Vintage Troll book scan by Tigerluxe
There is some law of numbers in the world. In science you call it random error, in email it’s spam, in politics it’s terrorism, and in blogging it’s the combo of spam and trolls. For every 100 people you get 1 crazy. For all the thousands on the bus or plane, you get one bomber. An open system gets abused, and perhaps nowhere as much as online. On this blog alone there have been 758 spam comments which you never see, caught by Askimet. Besides spam, there are a few people who post comments motivated by malice, rather than constructive debate. This is a troll, defined by Wikipedia as ‘a person who enters an established community such as an online discussion forum and intentionally tries to cause disruption, often in the form of posting messages that are inflammatory, insulting, incorrect, inaccurate, or off-topic, with the intent of provoking a reaction from others.’ The best reaction to a troll is to ignore them, but not everyone does. Then discussions get way off topic, and things descend into a bad, malicious place. As the owner of this blog I choose to moderate some comments and ban some people entirely. That is my choice, and it is OK.
People have called comment moderation a violation of free speech. I’ll state that this is categorically false in a very basic legal sense. Getting your blog deleted by government action is obviously censorship, whereas having comments deleted on a private blog pretty obviously isn’t. I’ll start with this quote from the American First Amendment Center, and then move on to the meat of the issue.
I got kicked off AOL for cursing in several messages. Doesnâ€™t that violate my free speech?
No. Online services have the right to establish and enforce codes of conduct. When you sign up, youâ€™re using a service that belongs to a private company, and you are subject to its rules. Because the online service is a private company, its restrictions do not constitute government censorship and, therefore, do not violate the First Amendment.
Lets say you’re walking into a coffee-shop where people are having a conversation. If you start calling people names, insulting their family, saying that they’re part of some conspiracy and generally spewing filth you may be asked to leave. Personal attacks generally aren’t tolerated in discussions, from the casual to lectures and forums. It’s a private space, and you can be asked to leave. More importantly, you will get a significant amount of non-verbal disapproval from the respectable people there, and may even place yourself in physical danger. There are these natural curbs on speech, and these are respected within free speech laws.
More importantly, they are respected within our culture. If you go to a lecture you generally don’t talk unless you raise your hand and get permission. At most press conferences people wait for the questions period to ask questions. I don’t call my grandmother by her first name and if someone has a PhD I try to append the term Dr. These are things that people know and feel. You don’t interrupt a lecture by positing that the speakers mother is X or Y. In a conversation you don’t generally go on at length and bore everyone. People follow speech rules in communities not because it’s the law, but simply because it’s polite. More to the point, violating speech codes (by talking during a movie, say) makes everyone feel very uncomfortable.
There is, however, a legal structure to these Speech Codes beyond the general squeamishness factor.
A speech code is any rule or regulation that limits, restricts, or bans speech beyond the strict legal limitations upon freedom of speech or press found in the legal definitions of harassment, slander, libel, and fighting words. Such codes are common in the workplace, in universities, and in private organizations. The term may be applied to regulations that do not explicitly prohibit particular words or sentences. Speech codes are often applied for the purpose of suppressing hate speech or other socially disagreeable forms of discourse.
Speech Codes legally hold, in the sense that you can generally control expression on private property. In America, the First Amendment Center writes “The 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, discussed below, said the U.S. Constitution does not give individuals an absolute right to enter and remain on private property to exercise their right to free expression. Since that decision, most states that have encountered this issue have followed the Court’s view.” However, the motivation is not primarily legal. Most expression cases never go to trial. A ranting or vulgar student will get kicked out of class, and insulting participant at a political discussion will be asked to leave or hushed, etc. When you go to a play or lecture or whatever people don’t behave because of the law, they behave because of a palpable social contract.
Internet Speech Codes
In all honesty, you can say pretty much whatever you want on the Internet. You can setup a blog on any number of free hosting providers, and they likely won’t boot you. They do, however, have legal speech codes. The Blogger Terms of Service, for example, reads
Member agrees not to transmit through the Service any unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, or harmful material of any kind or nature. Member further agrees not to transmit any material that encourages conduct that could constitute a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability or otherwise violate any applicable local, state, national or international law or regulation. Attempts to gain unauthorized access to other computer systems are prohibited.
Member shall not interfere with another Member’s use and enjoyment of the Service or another entity’s use and enjoyment of similar services.
If that’s too much for you, you can rent your own server space and domain name (like indi.ca) and publish pretty much whatever you want. This is the domain of free speech, free from most obligations to your hosting provider. However, many hosting providers won’t let you run hacking, pornography or Al Qaeda websites, so if you want total freedom you can set up your own box at home and host to your hearts content. Most people aren’t doing stuff banned by hosts, so if you want to trash my family or call Sanjana gay (as if that’s an insult), then you’re actually free to do that. It’s actually not even difficult.
However, I don’t have to publish what you say on my blog. No company, NGO (ooooh, scary) or private entity has to publish anything they don’t want to. The vast majority of websites do not allow comments at all. The majority of commenting websites do block Spam. Most forums and blogs do have moderators, and a minority have anarchy policies. I say minority because almost everyone has Spam protection, as a site or forum without gets overrun incredibly fast.
Now, the issue online today is whether Groundviews can moderate its comments. Given that it is a private entity, it quite obviously legally can. More to the point, like any lecture series or convention, it can control the comments people make. It is rules that define a speech community and make it cohesive and interesting. In the real world, no one would blink at a lecture series where people can’t call the lecturer assorted names, insult peoples families, use obscenities and rant on and on. In fact, no lecture series can survive under those conditions. In the world of press, no one criticizes the Daily Mirror for not running detailed dissections of the authors sexuality on the same page, or endless rants from random individuals. In the real world these rules are tangible and physical, and people understand them. When you go to Temple you behave a certain way, at work you behave a certain way, and when simply having a conversation among friends, we understand boundaries.
The internet, however, is just another speech community. The rules may be less palpable, but most people are still repulsed by vulgarity, obscenity and personal attacks. If I or Groundviews wants to maintain a certain order to our websites, that’s our business. Literally, it is our private business. If we step in at a government level to block access to certain blogs or whatever,that is censorship in the First Amendment Free Speech sense. But moderating comments on a blog isn’t. Please, get your own blog or start your own Groundviews if it bothers you so much. It’s a pretty basic WordPress install and you can get cheap hosting at Dreamhost. Just don’t walk into a private website and complain that you can’t write whatever you please. In a coffee-shop, classroom or theatre no one is surprised at the speech codes, but online it seems to come as a big shock. Comments are moderated, if they’re available at all. Try to play nice, or start your own blog where you can do what you please. I wish you well, but I try to keep the content on indi.ca up to a certain standard. My private standard, yes, and my right as a private entity. This is the quality and order that I want my speech community to have and that is my right as a blogger. You have that right of free speech too, so practice it as you will. Please, start a blog, start a forum, maintain your own speech codes, and try to contribute something worthwhile. Comment moderation helps me do that and that’s OK.