Blogging as a weapon

An interesting and somewhat alarming story by Ted Streuli in The Galveston County Daily News (August 29, 2004):

Teens thrust into blogosphere

FRIENDSWOOD — Somewhere, on July 24, someone sat down at a computer and started a blog. Somewhere in Friendswood, someone logged on and gasped.

“Friendswood Gossip,” the pseudonym used by a self-proclaimed gossip columnist, put two lengthy posts on free Web log host site Xanga.com. Gossip is rarely flattering, but what appeared on the site was mostly mean-spirited and vulgar, although there was humor, too.

“Friendswood Gossip” named names, mostly of Friendswood High School students — and alleged a plethora of behaviors few people would want aired, true or not. To read it, one would think the sex life of the average Friendswood High School student rivaled that of a porn star and that drug use levels would make East Los Angeles look clean and sober.

The blog drew a lot of attention — dozens of people posted comments almost immediately — but the site was not alone in cyberspace. There are now an estimated 3 million Web logs — or blogs — on the World Wide Web, individual ramblings and observations that run the gamut from gossip to philosophy, conspiracy theories to pornography and legitimate journalism. Their existence — especially in cases such as the Friendswood Gossip blog — raises questions about the right to free speech, libelous prose, public gullibility and veils of anonymity….

Scandal bloggers tend to hide behind pseudonyms. One that gained national notoriety was eventually outed: “Washingtonienne,” a congressional staff member, blogged her way to fame exposing indiscretions on Capitol Hill. A former intern in Joe Lieberman’s office, Jessica Cutler was fired May 19 by her boss, Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine. DeWine said in a written statement that she lost her job because of inappropriate use of Senate resources, her computer. But don’t feel bad for the Syracuse University grad because she lost her $24,000-a-year job. The Times reports that publisher HyperionDisney signed Cutler to a deal worth “a substantial six figures” for a novel based on her experiences.

“As more blogs like that come along, it’s going to put the idea in people’s minds that scandal is exciting and that it’s a great way to get attention, and that because somebody can hide behind a pseudonym or even complete anonymity, there’s no price to pay,” Daniel Terdiman, Internet culture writer for Wired News, said.

At one level, this is really nothing more sensational that Jerry Springer style daytime TV, or the now ubiquitous and pointless reality TV shows that have infected prime time TV. But it seems to me that these blogs go that extra yard, adding an element of meanness and cyber-cruelty next to which reality and shock TV looks almost pale.

The news article addressed the obvious next question: Who is to be held responsible for such attacks and how does the victim of such an attack effectively retaliate?

Blog host Xanga, like most of its competitors, is supported by advertising revenue and makes blog space available free to anyone who wants to write. According to Xanga’s published policy, the company protects the identity of its users unless someone shows up with a subpoena, and they only shut down user blogs if the site exists solely to abuse or stalk another Xanga member, contains an explicit death threat or is blatantly pornographic.

“We at Xanga are enormous believers in free speech,” says the company’s abuse policy. “That means that we put up with a certain amount of content and language that we don’t necessarily agree with. In our minds, that is part of the cost of free speech.

“The only time we question that belief is when free speech comes into conflict with our users’ physical safety,” the policy says. “Safety always wins out over free speech.”

Xanga’s user policy says it does not allow libelous posts, but goes on to say that the company is too small to investigate every report of inappropriate conduct… Terdiman said Xanaga personnel probably have no knowledge of what’s posted on the Friendswood Gossip site, and media lawyer Charles Daughtry, who represents The Daily News, said it’s unlikely that it matters — the company would have no liability anyway.

Frankly, this strikes me as wishy-washy bafflegab. “We do not tolerate libelous posts but we defend free speech and besides there’s nothing we can do”? What about shutting down the blog? What about the ISP revoking the account? The comment of the lawyer is perhaps the most telling: “the company would have no liability anyway” — no need to worry, no one can sue us — that’s all that really counts.

It seems to be that free societies have always struggled with and waffled on the question of the limits of freedom of speech. I don’t know why it’s so difficult — your right to free speech ends when it infringes on my right to freedom from harassment. And as for liability, that too should be a simple and easily resolved issue: if I am libeled or defamed, I should have the right to go after the author, the publisher, the distributor, and anyone else involved in the chain for damages. That should include Xanga.

It’s not rocket science, folks.

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