Ethics of Comment Moderation

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. Doesn’t that violate my free speech?

No. Online services have the right to establish and enforce codes of conduct. When you sign up, you’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.

Speech Codes

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 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.

And Blogs

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 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.

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2007-02-11 18:22:50

Just ‘old fashioned’ (?) manners. We could all do with some. Thanks Indi, I enjoyed and we all needed this posting.

2007-02-11 21:49:07

i completely agree that blogs being private property has complete freedom to moderate and censor comments if the owner so desires. i don’t think that was the issue with groundviews. after all many blogs do that without arousing any protest.

anyway they are also free to make claims in public media ( on and offline) that they are a place for ‘citizen journalism’ giving ppl an opportunity for expressing divergent views, and then censor comments with a different view point, different interpretations, and with questions about veracity of the posts posted there. they may even try to ‘cover up naked censorship with fig leaf of expletives’ (as commenter sri lankan in my blog expresed it) of a troll or two.

but then others are also free to point out the difference between the public claims and the reality, and even publish the comments they censor, for anybody who want to read them (and are not bored to death in the process) judge for themselves why the comments were censored.

2007-02-12 00:02:13

Yes you are free to publish those comments, hence it’s not censorship.

Censorship as a word usually applies to governments or corporations, it doesn’t apply to private spaces, especially when you have your own private space on equal footing. It’s like the Daily Mirror complaining about the Daily News not running its letters. You’re using the word censorship for rhetorical effect.

2007-02-12 03:11:42

analogy with daily news and daily mirror doesn’t hold with regard to comments in groundviews. they for one never claimed what groundviews claimed for itself. in fact groundviews specifically differentiated itself from mainstream media (sometimes in articles published there, in daily mirror for instance ), in the same way it differentiated itself from other blogs by the claims it made. main issue there is the difference between their claims and the reality as i said.

as for the word censorship , it is used in all sorts of contexts not just with governments and corporations (? corporations are not private spaces?). when daily news doesn’t publish something for political reasons and daily mirror publish that, or the vice versa, that is not official ‘government censorship’ but it is a sort of censorship. then there is general media self censorship. religious groups or even a families may censor (or attempt to) material (on or offline) that its members and children have access to. some political parities and groups enforce a sort of a censorship in spaces they control

(btw i accept that most of these ppl do have a right to censor their private spaces and papers, as well as blog owners). so the i don’t think my use of the word in the context of deletion or non publication of comments by blog owners bc they do not want blog’s visitors to see it was inappropriate.

in the same way, availability and ability to publish the material elsewhere even when it is of equal footing ( when a thing is transplanted from one place to another its is not quite equal btw) doesn’t mean censorship doesn’t exist or wasn’t attempted. that is a completely wrong idea.

(Comments wont nest below this level)
2007-02-11 22:52:33

what about Kottu…?
is that your private space?
do you not allow certain viewpoints or persons to be listed there?
just curious what the policies are to get listed there

2007-02-11 23:58:07

Kottu has a published policy. It’s entirely distinct from Generally, the only requirement is a to cover Sri Lankan issues/perspectives and have a working feed. The policy also involves original content (not copy paste), not overly technical/niche specific, and a proscription on hate speech and undue nastiness. However, again, Kottu is a private space (though not mine per se) and it does have a speech code.

2007-02-12 07:03:28

Hey Indi – just out of curiosity, does someone read every single post before it is published? And who decides on if anything is to be ‘censored’?

2007-02-13 02:51:12

[...] writes on the ethics of comment moderation. “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.” Neha Viswanathan [...]

2007-02-14 18:52:22

Lost somewhere in the politics of trolls and blogs is the art of conversation – You got to scroll down to get to the text. Or maybe I’m too optimistic (even though I’m vegetarian).

Having watched a few masters in practice I’ve come to accept that it is powerful. At the core of it is old fashioned metta and mindfulness. With lots of interesting toppings to make it contemporary. A decadent desert that’s highly nutritious and actually helps you lose weight.

2007-02-14 20:23:41

good link. below is the ( subscription only ) original from “the economist

(Comments wont nest below this level)
2007-02-15 03:27:45

what really matters in human decency at the end of it all. a blog simply allows us to express ourselves in whichever way we choose. if someone came to my home and behaved indecently they would be ejected. so the same way the owner of the blog fully reserves the right to comment moderation. i.e. indi has a popluar blog. by all rights its his blog. and the same rule of thumb for everyone.
if someone comments on your blog in a negative manner but under their right name, then the ‘freedom of speech’ angle can and may be challenged. not unless.
however, do be careful indi and everyone. recently in london, two people had got into an arguement in a chat room resulting in one person ending up at the others house for violence.
i still contend that its common human decency. if you are a human being you will not abuse others. especially in a media vehicle such as a blog which basically is now one of the few forms of fre media we have available in the modern world. which is both personal and completely gives a person to express their individuality. as indi says, if you want to express yourself, start your own blog, dont abuse others. bravo indi.
please dont ever crossover and become commercial…

2007-04-20 20:00:49

[...] have never assumed such protections. This is why you have a policy, to show what is permitted. Indi has a nice post and series of comments on this [...]

2008-07-22 03:04:11

Hello my friend, your site is very good!

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