The Community You Create

Moderating is hard. Community managers have the difficult task of taking anonymous internet mobs and channeling them into groups that are socially worthwhile (and financially remunerative). The great failure of this would be EVE Online, a game with a surprisingly strong community given that structures of both the game and the community have fostered sociopathy to the degree of suggesting or plotting the rapes and deaths of players and their families. Not characters, players. As I recall, online game-related murder has actually happened in South Korea, but I had always presumed that was an isolated incident rather than a reasonable expectation of where the game was headed.

(The outcome of that particular EVE situation? A 30-day in-game ban on the leader of the largest group of organized sociopaths, who can still lead them just fine without logging in. This will be about as effective in curbing the community’s excesses as telling Al Capone that he is not allowed to personally brew beer.)

At root, the glory of consequence-free internet anonymity is also its downfall. One of the most important points in internet law is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(See the link for similar laws outside the US.) This has become a building block for the internet: with very few limits, you are not responsible for anything anyone posts on your website, forum, whatever. Even the limits are limited, so if you could reasonably claim not to know about X, you’re clear. This has led to the tendency not to moderate anything: if you take responsibility, you are liable, but if you let it all run wild, you retain plausible deniability. Hence the number of internet cesspools.

Upcoming legislation would make a simple change, and you know the programming power of flipping the sign on a variable. Just cross out that “No” and suddenly anyone setting up an internet forum is responsible for what happens there. That will need some amending, because you need a reasonable chance to respond when someone goes off on a rant while you’re asleep, but ultimately you are responsible for the community you create. If you are running the digital equivalent of a crackhouse or vermin pit, you will no longer get to say that you have no control over your customers. Barring hackers, you have complete control over who can post on your website, so take the legal responsibility along with the moral responsibility.

I want to mourn the death of online anonymity, but I don’t really expect it to happen. There will be international hosts to which something like 4chan or Something Awful can move, and there will be few cases in which it is worth the effort for the US government to impose itself upon another country. But if you can impede the lazy and the stupid, you have solved 90% of the problem.

: Zubon

Hat tip: Popehat. It’s a big hat to tip.

The non-Americans are presumably chuckling about that “US government not imposing itself upon other countries” thing. You cannot imagine how much it frustrates American politicians that they do not control the entire world.

Update: This was a bracing April Fool’s post. Wilhelm in the comments has the appropriate reaction to calling for the death of the anonymous speech under a reasonable-sounding cover. The annual debriefing is live. I think I’ll need to skip next year’s prank, since you have at least basic pattern recognition skills. (Also, sorry Maladorn: I put your comment to pending because I didn’t want the very first one to mention the date. It’s back!)

13 thoughts on “The Community You Create

  1. Maladorn

    I think that it’s a bad idea to be blaming content providers for the actions of trolls and bad apples. It’s going to chill speech, reduce community, and force people who might have otherwise started a blog/forum/community to think twice. It’s a tax (one that bigger companies and industries can pay much easier than the individual can) on being a provider of content and a digital space on the internet, and I think it’s wrong for the federal government to be wasting time trying to “fix” online bullying/trolling/trash-talk in this manner.

    And a very happy April 1st to you, too.

  2. bhagpuss

    Possibly your best post that I’ve read, even given your customarily high standard. Certainly the best I’ve seen on Mittengate.

    I linked this BBC article over at Hardcore Casual last week but it’s even more apposite here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17530450

    There’s always a grace period for any new technology while the Establishment simply have no experience or understanding of it. We’re past that with the Internet. Lawyers, politicians and judges are in their 40s. They have a passing familiarity with the technology. In ten years they will have grown up with it. The time to enjoy it while it lasts is already passing.

  3. Primal Zed

    I sure won’t cry if trolls find themselves less able to do this sort of asshole behavior on the Internet, nor do I feel bad for people who start up an open web community they have no interest in moderating against that sort of thing.

    Like Zubon said, I’m sure they’ll have to put some more concise details on the bill before it’s passed, but I don’t see anything wrong with the overall concept.

  4. wilhelm2451

    No. Just no.

    Making forum providers… and the wording means we’re talking up to and including Twitter and beyond… liable for any message posted on them is a simple way to give any crank with an axe to grind a way to silence critics.

    You are spreading the litigious society by putting fear into service providers. When the provider of a forum has to fear that anything a user may say… and who knows what innocuous opinion is going to set somebody off… then forum providers will err on the side of caution in a drastic way.

    When you tell a company that they are responsible for the speech of people they cannot control, common sense and the bottom line will dictate that they give those people no forum at all.

    I hate what the internet has become,that forums of any population worth inhabiting either become a cesspit or need a toll gate and heavy moderation. But if the cost is a complete absence of forums due to legal fears, I’ll take the cesspit please.

    (Unless you’re going to shout April Fools, in which case, you totally got me.)

    1. DataShade

      Why can’t I upvote you sixty million times, Wilhelm? This is either an April Fools’ joke, or the last post I read on KTR – removing Safe Harbor breaks the internet.

      If the forum is hosted in the US, and the speech is criminal – threats, harassment, etc – existing procedures permit one to get a warrant or subpoena to (begin) reveal(ing) the identity of the perpetrator. If it’s in a foreign country that won’t participate with US judicial proceedings, then the change in this law doesn’t matter.

      What changing this law *actually* does is make it easy for big companies to sue startups to death on spurious grounds, make rich or well-connected people able to obliterate criticism (Google “UK libel tourism”), and let the government threaten minorities and social undesirables.

      Since we’re rapidly moving to digital-everything, that means all speech happens on or through the internet, and the nullification of S230 Safe Harbors is a de facto repeal of the First Amendment.

  5. Telwyn

    Indeed, the loss of freedom of speech on the Internet is too high a price to pay for caging some trolls. I’d be the first to deplore what’s happened in the Eve community and I’ve seen some pretty toxic banter in other gaming communities as well.

    I would of course just put this down to crazy right wing politics in the US, but then my own government in the UK wants to usher in security service snooping of all Internet communications to a degree that would make China jealous…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17580906

  6. Syl

    I think the issue raised over EVE isn’t so much internet anonymity, as the very social problem of people being jerks and a company letting sociopath behavior thrive in their game.

    I’m not a friend of taking incidents like the Mittani for a basis to bring down systems that benefit many and on the whole work well. “laws should not be made over exceptions.” it is still an exception, no matter how loud it’s being hyped in various media. the anonymity of the internet and countless communities therein has been a major blessing for millions of people worldwide, a sort of liberation in communication and being yourself – funny enough as much or maybe more than hiding yourself. I’m a little tired to let bad apples ruin it for everyone else.

    I don’t want to think how many forums, boards or blogs would have to be shut down just because their hosts “may be” (what does that even mean?) fully liable for every little thing that’s being said by someone else. how is someone supposed to monitor thousands of comments?

    that would be my answer anyway – if this wasn’t an April fool’s! :D

  7. Pingback: Section 230 April Fool’s Hoax – A Deconstruction – New York Personal Injury Law Blog

  8. Maladorn

    Immediately after I hit “Submit” on my first comment, I remembered last year’s prank. When I saw the story pop again on a lawyer blog that joined in last year, my suspicions seemed confirmed. Will hate for you to miss next year; I think having a gaming blog “in” on the joke helps it spread.

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