Posted by: paulfbove | February 20, 2008

Web Bill of Rights

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico 

Greetings still from Florida. The Internet connection at my hotel has been marginal and fussy for the past two days, so I’ve been unable to access deli.cio.us, and I was unable to read the Web Bill of Rights on http://opensocialweb.org/. But I did manage to take a nice walk on the beach in time to see the sunset on the Gulf after my conference! Sooo, that was sweet! And I ate more crabs. Lots of crabs.

Without having yet read the Bill of Rights, I would say that yes, there should be something in place for the social networking. Kind of. Here’s the deal. Social networking has become a self-policing entity–to some extent. Yes, there is spam, and flaming, and trolls, and predators, and all the other bad stuff that goes along with so many people having access to so many technologies. But a lot of people will not stand for ill behavior when it comes to community: and community is what social networking really is all about, right? So in general, people take care of their own to ensure that things don’t get out of hand. An example. I belong to the 9:30 club forum. It’s a discussion board that has been around for over 7 years. People post information about music, current events, and whatever else happens to be going on. There are some people that intentionally try to egg people on and incite anger. Generally when that happens, the other board members will 1) tell the offender to cool it and call them out on what they’re doing wrong, and 2) come to the defense of the victim of an attack. Woe to the newbie who flames a long-standing member! (Your user name lists your member number and what year you joined, so it’s pretty easy to know who is new.) If things get really bad, a moderator may admonish the bad egg and/or delete the offending post. Recently somebody who was consistently being an ass actually got kicked off the board. That was the first time I remember it happening since I joined 6 years ago.

The point is that self-policing is useful because it is based on common sense and decency. Could a Web Bill of Rights simply be an organized, codified version of the self-policing that is currently used? I believe so. But of course that opens up a lot of room for interpretation and unfair behavior. There are times though when some kind of organization would be helpful. Case in point was the Megan Meier suicide case that occurred in October 2006. (Read the link if you’re unfamiliar.) There was much debate afterwards if MySpace and/or the parent who posted the mean comments on Megan’s MySpace page should be charged with some kind of crime. No charges were ever filed. Would a Bill of Rights had led to more legal grounding to bring justice to the Meier case? Perhaps it could have–if the Bill of Rights was some kind of legally binding document. But even without that, there might have been some kind of precedent that a lawyer or judge could follow to hold someone responsible. On the other hand, if there was some kind of legal Web Bill of Rights, wouldn’t that just take away a lot of the freedom that people enjoy on the Web? Most likely. So it’s a very slippery slope. One of the enjoyments of the Web is that you can be who you want, doing what you want–you can live in a fantasy world. A Bill would make it a little tougher. To that end, I’m unsure then if a codified Bill would indeed work. I think it would take away some freedoms and would lead people to either 1) go underground, 2) stop using certain sites altogether.

This much I believe though–we probably will see some kind of expansion of Internet laws and perhaps a Web Bill of Rights in the future. Internet growth will necessitate it. But in the meantime, people should continue self-policing. And for God’s sake, use some common sense!

Update: After I was able to access and read the Bill of Rights, I believe that the proposed version is very basic and perhaps needs to include some of the protections that I discuss above. BUT, even the basic version has a tenuous grasp on that slippery slope. I believe that people should be able to control and own their material and social network sites should grant these basic freedoms, but should we ensure that those sites are also held responsible when something goes awry as in the Meier case above? Hard to say. And I maintain that there will likely be some kind of legal standpoint in the future.

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