Web pioneers say code of conduct needed to clean up manners online

THEY are the online diaries of the 21st century where writers often condemn their employers or write racily about their love lives. But the world of blogging faced a new challenge last night as two internet pioneers called for a new code of manners for anyone tempted to pour out their heart on the web.

The call for moderation came from Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales, the creators of the hugely popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The pair want to call a halt to the so-called "flame wars" that can erupt on the internet as incensed readers of blogs then vent their feelings with heated comments online.

Blogs have become a runaway success on the web and up to 70 million blogs on a bewildering variety of subjects can be found online.

The power of the blog was vividly illustrated last month when Sir Martin Sorrell, an advertising magnate, head of the global WPP agency, accused two former colleagues of being behind a blog that depicted him as a mafia don. The case ended when Sir Martin accepted a 120,000 payout for invasion of privacy and libel.

A British secretary, Catherine Sanderson, also illustrated the cost of careless type in her blog La Petite Anglaise - a nameless account of her life working for an accountancy firm in Paris. The 34-year-old single mother was fired for gross misconduct after her employers, Anglo-French firm Dixon Wilson, said the blog brought their firm into disrepute.

Other blog incidents are more sinister. Kathy Sierra, a blogger and author from Colorado, cancelled an appearance at a technology conference in San Diego after receiving death threats from anonymous commentators on her blog. A police investigation into the threats continues.

Mr O'Reilly is a friend of Ms Sierra's and her experience prompted the new attempt to clean up the blogosphere, Mr O'Reilly and Mr Wales published their proposals last week. They suggest bloggers sign up to a "Civility Enforced" standard committing the blogger to a code of conduct designed to eliminate "unacceptable content". Mr Wales defines that as published articles or comments designed to "abuse, harass, stalk or threaten others" or that is "libellous", "knowingly false" or that "infringes upon a copyright or trademark".

The code also commits those bloggers who sign up to it to respect confidentiality when appropriate and to respect other peoples' privacy.

Most ambitiously, the Blogger's Code asks that online writers refrain from publishing anything that they would not be comfortable saying in person. Furthermore, the code also asks that bloggers refrain from permitting commentators to post responses anonymously.

"If it's a carefully constructed set of principles, it could carry a lot of weight even if not everyone agrees," said Mr Wales, who stressed that any code of conduct would be voluntary.

The code's backers believe that adopting a code of practice for the blogosphere would help safeguard its future, ensuring that those voices most frequently targeted by hostile and threatening responses - particularly women bloggers - will be able to defend themselves more effectively.

"This is an interesting moment," said Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at the American Prospect, who also blogs on her personal site.

"Our media is out of control. It's lost any sense of decency," she said. "Why should we have lower standards for online media than traditional media?"

Other bloggers, however, believe that the proposals reflected a desire to control an arena known for its free-wheeling, buccaneering style. Andrew Sullivan, creator of his eponymous popular and long-running blog, complained that "nanny-bloggers" would stifle free speech.

This effort at "cleaning" the blogosphere deals only with the conduct of bloggers themselves. Even so, the law is catching up. In the last year a number of court cases have been settled in the US, as courts take the view that online diaries and blogs are in the public domain and that the laws of libel apply.

Last year. a Louisiana woman was asked to pay $11 million in damages to a Florida lawyer she had libelled online.

Meanwhile, in Washington a court will hear a lawsuit brought by a former Senate employee who accuses a colleague of a breach of privacy for publishing details of their sexual adventures in a blog. Robert Steinbuch is suing Jessica Cutler, who won notoriety in 2005 after her online account of her serial affairs with political aides and Bush administration officials was discovered. Ms Cutler, who blogged under the nom de plume "Washingtonienne", subsequently used that fame to win a book contract and film deal.

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