Friday, October 20, 2006

Ha'aretz: Censorship on behalf of public discourse?

What happens when public discussion forums get a little out of hand? The English-language website for Ha'aretz has offered one approach with the publication of new guidelines for certain "talkback" articles. Bradley Burston explains:
In theory, the virtual no man's land of cyberspace affords a unique chance for common ground. But no. If anything, the Internet has become a powerful new weapon, widening to the ends of the earth the dimensions of the battleground in the Middle East conflict, exacerbating tensions and sparking new bloodshed with incendiary footage of atrocities real and doctored.

On a day-to-day basis, the battle is joined with gladitorial abandon, fervor, and bloodletting in the arena of the Talkback. More's the pity, since it is in the forum of the Talkback, more than anywhere, that a meeting of well-intentioned hearts and minds could truly take place.

In practice, Talkback forums have all too often served to provide a platform for the bully, the snide verbal abuser, the lockstep ideologue with no tolerance for the opinions of others. The reader sincerely interested in communicating with the other side may well refrain from responding, repulsed by the crude remarks of respondents who have found in Talkbacks a satisfyingly larger potential audience than they would have, had they scrawled the same thoughts on the side wall of a public toilet.

Writing that "censorship will be unapologetic" but that "political orientation will have absolutely no bearing on whether a comment is posted or rejected," criteria for deletion include racist remarks and slurs, comparisons of either Israeli or Arab policies with those of the Nazis, profanities directed at others in the forum, advocacy of violence, and "use of the phrase: 'There are no Palestinians' or derivatives thereof."

From my perspective, this seems to be a reasonable way of trying to create a forum for dialogue. There is a role for facilitation by a moderator, after all -- even if just to prevent a conversation from being dominated by one contributor. I have, for example, had no hesitation when deleting comments left by contributers that consist of nothing more than links to spam sites and do nothing to further discussion of, really, anything at all. Nevertheless, I'm curious whether readers of this blog see this form of Net censorship as a postive step or as overly intrusive.

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