Civility or censorship? O'Reilly proposes blogging code of conduct

Draft of rules aimed at eliminating threats, harassment online

On the heels of the posting of death threats against prominent blogger Kathy Sierra, technology publisher Tim O'Reilly yesterday released a draft code of conduct for blogging that calls for an end to anonymous comments and a commitment to online civility.

The draft code, which includes a symbol akin to a sheriff's badge stating "civility enforced," notes that the frank and open conversations embraced by bloggers do not have to lack civility. The code urges bloggers to take responsibility for the words and comments they post on blogs and to avoid posting content intended to threaten or harass others and delete comments that contain such content.

The draft posted by O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media Inc., also calls on bloggers not to write anything online that they would not say in person. The posting of anonymous comments should also be prohibited on blogs, according to the draft.

The code of conduct stemmed from death threats posted on Sierra's blog last week, prompting her to cancel an appearance at an O'Reilly conference because she feared for her safety.

The draft code, which has been posted for public comment, is based on community guidelines developed by a blogging site for women called BlogHer.

"We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don't veer into abuse or libel," the draft code said. "We believe that feeding the trolls [those who post derogatory comments aimed at baiting others] only encourages them. Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them."

The draft also suggests that bloggers include an "anything goes" symbol for sites that want to warn possible commenters that they are entering a zone that contains unedited comments. The code suggests that this area of a blog advise readers to "participate at their own risk."

Robert Scoble, a former technical evangelist at Microsoft Corp. and popular blogger, noted on his site that that he does not support the code of conduct. Scoble allows anonymous comments on his site, although he notes that he deletes any "hate speech" that is posted. He said that he also disagrees with the code's suggestion that bloggers engage privately with a commenter when conflicts occur rather than using the blog to resolve a conflict.

"I blog. I don't back-channel," Scoble wrote. "If I have a problem with something you wrote on your blog, I think we should play it out in public. If I'm wrong, that'll be part of the public record. I don't like back-room 'deals' between bloggers. Makes me wonder what else they are doing in the back room."

In addition, Scoble said he felt the social pressure from other bloggers to support the code "disquieting."

Michael Arrington, another prominent technology blogger who operates the TechCrunch site, said on his blog that the response to Sierra's situation "feels like an angry mob arming itself to the teeth and looking for targets, and I need to choose whether I am with them or against them."

The code of conduct and the bloggers lining up behind it, he added, "scares me a lot more than the hate comments and death threats I've received in the past. I'm also not going to allow a mob to decide what types of words constitute 'unacceptable content.'"

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