Wednesday, April 9, 2008

'Codes of [Blogging] Conduct'- Reflections on Cyberethics Panel

'Code.' Four letters. Two vowels. Two consonants. One syllable. Over 1.6 billion Google search results.

In the blogsphere, the first reaction to the word 'code' is computer programming. Whether the initial thought is equal sign, quotation mark, or < and >, code holds specific connotations for the blogger who seeks to embed a video or create a hyperlink.

The word 'code' takes an entirely different meaning when paired with the word 'conduct.' 'Code of conduct' is defined as a group of expectations outlining the proper practices for an individual or organization. When this 'code of conduct' is moved from the gala circuit to the Internet, specifically to the blogsphere, a door to an ethical debate about duty and expression is thrust open.

So what, if any, 'code of conduct' should the blogging community uphold?

Many companies that host blogs set out basic rules of engagement. For, the host of this blog, its 'code of conduct' is as follows:

We respect our users' ownership of and responsibility for the content they choose to share. It is our belief that censoring this content is contrary to a service that bases itself on freedom of expression.

In order to uphold these values, we need to curb abuses that threaten our ability to provide this service and the freedom of expression it encourages. As a result, there are some boundaries on the type of content [including pedophilia, incest, bestiality, commercial or child pornography, hateful or violent content, or material that violates copyright infringement] that can be hosted with Blogger. The boundaries we've defined are those that both comply with legal requirements and that serve to enhance the service as a whole.
Some groups have adapted preexisting 'codes of conduct' for the blogsphere. has created A Bloggers' Code of Ethics, adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:
Be Honest and Fair.
Minimize Harm.
Be Accountable.
Others have approached it at a more individual level- creating 'codes of conduct' for themselves, that they then recommend to others. Tim O'Reilly writer of O'Reilly Radar sees a 'code of conduct,' and more importantly a discussion, stemming from the statements below:
Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.
Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.
Consider eliminating anonymous comments.
Ignore the trolls.
Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.
If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.
Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.
Author of Rebecca's Pocket, Rebecca Blood, argues that the six rules below form a basis of ethical behavior for online publishers of all kinds:
Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
Publicly correct any misinformation.
Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
Disclose any conflict of interest.
Note questionable and biased sources.
All of these 'codes of conduct' share one common ideal and that is to be open and honest as a writer, and active and engaged as a reader. So should the 'code of conduct' for the blogsphere be as simple as that? For now it's up to each blogger and reader to decide.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Prognosis Positive for Ethical Bloggers

Our groundbreaking Cyberethics luncheon last week was preceded by a cerebral dinner the evening before with several media experts and personalities, including Carnegie Council fellow Josh Fouts, writer Alex Koppelman, and Linden Labs CEO and Second Life creator Philip Rosedale aka Philip Linden. (Phil is stepping down as CEO of Linden Labs.) One of the major themes we discussed that evening was the relationship between online and offline identity and accountability.

Phil's contention was that the identities that we create online, in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may be truer to our real identities than what we are born with. In a sense that philosopher John Rawls might have a appreciated, since we are in control of our online identities, the persona you create online is in some ways closer to your "true" self, if such a thing exists. Panelist Rita King, a Carnegie Council fellow, blogs about Phil's view in her post "Becoming More of Yourself" in Dispatches from the Imagination Age:

In the last few months, I've spoken about the cultural value of the Imagination Age on four continents, and I know how people react. Some are fascinated. Some are disgusted. Many respond with the predictable, "But I already have a first life." Some lament a perceived decrease in socialization and intimacy between people. Quite the opposite. The issue of virtual identity is an extremely critical one in the development of global culture.

"When you're in Second Life," Philip Rosedale said during the hearing, "there's a very strong sense that you are kind of, in a way, becoming more of yourself."

I never expected it to happen to me. But it did.

The name of Rita's online identity is Eureka Dejavu. The fact that her name online is different from her real life name begs a question that we have dealt with a lot on Ethical Blogger: How do you hold people accountable online if they use fake names, pseudonyms, or no names at all (anonymous)?

Rita, Phil, and others answered that like an author who writes a book under a pseudonym, a blogger or inhabitant of a virtual world spends a great deal of time in creating his or her online persona (a "truer" identity). With this time and energy invested, they accumulate a reputation that they feel compelled to defend and protect. In other words, if the dream of a true online identity holds, these people will avoid reckless behavior.

The problem, which Phil and others admitted to, appears when people create multiple online identities that fit their mood rather than their "self." When identity is split, there is less accountability. Phil said people might have a party self or a mean self or a nice self online. This could create a problem. When identity is unified, online societies can hold that person more accountable.

And this dynamic of people investing themselves online and related societies emerging online was the essence of the positive prognosis for Ethical Bloggers. No one wants the Internet regulated or censored as it is in China. The alternative is that we govern ourselves--that a sense of ethics emerges, not regulatory regimes or even systems of laws.

More on the Cyberethics panel later. Stay tuned for video clips of Alex Koppelman, Steve Clemons, Rita King, Michael Getler, and Jay Rosen as well.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reflections on Cyberethics Lunch

Just wanted to pass along some reactions to the excellent discussion of cyberethics at the Carnegie Council this afternoon.

I think it is very important to acknowledge how important 9/11 is, and will continue to be, to the substance of today’s discussion. There was consensus among the panelists about the benefit of tapping into informed online communities on particular topics, and September 11th is an event around which perhaps the largest, and most diverse, such community has naturally coalesced.

While it is important for the New York Times to acknowledge, as they did, the deficiencies in their reporting leading up to the Iraq war, it is equally important to recognize the damage done by those deficiencies, and others like them. The atmosphere which contributed to the failures the Times acknowledged would have been impossible without September 11th, and as someone who was serving a gatekeeper function for newspaper editors in years immediately following September 11th , I can personally attest to the emotional component of the limits that developed on mainstream reporting during that period.

It just so happens that 9/11 occurred at a moment in history when citizens were not confined to traditional outlets of information. Official secrecy surrounding the event motivated many reasonable people to search for alternative sources of information. The credibility of the most of sources which ended up filling those gaps is certainly open to question, but it is important to acknowledge that the ability of conspiracy theorists to influence so many people stemmed in part from the (largely excusable and not conspiracy-related) short-comings of mainstream coverage. As a result, 9/11 became an important test-case for what contributions the Internet can make to educating the public about the world.

I was shocked to hear the questioner’s assertion that 1/3rd of Americans believe the CIA had something to do with 9/11, and if that is the case, it does not speak well of what the Internet’s contributions have been thus far. Whether or not the percentage is accurate, even the use of that figure in a setting like today’s discussion is striking.

It is often repeated that newspapers constitute the first draft of history, but the question of what role blogs will play in drafting history is only starting to emerge. As one of the panelists pointed out, there have already been instances in which individual bloggers have impacted a story such that it would be impossible to write an accurate historical account without mentioning them. I want to be 100% clear that I am not saying that I think the CIA had anything to do with 9/11. What I am saying is that our collective understanding of the event itself, and the factors leading up to it, has certainly been informed by the presence of the Internet- and that is important. As that history continues to evolve, I believe it will be one of the most important battlegrounds where the competing forces discussed today will vie for the public’s trust.

Continuing with a forward looking focus, the other comment I have is about something that was referenced in Devin Stewart's opening remarks; the generational element of the range in perspectives regarding the role of the internet in journalism.

I feel very lucky to have “grown-up” with the Internet. When my father first brought the net into our house, it was all text-based chatrooms and it took so long to download anything you weren’t supposed to be looking at that it was hardly worth it. While I think its important not to overestimate the influence the net has on kids’ mental development, I’m not sure how I would have handled the today’s Internet at the age when I first encountered its basic predecessor. I recently had the opportunity to discuss these themes with some high school students, and while it’s difficult for me to put into words, it was clear that we were approaching the Internet from two very different perspectives.

There certainly was at least one generation gap separating today’s panelists and I suspect another huge gap in perception already exists between people my age (26) and those ten years younger about their relationship to the net. As the medium continues to develop and these young people enter the marketplace of ideas, I am very curious to see how their perspectives on the role of the net in journalism will differ from someone like Mr. Koppelman, who, by that time, is likely to be serving the editorial role discussed as being so important to the continued evolution of the medium.

I think a well informed teenager would have made a useful contribution to today’s discussion. While he or she would not have the depth of knowledge and background on the issues being discussed, I think it would give the audience a preview of the attitudes of that will be taking the medium in yet undefined directions.