Friday, December 4, 2009

Censorship or moderation?

Websites, blogs and other online commentary are the Wild West of modern discourse: loud, full of colourful characters, and far from the law.

This raucous intercourse is creating new communities.

That exciting prospect drives entrepreneurs such as Keith Bilous, whose company ICUC Moderation Services helps organizations encourage and manage online feedback about their products.

"I don't believe in censorship," the energetic Bilous declared to Creative Communications students at Red River College on Dec. 1, 2009. During his vigorous exchange with students, Bilous sipped on a soft drink manufactured by one of his clients that is not Pepsi.

Well, who does believe in censorship? Other than government of China, that is.

The Web has effectively ended real censorship. Anyone who wants to say something can find a way to say it to the world.

But that does mean that any particular website or blog must cary that person's comments. Every online source is responsible for its content, whether that content is created by a staff person, a customer of the company or anyone else. Controlling that content is not censorship, it's moderation.

For example, on Nov. 23, 2009 the Globe and Mail, a deadly serious Canadian newspaper, published an online story about a toddler who had died in a fall at Pearson Airport. Instantly the comments went up -- anonymously, of course -- including one accusing the child's mother of committing a criminal offence.

That's the classic definition of defamation in Canada: saying something false that lowers the reputation of a person in the minds of right-thinking members of the community.

The Globe did remove the comment from its website a few minutes after it was posted. That's moderation, not censorship.

Of course, while the comment was online, some people read it. I read it and copied it. Then I discussed it with my Journalism students.

Hurray for moderation.