines can be interactively amended by web users, until a final version is agreed.
The excellent Index on Censorship has emailed me and a few other bloggers with some questions on this, for publication as a straw poll on its site. The questions are:
What do you think? Is this something you’d sign up to? If yes, why? If not, what’s your objection? If you don’t have comments on your blog, why did you take that decision? Is it really fair to say that a code of conduct like this is ‘conducive to freedom of speech’, or is that mere lip service?
My answer is this. I would not sign up to this code of conduct. Here are three reasons, in ascending order of importance: I do not believe it could be enforced; I take exception to the notion that I require someone else's imprimatur as evidence of my civility; and I am opposed in principle to speech codes, which have the characteristic of extending without warning their remit to a new set of perceived slights and insults. There is, for example, increasing use in public debate of the term Islamophobia to denote sentiments supposedly prejudiced against Muslims. I find this concept question-begging and illegitimate. I know how to speak and write in a way that is not personally abusive and is not racist, and I should rightly be held accountable to those standards by people I know (i.e. not a "badge" issued by someone I don't know). I do not propose to tailor my speech to avoid offence to Muslims or any other group of religious believers. All they are entitled to, qua Muslims or any other religious group, from me is a recognition of our common humanity and equal citizenship, and an insistence on their right to religious liberty. To the extent that it encourages avoidance of offence, a code of conduct is not "conducive to freedom of speech". Its corrosiveness lies in the self-censorship that it almost inevitably encourages.
There is, however, a good deal of misapprehension of what support for free speech involves. When I started my blog I did enable comments for its first year. I found that the comments included, and were sometimes dominated by, the type of contribution that characterises the comments threads on The Guardian's Comment is Free site. As Jonathan Freedland notes of reading those CIF threads: "It won't take you long to run into some serious vitriol. Even a brief, light piece can trigger a torrent of abuse, usually directed at the author and rapidly diverted by the commenters to each other." From my experience, that is an understatement of the problem with CIF. In one article I contributed to The Guardian's Comment page last year on the Lebanon crisis, the volume of overtly antisemitic comments (one, which is still there, referred to "sick-minded Jews who can't accept TRUTH, as they never did with Moses or Jesus!") appended to it genuinely surprised me. CIF's comments are an extraordinary phenomenon, and I'm certain the site's founders can't have imagined how bad it would be.
I thus shut down the ability to post comments a long time ago. My rationale drew on a story given by the late philosopher Sidney Hook about a conversation he once had with Bertolt Brecht. Hook was a socialist who did much to expose for American audiences the fraudulence of the Moscow Trials. When Brecht paid a visit to Hook's New York apartment in 1935, the two men discussed the issue . Of Stalin's victims, Brecht said: "The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Having checked he had heard Brecht correctly (Hook was fluent in German), Hook brought the man his hat and coat and showed him the door. My attitude to an indefatigable Holocaust denier - and not only to him - who used to litter my blog with his comments is like that. I hold left-wing opinions and libertarian social views. I am close to being an absolutist on freedom of expression (I strongly opposed the gaoling in Austria of David Irving, for example). But I see no logic in the notion that defending freedom of speech requires me to extend a platform of my own - my home, my dinner table or my web site - to others to use as they will.
NOTE: This vexed subject relates to the broader issue, which I raised in The Guardian yesterday, of the value of political blogs. Having described the blogosphere as a reliable vehicle for poisoning debate, I was mildly gratified to find quite so many correspondents willing to provide a practical substantiation of my point. For rather weightier criticism of my views, I gave at the end of my post links to three blog posts by writers with much experience of, respectively, journalism and academe. They are also friends of mine and declare themselves mystified at my criticisms of political blogging. In the next post or two, I shall oblige them by explaining why they're all wrong.