By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 10/04/07):
So you're at a public meeting on, say, the war in Iraq and the main speaker has just sat down. Someone in the audience rises to declare the speaker is talking crap, but that's typical of him because he knows nothing and it's a scandal that he's paid for the rubbish he turns out. A second man agrees that the speech was trash, but tells the first man he should crawl back under his stone because he never says anything worth listening to. A third man wonders why the speaker didn't mention Israel, especially given his Zionist-sounding last name.
The first man is now shouting at the second man, insulting him for insulting him first. A woman gets up to make a point about the war in Iraq, but she is rapidly drowned out by a fourth and fifth man now debating Israel and the Palestinians. A sixth man compares the speaker to Hitler and proceeds to read out a 1,500-word article he read somewhere six years ago. If that has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because you're spending a lot of time online, specifically in the new and still lawless world known as the blogosphere.
This month two titans of the web have launched an attempt at bringing "civility" to this ever-expanding realm, which now stretches to a staggering 71m weblogs. Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia, and Tim O'Reilly, the man credited with coining the phrase Web 2.0, have proposed a code of conduct for online debate, even suggesting kite-mark style badges for sites that comply. Their move followed blogger Kathy Sierra's disclosure that she had been the victim of a violent and threatening campaign of cyber-hate: one manipulated photo showed her head alongside a noose; elsewhere she was called a "slut" who deserved to have her throat cut.
Predictably, Wales and O'Reilly have now felt the wrath of the blogosphere themselves, their idea torched by net users who detected an assault on their free speech. Indeed, in a neat proof of Godwin's Law - the pearl of internet wisdom that holds that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelier someone is to make a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis - it didn't take too long for one critic to post: "First they came for the commenters, and I said nothing because I did not comment."
Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Wales and O'Reilly too quickly. Their specific remedy might not be sound, but they are right to see a problem. Nor is this some techie issue, of interest only to a few hardcore web nerds.
For the blogosphere represents an enormous democratic opportunity. In the past, those 71m bloggers would have had to wait for a publisher to deem their work worthy of distribution. Now everyone has a platform. Those who want to challenge tyrannies, or even corporate misbehaviour, can do so directly. Whether it's the Baghdad Blogger or the public service workers highlighted in today's Society section, free expression is now just a click away.
But this freedom has a downside. Check out the Guardian's Comment is Free site and you'll see it for yourself. Yes, the place is humming with debate, borne out by its nomination for a prestigious Webby award yesterday. But 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. If the topic touches, even indirectly, on race or religion, then you'd better brace yourself. If it's Israel-Palestine, you might need to take the afternoon off.
That's the beauty of it, say its defenders; an environment of truly free speech. If your ideas cannot withstand the fierce gale of harsh debate, then they're probably just too flimsy. In one respect, they're right. Journalists like me have had to raise our game, knowing that a factual lapse will be pointed out within minutes.
But that advantage is surely out- weighed by the risk that the blogo-sphere, which could be a new, revolutionary public space, instead becomes a stale, claustrophobic environment, appealing chiefly to a certain kind of aggressive, point-scoring male - and utterly off-putting to everyone else. This is not just bad news for media outlets like the Guardian, keen to build an audience; it means that this great democratic opportunity is lost.
Ah, but this free-for-all is democratic, say the devotees. Any change would be censorship. But imagine that public meeting. Would that constitute a democratic debate, or a shouting match in which the loudest, most intimidating voice wins? Surely the more democratic encounter is the meeting properly chaired, allowing everyone their say and ensuring no descent into bar-room brawl. That's certainly how we operate in the real world, so why should the virtual realm be any different?
This is something, as regular readers will know, that the Guardian has grappled with, working hard to ensure racist or offensive remarks don't linger on the Comment is Free website. The aim is not so far from Wales and O'Reilly's: to devise a method of moderation which doesn't undermine the essential freedom of the medium. But how?
My immediate hunch is that the anonymity of the web is the problem. People do not tend to call each other Nazis in public meetings, or on radio phone-ins, because other people would know who they were. But if you're called DaffyDuck you can insult whoever you like. If democracy means anything it means accountability - and that should include accountability for our own words.
Yet suggest a ban on anonymity and watch the cybersky fall on your head. Web users regard it as an almost sacred right. They cite the Iranian students or Chinese dissidents, hungry for outside debate, only able to take part by hiding their true identities. The truth may in fact be more prosaic: plenty of commenters post their rants while at work and don't want the boss to know what they're up to. (Traffic on Comment is Free is heaviest on Friday afternoons and drops like a stone at 5pm).
Still, there are technical problems. Force users to give a real email address and they'll just create a fake one. Ask for a credit card and you'd deny free speech to the young and those deemed credit-unworthy. Instead, this democratic problem may need a democratic solution. Rather than some top-down system, it may have to be web users themselves who crack it, by coming to regard their online reputation as seriously as their offline one.
At present, you can be an irascible, misogynistic anti-semite online with little or no consequence. But what if that began to affect the rest of your online life? Note how careful people are to be well-regarded on eBay, where money is at stake. Might it not be possible to have a single online identity, one that you cared about, even if it had little connection to your identity in the real world?
Neil Levine, formerly of Clara.net, wonders about a system of comment credits, earned by the ratings of other users. High credit would give you an enhanced standing online, perhaps pushing your comments to the top of any thread. If other users deemed you out of line, your status would fall.
It's a smart idea and doubtless there will be others. But this is a nut worth cracking. Right now, the internet is too often like a stuffy meeting room on a bad night. It needs to change if it's to live up to its democratic potential. There, I've said my piece. Now you can bombard me.