Blogskeptics ponder regulation in Europe


Cruising the European blogosphere early this July, you could not shake the feeling that privacy and freedom of speech are in for tough times. While Nicolas Sarkozy and some British MEPs are pushing surveillance and harsher punishment for copyright violators, a policy proposal put forth in the European Parliament aims to put an end to the anonymity of bloggers.

Concerns about privacy and freedom of speech abound not only on the European level. Last week, for the first time ever, a Portuguese blog was shut down by Google Portugal following a court order. The blog Povoa Online was accused of defaming two local officials. The reason for the decision to shut down the blog (in Portuguese) were twofold: The plaintiffs had been libelled not only as officials of their local community but also as private individuals. And, the authors of the blog had been “opinionated” in most of their writings and caricatures.
Such judicial reasoning raises several questions. First, even if free speech is sacrificed for the sake of the inviolability of the private, where do we draw the dividing line? If an elected official commits, say, adultery, does the electorate have the right to know this and consider it in its next vote? The point is not to condemn a particular course of action by an individual – and of course not all attacks are justified. The point is that, for better of worse, there can hardly be a separation of public and private when it comes to the lives of officials.

By definition, blogs represent a personal point of view - even if many try to introduce multiple sides of the topic at hand. Blogs arose in part out of the feeling that true objectivity does not exist – most certainly not in the form of the static, one-way platform that is a newspaper or nightly broadcast. The idea is that a reader can traverse the blogosphere, modifying his position as he consults various (and often opposing) sources. This platform is rife with opinions, which have come to be seen as quite valuable assets in the unfolding attention economy. Transparent opinions are to many a breath of fresh air after mass publications of the 20th century left so many viewpoints by the wayside in order to achieve “balance”.

The court decision is sending a negative, perhaps chilling, signal with regards to the procedures that the offended party can use to defend itself against accusations. Whereas print publications or broadcast television have to be forced by law to grant right of reply, blogs have this function built into the system via their comments function (Povoa Online was no exception). So, instead of suing, the two officials could have rectified their accusations on the spot, and would certainly have earned respect for that. Politicians like Barack Obama have shown how to profile themselves by confronting the public on the web – why should this be so difficult on a smaller scale?

Just as the Portuguese court in question seems predicated upon a flawed understanding of blogs, there appears to be much misunderstanding among public decision-makers in general. The European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee adopted a report aimed at ensuring media pluralism in Europe. This report is merely a motion for a Parliamentary Resolution – a non-binding piece of EU legislation - no real threat to bloggers’ privacy. But that the report was adopted in June by a Committee warrants a closer look into the ideas behind the proposal.

The document, initiated by Estonian MEP Marianne Mikko, proposes to regulate blogs by “clarifying their status” and labelling them “according to the professional and financial responsibilities and interests of their authors and publishers”. Asked about the report, she said, “The blogosphere has so far been a haven of good intentions and relatively honest dealing. However, with blogs becoming commonplace, less principled people will want to use them”. However, she did not indicate whether she had any concrete examples of such evildoers at work corrupting the blogosphere.
Mikko asserted that she does “Not see bloggers as a threat. They are in position, however, to considerably pollute cyberspace. We already have too much spam, misinformation and malicious intent in cyberspace”. She added, “I think the public is still very trusting towards blogs, it is still seen as sincere. And it should remain sincere. For that we need a quality mark, a disclosure of who is really writing and why.”

Bloggers are certainly capable of doing a lot of things, and some may even be bent on maliciously spamming innocent readers with misinformation. But why would such “bad” blogs come to dominate public opinion? This is an unlikely scenario due to the nature of the blogosphere itself.

Because bloggers like to criticise and engage with opposing blogs, unfounded opinions are quickly detected and labeled as what they are. In addition, it has become imperative for bloggers to link to their sources even while blasting away at them. This gives readers the chance to delve into the core of an issue.

The blogosphere boasts myriad self-regulatory mechanisms. Not only do bloggers tend to link to other blogs that they trust, but blog metasites like Technorati give readers a quick overview of what others all over the net consider worth reading. Via a ranking according to “authority”, blogs that spam, misinform or are driven by malicious intent are less likely to be sought by surfers.

In this sense, “survival of the fittest” is well at work in the blogosphere. This natural tendency makes regulation redundant. Indeed, as with so many “solutions in search of a problem”, legal constraints are likely to do more harm than good. While bloggers without a hidden agenda would not have to be afraid disclosing their motives, revealing their identity carries the risk that their writings will be used against them off the net. Unlike elected officials, bloggers should have their privacy protected for the sake of free speech.

One more positive note regarding the Portuguese case: Following the shutdown of Povoa Online, the people behind it immediately set up a new blog, Povoa Offline, which started off by publishing the entire court order and drew support from commentators on the site. As unsettling as this case is - as long as censorship in Europe only affects the output of an individual but not the individual himself, defiance is still an option.

Flickr photos from users Francisco-PortoNor tePortugal and helsinki51, respectively.