UK Liberty

Attack on free speech in the name of ‘civility’

Posted in freedom of speech, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on May 2, 2007

Tessa Jowell writing for the Guardian:

The internet is a vigorous and now invaluable part of the public realm, or what I prefer to call “ourspace”.

Of course you do.

Ourspace, whether physical or virtual, includes those places and spaces where people meet as equals; where public engagement and debate takes place.

That’s why in a lecture for the organisation Progress on Monday night, I publicly welcomed and supported the initiative by web pioneer Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales for a blogging code of conduct.

And O’Reilly has since walked away from it.

The wonderful, anarchic, creative world of the blogosphere shouldn’t be a licence for abuse, bullying and threats as it has been in some disturbing cases.

A very few cases.

 There is a need for serious discussion about maintaining civilised parameters for debate, so that more people – and women and older people in particular – feel comfortable to participate.

Here is my online code, and it’s pretty similar to my ‘real-life’ (for want of a better word) code.

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated, and ignore them if they don’t reciprocate.
  • If you don’t like a blog – and I’m sure many people find ukliberty quite dry and dull – don’t read it!
  • If you don’t like where a discussion is going, try changing it or stop participating in it.

Easy, no?

In fact, something adults should be able to do standing on their heads.

But surely its full potential to benefit civil society cannot be realised unless the quality of online debate itself is civilised?

Um… believe it or not some online debate is civilised.

Surely we do not want online discussions simply to mirror the often aggressive, boorish and pointless exchanges that sometimes pass for debate on the floor of the House of Commons, and which are such a turn-off for voters?

Why not?

It can be fun to take part in “Aggressive, boorish and pointless exchanges”. If you don’t find it fun, move on!

And, unlike those that take place in the Commons, we don’t pay for them out of our taxes.

Come to think of it, isn’t it time for a Commons code of conduct?

She is taking part in an online debate at 4pm. The Guardian has already been sent some comments.


She turned up half an hour late with,

Hello, everybody. Thank you very much for all the provocative comments, you have posted.

To begin with, I make no claim to be a regular blogger, nor in effect is my contribution more than a contribution to the debate that the code of conduct has started.

Why no more? Because there is absolutely no intension in government

To use a spillchucker?

to give any kind of legisatory or statutory affect to this.

So you may ask what business is it of mine to express a view. Well it is this, that the independence of the blogosphere is passionately defended by its participants but there is also a risk and you know as well as I do that this exists. That for some people who would like to take part, it is in effect a no-go area, and just as we would not tolerate the existance of no-go areas in our towns and cities, so I think we should be aware to that risk in the bloggersphere.

ANd it is the risk of extreme abuse or threatening language that creates this apprehension.

Call me lilly-livered, but I don’t think any society, even a virtual one in the long run thrives on that basis.

But in the end, it is up to you how the bloggersphere functions.

Nine minutes later,

sorry no time to do a spell check

Then at 4:53pm,

we are all entitled to take part in this debate. my press officer objects to being called a flunky. nothing that i say is intended to be patronising but i do think that we need a different kind of political debate, too much is conducted in a tone of intolerance and cynicism.


so i think that you will get more people joining you if you make it clear that you stand for something different.

But doesn’t this sort of thing contribute to the ‘tone of intolerance and cynicism’?  Although I would guess it doesn’t make as big a contribution as, say, the perpetual mendacity.

I think that there are similarities btween say parks and bloggoshere,and other aspects of the public realm.remember that these are democratic spaces where people meet as equals. in that most such spaces need broadly defined rules of engagement the debate about voluntary code is useful. I do think that it is right that comment should be owned and not anonymous and that vigorous debate should not be masked by simple abuse that is a substitute for argument. I am but one voice in this in a debate that i hpe will go on with thousands of others. thank you to all of you who have taken part over the last hour .

The analogy is flawed: a park is a public space, and a blog is a private space.  The rules of engagement on a blog are defined by (and subject to) the whim of the owner.

A couple of posts that didn’t address anyone’s points, and then

I’ll keep reading your posts with interest, yes really. i am off now to run a 5k race for life in battersea park. any one want to sponsor me for cancer research?

So, to sum up, she was supposed to be online between 4pm and 5pm, turned up half an hour late and stayed for only 45 minutes rather than the hour.

There were people interested in what she had to say who posted some genuine points and questions, to which she didn’t respond.

So it seems a bit cheeky for her to call for more civility in ‘ourspace’, doesn’t it?

No wonder many people are intolerant and cynical.