A note of quiet despair…

She means well, I’m sure. I do tell myself that she means well, but of all things to raise right now the very last thing that Tessa Jowell should touch on is this:

Civility in ‘ourspace’

Should we introduce a blogging code of conduct to increase the quality of internet debates? Today, I’ll be online to discuss this.

The internet is a vigorous and now invaluable part of the public realm, or what I prefer to call “ourspace”. Ourspace, whether physical or virtual, includes those places and spaces where people meet as equals; where public engagement and debate takes place.

Ourspace is part of the “commons” of the UK and something that goes much wider than just the state to include, for example, public service broadcasting; the arts, culture and sports; parks and other public open spaces; and of course the internet – in short, spaces where all feel welcome to participate, to enjoy themselves and to learn.

User-generated content on the internet – citizen journalism – is just one welcome example of “virtual ourspace” being used in this way. But as power shifts increasingly into the hands of citizens, responsibility must follow. The internet is transforming the way the government interacts with people and the way people interact with one another. But change never comes without challenges.

That’s why in a lecture for the organisation Progress on Monday night, I publicly welcomed and supported the initiative by web pioneer Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales for a blogging code of conduct.

The wonderful, anarchic, creative world of the blogosphere shouldn’t be a licence for abuse, bullying and threats as it has been in some disturbing cases.

There is a need for serious discussion about maintaining civilised parameters for debate, so that more people – and women and older people in particular – feel comfortable to participate.

I’m not wedded to the specific words and phrases in the draft code that O’Reilly and Wales have proposed (that is up for debate), but I do think their proposal is right in principle and should be adopted here too. Blogging took off earlier in the US and the blogging community has become a powerful political force there – I hope the same happens here. But surely its full potential to benefit civil society cannot be realised unless the quality of online debate itself is civilised? Surely we do not want online discussions simply to mirror the often aggressive, boorish and pointless exchanges that sometimes pass for debate on the floor of the House of Commons, and which are such a turn-off for voters?

Some commentators have suggested that the idea of a code of conduct shows the growing maturity of the blogging community in the US, although some of the more virulent attacks on the suggestion (and on O’Reilly and Wales themselves) have shown nothing except the immaturity of some users. But perhaps, taken as a whole, this proposal is a rare example of a good lesson for us in Britain to learn from American politics?

D’oh.

Should the Groan get around to issuing the validation e-mail I appear to require, despite already being registered on Comment Is Free, then I will be putting this into the discussion for Tessa to chew on – ah, it’s just arrived, so this is what I’ve to Tessa – should I get a response, I’ll append it below, together with any other interesting remarks she makes.

—————————————————————

First, so we’re clear about where this is coming from, I am both a member of the Labour Party and a ‘veteran’ of online discussion and debate stretching back over at least 10 years, from the Usenet newsgroups to political discussion forums right through to blogging, where my online ‘home’ is to be found at www.ministryoftruth.me.uk.

As far debating civility and free expression is concerned I’ve been there, seen it, done and bought several t-shirts over the years.

Bloggers and other internet users already have a ‘code of conduct’ – we call it ‘netiquette’ – and a means of ‘enforcement’, which we call ‘personal choice’.

If you don’t like a particular blog or blogger for whatever reason – don’t go there.

If, as a blogger, someone repeated posts abusive comments to you or your other readers, then most blog software permits you to exclude that individual from you blog.

If someone crosses the line of acceptability in terms of threats, harassment, stalking, and particular if they give any indication that they may take their behaviour off line and into the real world, then we have more than sufficient public order legislation to address such situations and the police have sufficent powers under RIPA, etc to conduct investigations and bring forward prosecutions.

Blogging, as a medium, is self-organising and self-regulating – bloggers stand and fall on their personal reputation, lose that and you lose your readers and your reason for blogging – the ultimate sanction is ostracism.

That’s how it all works out here, and much of this culture, even in Britain, stems from the the influence of the US on the development of this and other online media forms.

But for the matter of libel – where our own laws are so pernicious and biased toward the plaintiff that even Americans now the UK as the jurisdiction of choice for such litigation – the vast majority of establish bloggers operate on the premise that the kind of freedom expression we enjoy while online is that afforded to US citizens by the First Amendment. My own blog is physically hosted in California and, as such, is legally entitled to the protections afforded by the First Amendment other than where statute law in this country provides for jurisdictional pre-eminence, as in the case of libel and applicable elements of criminal law.

On other matters, provisions within UK law, especially civil and common law provisions are effectively unenforceable – while the UK courts may have some jurisdiction over myself as an individual they have no such jurisdiction over my blog and its contents. This, I might add, is entirely deliberate.

That’s our culture – free expression, a free exchange of ideas and a clear will to use every legal means at our disposal to preserve those freedoms and, as might already be obvious, any attempt to interfere with it is certain to meet strenuous resistance. You say ‘should we introduce a blogging code of conduct’ – my question is just who do you define as we.

‘We’, so far as I am concerned, is the already established online community of bloggers, of which I but one small part.

‘We’ is not the government, or a quango, or any external regulatory authority imposed on us from the outside. ‘We’ is not you, at least not unless or until you start your own blog, at which point you are responsible for deciding what does and does not constitute acceptable behaviour on your little piece of the electronic frontier, but not on mine – that’s my responsibility.

It is not for you to make determinations about the ‘standard’ or ‘quality’ of debate that takes place on-line – you are welcome to encourage people to improve the quality of the debate, but not to try and enforce your opinions as to what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ blogging on others. Your services are required only where someone crosses the line into illegality – in which case we will call you – or rather the police – you don’t have to call us.

Calls for a ‘code of conduct’ for bloggers are not a sign of the medium’s ‘maturity’ but a reflection of the development of the medium and events that have happened before, first on Usenet and later on discussion forums. To begin with, the technical demands of a new medium in its early days limit its use to the more technically proficient members of society – or those who can seek out the technical support necessary to join the early adopters. If you’ll forgive me for saying this, you get a better class of user at the beginning because the limiting factor on access is education and knowledge.

All these mediums – to use an analogy – started out as ‘broadsheets’ and the basic mode of discussion was generally civil and respectful of others. As the medium develops and becomes more widely accessible then, to use another analogy, along comes the ‘Sun readers’ – actually we used to call them AOHellers – at which point, there goes the neighbourhood. What then has happened in the past is that new medium emerges and the early adopters move on to enjoy another halcyon period of civility before the rag-tag army of online chavs turns up again and drag it downmarket. This happened with Usenet and it happened with online discussion forums and it may well happen to blogging at some point – the only thing that changes is the pace at which these mediums develop such that their Elysian start-up period gets shorter with each iteration.

That’s the reality out here and that is what you need to understand about our culture, Tessa. If you want a better standard and quality of debate, then the answer is education, education, education and not regulation, regulation, regulation.

The underlying issues are social and not a function of the medium.

Last words – in terms of political blogging, that which you and other politicians reap is only that which you have already sown.

If you want to encourage serious political discussion and debate then you have to stop treating the electorate as a bunch of idiots. If you engage with the electorate at the intellectual level of the Times and the Guardian, you will facilitate over time a quality of political debate that takes place at that level. If you keep pitching at the level of the Mail, Express and Sun, well let’s just say that tabloid politics breeds tabloid standards of debate, and it common knowledge that the Sun – and others – pitch their use of language to that of a reading age of seven.

If you’ve not done so already, you would do well to read Robin Cook’s account of his final two years in government – ‘The Point of Departure’ – and reflect upon what he has to say on the subject of the relationship between politicians and the media. The media will not change a thing because its priority is profit, not political discourse – you and others in Parliament can change things if you choose.

30 thoughts on “A note of quiet despair…

  1. Mr E,maybe because the live debate is going on now? Although having said that, I noticed that the comments were closed even before the debate was supposed to have started.

  2. I don’t know about going on – or debate for that matter, it’s hardly a group conference over there.

    So far as one can see from a previous ‘debate’ – David Cameron, in fact – the MO of these things seems to be to:

    1. Stick a post on CIF and not allow comments.

    2. Get everyone to post questions in advance of the start time.

    3. Allow the ‘star’ of the show to pick and choose which comments to answer.

    Whether there’s a SPaD inserted covertly between 2 and 3 is anyone’s guess.

    Cameron’s gig doesn’t look to have been particularly live – 18-20 questions, 6-7 replies and Elvis has left the building…

  3. Thus far, the majority of advance questions/comments follow the same basic pattern – keep your filthy tanks off my lawn – but for Jonathan who seems supportive of a code of conduct because he’s upset at someone posting stuff like this on CIF…

    ‘all leftists should be put in a internment camps in Siberia’ and saw all leftists as being like Pol Pot or Stalin.

    Gets no sympathy whatsoever and a stock ‘if you’re going to play in the big playground’ answer…

  4. Several requests already in asking for a definition of civility…

    Could the delayed start be due to a desperate scramble to find a dictionary?

    16:27 and still no Tessa – it showing up on time also not a mark of civility and respect?

  5. 16:31 and this looking like a car-crash in the making…

    The natives has noticed the time and are starting to get rather restless – all does not auger well for Tessa, when she starts drawing comments like this before she’s even out the starting gate:

    Perhaps the first step for Ms Jowell to ‘increase the quality of internet debates’ is to engage in one, rather than chickening out quicker than a minister from a chat with Paxman.

  6. 16:35 and Tessa has entered the building…

    Hello, everybody. Thank you very much for all the provocative comments, you have posted.

    To begin with, I make no claim to be a regular blogger, nor in effect is my contribution more than a contribution to the debate that the code of conduct has started.

    Why no more? Because there is absolutely no intension in government to give any kind of legisatory or statutory affect to this.

    So you may ask what business is it of mine to express a view. Well it is this, that the independence of the blogosphere is passionately defended by its participants but there is also a risk and you know as well as I do that this exists. That for some people who would like to take part, it is in effect a no-go area, and just as we would not tolerate the existance of no-go areas in our towns and cities, so I think we should be aware to that risk in the bloggersphere.

    ANd it is the risk of extreme abuse or threatening language that creates this apprehension.

    Call me lilly-livered, but I don’t think any society, even a virtual one in the long run thrives on that basis.

    But in the end, it is up to you how the bloggersphere functions.

    I think’s she’s caught the mood already and knows it could get ugly… especially as I saw PikeBishop kicking around in there earlier…

  7. And the first boot goes in but a minute later…

    EvilGiraffe:

    there is absolutely no intension in government to give any kind of legisatory or statutory affect to this

    So if it’s unenforceable, there’s no point to it. So why bother?

    Followed rapidly by…

    Oh, and call me Lynne Truss, but it’s spelled existence.

    Welcome to GU Talk, Ms Jowell.

    Maybe they’re looking for a touch typist now to go with the dictionary…

  8. The Labour Party and Downing Street have shown nothing but contempt for the public at in general… never mind those who use the internet in this way.

    Tessa Jowell is the last person who should be flapping her lips about this… and it’s pretty obvious that if it weren’t this subject she would be stunt-riding on another.

    (PS – Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

  9. The ribbing over typos is now kicking in in earnest…

    I couldn’t agree more, Jeff. It’s just that some of us are enjoying the irony that a former Minister of state at the Department of – ahem – Education and Employment actually requires a spell checker.

  10. DK:

    I think you’ve probably more chance of a visit from Patsy Hewitt, and if that happens I’d plead justifiable verbal homicide.

  11. Don’t worry, DK, if Patsy Hewitt wanders into the Kitchen I’ll hold her down while you insert the cockroaches.

    We’ll share a cell. It’ll be fun.

  12. Just when I thought it had died completely on its arse, I found a couple of replies buried under earlier comments…

    we are all entitled to take part in this debate. my press officer objects to being called a flunky. nothing that i say is intended to be patronising but i do think that we need a different kind of political debate, too much is conducted in a tone of intolerance and cynicism. so i think that you will get more people joining you if you make it clear that you stand for something different.

    Quite… when does the standing for something different begin in govenment?

    I think that there are similarities btween say parks and bloggoshere,and other aspects of the public realm.remember that these are democratic spaces where people meet as equals. in that most such spaces need broadly defined rules of engagement the debate about voluntary code is useful. I do think that it is right that comment should be owned and not anonymous and that vigorous debate should not be masked by simple abuse that is a substitute for argument. I am but one voice in this in a debate that i hpe will go on with thousands of others. thank you to all of you who have taken part over the last hour .

    Parks? I must ask the council which bit of our local park specifically belongs to me because that’s the only way this analogy works.

  13. At least Tim got in there:

    Tim Ireland:

    Tony Blair taking years to make good on his promise to simply be accessible via email, The Big Conversation, Labour activists (working in tandem with F4J of all people) bullying Jody Dunn via her weblog, Alastair Campbell and his world cup ‘weblog’ where he was allowed to discuss politics and we were not, David Miliband spending our money on a weblog where he is allowed to play political games, but no party-political discussion is allowed… I could go on and on (and often do).

    Contempt, contempt, and more contempt.

    Your lot helped to create the current problem, Tessa.

    You want to help fix it? You can start by leading by example.

  14. Well, it looks like that’s all she wrote – she off to run 5k round Battersea Park in support of Cancer Research… if any snipers are looking in.

    So, what did we get for our 50 minutes..?

    The government has no intention of trying to legislate/regulate bloggers.

    Blogging should not have no-go areas, apparently – I think she’s suggesting that the robust character of online debate may be a bit off putting for some people.

    Extreme abuse and threatening language makes people apprehensive.

    To much political debate is cynical and intolerant.

    Sounds like a typical week’s PMQs to me…

  15. Labourhome?

    Bit to inward-looking and Westminsterish for my tastes, I’m afraid – reads a bit to much like a Labour Party parish noticeboard.

  16. Tom:

    What can I say? Someone has to fight the good fight.

    It needed to be said and it much more difficult for Tessa to dismiss out of hand when it comes from inside her own party

  17. I avoided blogging about the Kathy Sierra brouhaha at the time in the hope it would all go away (two responses I particularly liked came from Shelley Powers and Nick Carr). Deeply depressing to see Jowell attempting to jump on the bandwagon, especially when the bandwagon’s already ground to a halt. Nice work from yourself and Tim.

  18. I quite appreciated the potential for discussion that the Kathy Sierra brouhaha presented us with… but I’m not in favour of some ‘from on high’ code of conduct (despite what dipshits like Dale and Staines would have folks believe).

    I believe that the potential is there for us to sort our own problems. And, from that statement alone, you should be able to work out that I think that there *are* some problems.

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