Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blogging and Voluntary Codes: A View From the E.U.

There has been a certain uneasiness with blogs for a long time. Especially among governments increasingly used to asserting control over every facet of life, blogs appear a disorderly and there a potentially dangerous area of unregulated life. And the answer has to be regulation of some sort. Not direct regulation, to be sure; that might require too directly a confrontation with traditions of free speech that states are not yet about to overcome. More likely no direct regulation yet because states have not yet discovered an efficient means to achieve that other than in a ham handed fashion that might produce too great a negative political reaction. And so states invert values, and substitute case for effect to condition their populations to the notion of the need for regulation. At the top of the list, states and their shills argue orderliness, consumer protection. Thus it was in Britain a few years ago, when the state tepidly suggested. Internet Lacks Forms of Redress, BBC On Line, November 28, 2006 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6191988.stm).

And the preferred means of achieving this result is “self regulation”—good manners within the blogger communities require the embrace of communal values that at some level must be compatible with the desires of states. There is something to the embrace of a code of conduct—that is at least as a common acknowledgement of generally embraced values that lend legitimacy to blogging, however silly the posting in any particular case. As a means of helping people judge the merits of postings, and as a means of suggesting the level of confidence that a reader might have with such postings, such codes are useful. The key value is to situate blogs in general and postings, in particular, within the continuum of the blogger community. Any aid to judgement about the value and worthiness of either ought to be applauded—when those values and behavior norms emerge from the values and understandings of the blogger community. But when a state seeks to intervene, there is always a suspicion that its values—and its agendas—will take precedence over those of the community on whose behalf it might seek to help self regulate. Thus, for example, states might be more likely than bloggers to bend the form of voluntary codes to privilege the established media sources of news over outsiders. That seemed to be the underlying message of the British effort--create and enforce a voluntary code or worse is coming; and what is coming will be grounded in state notions of consumer protection of some sort.

The European Commission approved on June 3, 2008 a resolution in which it proposed regulation of weblogs. La Unión Europea quiere regular los ‘blogs,’ Universal (Un Diario Exclusivo para los cliente de Iberia) Ano 4 N. 822, June 16, 2008, at 6. The article quotes María Badía Cutchet, a European Parilament member (Spain Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya) as arguing that the regulatory project would aid in the resolution of the problem of an excess of information available on the Internet (paraphrasing Ms. Badía: “este proyecto ayudaría a resolver el ‘problema’ del exceso de información que circula por la red.” Id.). I am NOT making this up, and she appears to have maintained this with a straight face, though there is no record of her facial expression or mannerisms as she delivered this suggestion to the readers of this magazine. She noted that “un censo voluntario de bloggers podría generar un efecto de confianza en el lector.” Id. (quoting Ms. Badía) a voluntary census among bloggers could produce of greater sense of trust among readers of blogs). This greater sense of trust, she continues, would be possible because readers would be able who are the sources of the materials that are posted. (Id.) (paraphrasing Ms. Badía: “que de esta manera sabría quiénes sin las Fuentes de aquello que leen en internet.”). The article notes thatr, according to Technorati, there are now about 112 million blogs on the Internet.

So. . . a voluntary code of conduct and a census. An assertion of control in appearance of the blandest sort, but which would move the locus of control from the community of bloggers and readers to the state. This is hardly good news. In typical fashion, the state reacts to that which it finds distasteful, sometimes dangerous and oftentimes in opposition to its plans for a well ordered Republic of docile citizens willing to listen and believe those things which are approved for auditory insertion into the heads of the citizenry. But the voluntary code is little more than a ruse ot effect a control of the internet itself in general, and discourse on it in particular. Clearly much of what is the subject of the regulation is silly, or forgettable. But some of it is not. Some of it exposes failings and foibles that the powerful and well connected prefer to keep hidden. Some of it seeks to present an alternative to the pablum and manipulative dribble that sometimes passes for speech within the ambit of the organized and “legitimate” media and their running dogs. And let us not forget the power of state speech as well. Not that I like much of what passes for discourse in the blogsphere. But I am free to avoid it or confront it. Still, there is some cause to worry. For an interesting set of discusisons about the way blogs them,selves, like speech in general, can also tend to viel aggregations of voices or power or manipulate and distort, see Blogs: Filling in The EU’s Communications Gap? (June 19, 2007). What the Commission ultimately means to do is to acquire for itself the power to suppress it. There is a great irony here, of course. This is precisely the sort of action that the sanctimonious among the leaders of the E.U. tend to condemn from time to time when done (in a more ham handed fashion to be sure) by the Chinese o the Russians. Apparently when it is done by the Europeans (and after by the Americans) it is meant to be more appetizing. I am not sure how. At least the Chinese are very clear about what they are doing and why. We may disagree but we cannot suggest that they dissemble.

Not all is lost, though. The resolution is to be debated in the European Parliament in July 2008. There is much to debate. Beyond the temptation to control this form of political space, it is not clear that the European Union is not about to embark on a bit of extraterritorial imperialism. To the extent that it means to control blogs originating outside the European Union, it is hard to imagine either their authority de jure, their power, defacto, or the opposition of other states whose blog writers may be affected. To the extent that they mean to put teeth in these voluntary codes, or make a census somehow mandatory, it is not clear how the E.U. would mete out sanctions—but suppressing blogs so that citizens in the E.U. could not read them? Shades of Cuba! And it is hard to believe they would be able to actually suppress blogs originating outside the European Union without putting pressure on blogger hosts. And that would ratchet the stakes up tremendously, especially should host sites complain to their respective governments. Moreover it is unlikely that such a move would go over well in many Member States. Would they seek to fine or arrest violators? That would present a set of very interesting questions under both the European Charter of Human Rights and the European Convention. Another pretty picture. Do they mean to shame the recalcitrant? That would be worth watching! The “banned in Boston effect has been the royal road to recognition for a long time in the United States: being put on an E.U. blogger interdict list might have the same effect.

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