Shhhhh! Baby censorship napping

January 9, 2009

Of all the articles about Gaza, this is one of the scariest for me: it effectively means censorship on the net of organising activities for those who disagree with government. It also means a blogger in one country potentially could be charged by and deported to another country for violating ‘censor’ laws (this is not far fetching, the EU is currently implementing such a plan for member states.) I am afraid this is the writing on the wall for internet freedom (see yesterday’s post here).

Freedom of speech is in grave danger of disappearing in cyberspace. Our connections in this realm are very fragile. Read and weep.

Gaza war sparks torrent of fiery comment on the Internet

Pro-Palestinian commentary pushes Internet chat to become rear-guard battleground of public opinion.

PARIS – European and US media and social network websites are struggling to cope with a deluge of reader comments sparked by the Gaza conflict, most fiercely partisan and some explicitly anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim, according to the sites’ administrators.

Emotions on both sides are running high as the war enters its third week, and the Internet has become a rear-guard battleground of public opinion.

The torrent of highly-charged commentary — especially when it violates in-house rules or national hate-speech laws — poses at least two serious problems, representatives of the sites said.

One is logistic. All major news media sites filter reader views, and vetting hundreds, or thousands, of submissions — not all of them coherent or concise — is labour-intensive.

“The number of comments has exploded since the start of the conflict in Gaza,” said Alberto Piccinini, an editor at the left-wing Il Manifesto in Italy.

“The debate is very lively, often virulent,” he said, adding that most comments were pro-Palestinian and that some were bordered anti-Jewish.

The influx of views was so heavy at discussion forums of some French media sites that administrators simply shut the doors.

“The moderators were overwhelmed,” said Clemence Lemaistre of 20minutes.fr.

Some published comments were seen as anti-Jewish by some readers while other remarks were viewed as anti-Muslim by other readers, prompting chat mediators to reject all contributions at the end.

The same action was taken at left-leaning Liberation, where the comments “very quickly degenerated into a spiral of hate and insults, with no end in site,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

Two online debates hosted by BBC attracted nearly 40,000 comments.

Social network sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace do not vet content before it goes online, depending on community members to signal posts that may go beyond the pale.

But all these websites confront the even thornier problem of where to draw the line between an opinion that might virulent but acceptable, and one that could be interpreted as a racist insult.

The criteria for exclusion are not always clear, and rarely made explicit on a case-by-case basis.

Yassine Ayari, a 29-year old engineer in Paris, said that a pro-Palestinian discusssion group he created on website on December 29 was shut down on Wednesday by the website’s administrators.

“My aim was to link up as many people as possible to centralise initiatives of support for Gaza,” he said, adding that the group attracted more than 1000 members.

The space was blocked hours after Ayari receiving a boilerplate warning by email from the website, which followed up with a second email stating that “hateful, threatening, or obscene groups are not allowed.”

Neither email, however, specified what was objectionable, and Ayari said he was careful to remove potentially injurious comments.

According to Facebook spokeswoman Debbie Frost, “The goal is to strike a very delicate balance between giving Facebook users the freedom to express opinions and beliefs, while also insuring that individuals and groups do not feel threatened or endangered.”

That balance can shift depending on cultural norms and national laws. “There are no legal restrictions on comment in the US,” said YouTube spokesman Scott Rubin.

The video-sharing platform “gives the power to our community to control the comments of their videos,” but draws the line at “hate speech or incitement to violence.”

Digg, a site that builds discussion groups around news items, has borrowed from a popular US parenting technique to keep debate civil.

If alerted to a statement that may cross the line, “our first step is to place that commenter in a ‘time out’ which prevents them from commenting, though they are able to access their account,” said spokeswoman Jen Burton,

This technique works with people “who are otherwise good but occasionally lose their cool in an argument or just start acting out,” she said in an email.


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