By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- I blog, therefore I am: the Internet has become the place where "citizen journalists" broadcast their thoughts to all. This haven of free speech is treasured by thousands of online writers, each ready to leap onto their virtual soapbox and broadcast to the world.
But the blogosphere may not be the electronic utopia that we thought. It has been wracked by cyber-bullying, hate mail and even anonymous death threats. Are the golden days of the Internet over? Is it time to curb more extreme behavior -- and start to regulate what people write online?
In March this year, high-profile technology blogger Kathy Sierra found herself the victim of cyber-bullying. She received anonymous death threats in her blog, and violent and sexual threats towards her were posted on other sites. Kathy was so affected by the threats that she stopped blogging and locked herself in her house. She told CNN, "I feel horrible, I feel frightened, I'm ready to just quit the whole industry."
Sierra says that her situation is not unique. She reports that after posting about the harassment in her blog, she received support from hundreds of people who have also been threatened by cyber-bullies.
While it's likely that Sierra's harassers could have been Internet "trolls" (people who randomly seek to provoke a hostile reaction with crude insults) there are elements of the Web that set it aside from other media, and increase the opportunity for personal attacks.
The beauty of -- and the challenge for -- the Internet is that anyone can publish. Kids can instant message each other while doing their homework; enthusiasts create plethoras of fansites and forums; people with niche interests build communities online and connect on a global level.
The results can be chaotic. As the Internet spans traditional societal and geographical boundaries, the vast majority of people will connect in a civil manner (albeit with some heated debate.) But, as with any large gathering of people, groups with conflicting ideas can clash, while those with more sociopathic tendencies may start out with a trouble-making agenda.
It's also easy to provide an alias online, and with a little skill, Internet users can mask their identities further and target their victims from behind a veil of secrecy. This can give people the sense that they are separated from their words - as computer publishing supremo Tim O'Reilly says in his blog, "When people are anonymous, they will often let themselves say or do things that they would never do when they are identified."
Sticks and stones
Defenders of Internet freedom are quick to quote the "sticks and stones" defense -- they say that words, especially in the virtual world, are extremely unlikely to translate into physical attacks. They believe that offensive or aggressive verbal threats -- threats that people might never consider making offline -- should be ignored.
Blogger Mark Hughes, responding to Tim O'Reilly, writes, "Anything you write will offend someone sooner or later. That's not your problem, that's their problem. If you don't like what someone else writes on their own blog, don't read that blog anymore."
It can be hard to imagine the flesh and blood behind words on a screen. There is a sense that people online aren't "real," and it's ok to vent frustration at them.
But the Internet is not an alternative reality. It's a technological extension of the real world, populated by real people, and virtual attacks have an all too real result.
Victims of online attacks who don't know the identity of the perpetrators are left in a state of insecurity, always looking over their shoulder wondering where the next dose of vitriol will come from. As Kathy Sierra said to CNN,
"If I don't know for sure and I can't feel safe, am I willing to bet with my life that it's just a random Internet jerk? No."
The psychological damage from attacks such as those on Sierra can be chronic and severe. Ignoring trolls works to a point, but as a commenter posting as "Shelley" writes in O'Reilly's blog, "If a serious threat occurs, anonymous or not, it should be investigated by the police."
So should we start cracking down on what people are allowed to post online?
Spirit of the Internet
Proponents of Internet freedom say that severe cases of cyber-bullying amongst adults are still not the norm; that heavy-handed legislation and increased governance are unnecessary and would see the spirit of the Internet die.
David Weinberger, from Harvard University's Berkman Center, told CNN that while attacks such as those on Kathy Sierra are deplorable, they also need to be seen in proportion. "The sort of violence of the threats that we see occasionally, we do see just occasionally," he said. "If that were pervasive, nobody would be on the Internet."
Weinberger has a point.
The Internet has brought people together in an unprecedented way. It is a lifeline to friendship and community, especially for those at risk of becoming isolated by society -- older people and disabled people, for example -- and has also given people like stay-at-home parents the chance to interact as well as work online.
Millions of people take part in online activities every day without encountering extreme mob action or personal attacks. Flame wars die out; people move on. The attention span on the Internet is very short.
And many bloggers would argue that the virtual world, while predominantly not regulated, is far from lawless. Since its inception, Internet communities have been largely self-moderating, and this is generally successful.
Most communities and blogging sites will see their share of verbal conflict, but many have their own rules and guidelines as to what behavior is acceptable. These social mores, or "netiquette," are promoted and enforced by community owners and elders.
Some, such as longstanding community the Well, ban anonymity; others boot out users who break their rules; others simply ignore them. Some even advise victims to open a dialogue with the perpetrators -- if known -- to reach resolution, or as O'Reilly puts it, "We connect privately before we respond publicly."
And while anonymous attacks are prevalent, web users are reluctant to give up the right to remain hidden, even if it were to create a safer online environment: and with good reason.
The case for anonymity
Bloggers have pointed out that job applicants might not want prospective employers to Google them and discover their political or religious beliefs, embarrassing photographs or their frank thoughts about their workplace. And employers are checking.
Jackie Thompson, HR manager at PR agency Brands2Life, has rejected a candidate based on what she found out about them online. She told CNN, "I looked up a person and found some content about their previous employers which I didn't think was suitable. I decided not to go ahead with the application."
More seriously, bloggers cite the right of those in oppressed countries to write about their situation without fear of governmental recrimination. As the Pakistani Spectator said on Tim O'Reilly's blog, "Blogging is the great and unique way of protest for the oppressed people against such regimes."
But many Internet users also believe that people using the Internet need to act responsibly online, and realize that their words and actions can -- and do -- affect other users.
A commenter in O'Reilly's blog posting as "Groucho" says, "Vitriol really gives me the pip. Freedom of speech implies universal responsibilities - to respect the other fellow, to present rationally, and in good faith."
Code of conduct
And do those who run forums, blogs and messageboards have further responsibilities? Tim O'Reilly has called for bloggers to subscribe to a voluntary code of conduct where they take responsibility not just for their own words but also for the comments placed on their sites.
His six guidelines include: not saying anything you wouldn't say in person; considering disabling anonymous comments; and ignoring trolls. He also urges people to whistleblow on anonymous bullying rather than staying silent.
"It's the broken windows problem," he says. "If you don't look after your neighborhood, it gets worse, and eventually you have to move out."
O'Reilly's suggestions have received a mixed response from bloggers, many of whom fear a code of conduct would be the first step towards greater regulation of web publishing. Commenter Michael Mahoney replied, "The slippery slope here is more dangerous to civil discourse, by far, than the enforced civility that it strives to achieve."
O'Reilly's critics also point out that a voluntary code of conduct will have no effect on "trolls" and other troublemakers.
Responding to O'Reilly's draft code, Kathy Sierra wrote, "This Code of Conduct would have had no effect on what happened to me ... Anyone who would support a code of conduct doesn't *need* one, and anyone who we *wish* would adopt it never would."
Freedom implies responsibility
Others have greeted the draft code enthusiastically, saying that as an example of good Internet citizenship, it could encourage more positive behavior online and provide clarity on what conduct is expected on certain sites.
Chris Howard backs the code, commenting, "I can't see how or why anyone would object to people's right to be treated with respect in favor of their right to say what ever they like."
And that's the key. The tension lies between those who view the Internet's freedom as prized above all else; and those who feel that civility and responsibility are every web user's duty.
It's too soon to tell if voluntary codes of conduct will take off amongst bloggers and, if they do, whether they will be effective. But given the diversity on the Internet, it's unlikely that a solution that fits all will be found. Codes of conduct would make it clear what behavior is acceptable where; firm moderating would back that up. That won't stop trolls, but may help to prevent misunderstandings, and thereby unnecessary conflict. And of course, the authorities should continue to intervene when heated discussion turns to hate speech.
But although attacks on individuals cannot be condoned, the feeling amongst bloggers is that curbing freedom of expression online to prevent future attacks is too high a price to pay: the richness of an unrestricted Internet is too great.
Blogger Kathy Sierra received anonymous death threats