Thursday, August 23, 2007

Online 'hooligans' casting a dark cloud over the blogosphere

LONDON: Many bloggers draw their identity and inspiration from that which they are not: The Mainstream Media, or "MSM," in blogging shorthand.

But the unbridled growth and limitless libertarianism that once defined the blogosphere have eased of late, and blogs are looking a little bit more like the MSM.

Technorati, a search engine for blogs, says there are more than 70 million blogs globally. But it will take nearly a year for the total to double, according to Technorati; two years ago, blogs were doubling every six months or so.

Universal McCann, an agency that buys advertising space and time, said in a report last month that the percentage of Internet users who read blogs had actually fallen recently in the United States, Germany and Italy, even as it was rising in China and South Korea.

Blogs are still generating news scoops, particularly in the United States. And marketers are increasingly trying to figure out how to include blogs in their campaigns, both as a way to "seed" awareness of new products and as a platform for ads.

But blogs are also attracting attention because of the spread of "cyberbullying" and other activity deemed to be antisocial.

In some cases bloggers are taking action to curb unwelcome comments or participants; in at least one country, South Korea, the government has moved to rein in some bloggers, an action that some critics see as a restriction on free speech.

A new law went into effect in South Korea in late July that requires bloggers and other participants in online forums hosted by large Web portals to enter their resident registration number, which is similar to the Social Security number in the United States.

The law was imposed after several Korean celebrities who had been the subject of venomous anonymous commentary in blogging forums committed suicide. Some free-speech advocates complain, however, that the law could also curb the kind of political expression that thrives on anonymity.

"It's an abhorrent, undemocratic idea," said Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and journalism professor at City University of New York.

"Anonymity is an important protection for free speech, particularly in countries that try to limit it."

In the United States, too, there has been concern about cyberbullying, after a blogger on technology issues, Kathy Sierra, was subjected to a series of menacing comments on her blog. Another Web commentator, Tim O'Reilly, proposed a code of conduct for blogging, including a ban on anonymous or defamatory comments.

So far, the idea seems to have gained little traction, and other bloggers say it would be unworkable in practice.

"It's a useful thought experiment but a laughable idea," said Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems in Vancouver, who has a blog of his own.

"There are limits on free speech in any society, and something posted on a Web site should abide by roughly the same rules as something printed in a newspaper," Bray said. "But it's better to fight these things using the courts and existing laws."

Elsewhere some bloggers, or operators of blogging sites, are taking action to curb what they see as abusive behavior, sometimes from politically motivated individuals or groups who try to hijack a blog for their own ends.

Ole Wejse Svarrer, editor of, a Web site affiliated with a free newspaper in Denmark called Nyhedsavisen, decided last week that he would no longer accept anonymous comments on the site's open blogging forum.

The move came in response to persistent breaches of what he considered good blogging decorum, and followed an action in May to suspend about 35 people who he said had stepped over the line.

Some leftist commentators, for example, were referring to members of the Danish People's Party, a far-right group, as Nazis, and were attacking individual members of the party as illiterate.

"Just like with football hooligans, it's a small number who ruin it for everyone," he said.

The problems arose in part because, unlike some newspaper Web sites, does not monitor comments before they are published in the discussion forums. Doing so would spoil the spontaneity that attracts many people to blogging, Svarrer said.

Other blogs that abide by the same policy, particularly one-person operations, are finding it difficult to keep up with the volume of comments they receive, some of which they feel they need to delete quickly if they are wildly off-topic, potentially libelous or simply spam.

At the height of the presidential election season in France this year, Loïc Le Meur, a popular blogger, was receiving 300 to 400 comments a day from opponents of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose eventually victorious campaign Le Meur supported.

Many of these comments were spreading false rumors about Sarkozy and his wife, Le Meur said, potentially causing him difficulties in a country where even politicians' private lives are protected by law.

So Le Meur turned to an outside firm based in Mauritius, called Modero, which now scans every comment that is posted on his blog, 24 hours a day, filtering out potentially defamatory material, personal attacks or other objectionable content.

"I had to do this to keep it going," he said, acknowledging that the move meant that his blog had "crossed a line from a personal company to being an edited service."

International Herald Tribune

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