April 9, 2008  ·  Lessig

So I’d like to propose a policy change for comments at lessig.org/blog.

So far, my policy has been to delete comment spam only. I have not deleted any other type of comment, including (especially) comments critical of me or others.

I’d like to change that. I’d like to adopt a policy of deleting personal attacks on others. That means any comment that is directed against someone other than me, which is uncivil and attacking something other than the substance of what that person has written as a comment on my blog.

This change has been encouraged by many people, but prompted by one case in particular, where there’s apparently a stalker who is faking his/her ID (poorly, as I can see they all come from a common set of IP addresses), and attacking someone who left a couple comments on my blog. That’s not the sort of place I want here.

So I’d propose to ask a trusted volunteer to take requests to remove comments by people who believe they’re being uncivilly attacked. If that trusted volunteer agrees, the comment would be removed.

Again, and critically important: No comment attacking me or my work would ever be removed. This would only affect comments that were attacking others (1) uncivilly and (2) unrelated to what others have posted as comments on my blog.

Thoughts?

  • http://mostscript.com/weblog Sean Upton

    This practice/policy seems reasonable and consistent. Aside from trolls or creepy posters, I might suggest that the two problems I have most often seen bleeding into personal attack within online discussion are either ad hominem attacks, or straw person arguments that misrepresent someone’s argument in a way that is, effectively, a personal attack. In all of these cases, it seems more enabling of free discourse to remove the poison from discussion, but encourage civil, thoughtful argument (even if sharply critical of another’s positions). -Sean

  • http://moderndragons.blogspot.com/ Mike Johnson

    I strongly agree with this step, with two comments:

    1. It may not go far enough.
    a. Takedown-by-request will always remove fewer comments than is optimal. People feel bad about having to ask to get something taken down and often won’t do it.
    b. Exempting you from the personal attack shield adds little value that I can see, and incurs a cost to the community. I strongly believe that personal attacks are *always* corrosive to community.

    (And you may believe, “I’m tough- I can take it,” and I believe you, but in my experience personal attacks always take some energy to ignore. You can take it, but is it good for you to have to do so?)

    2. I would suggest coming up with an organizing metaphor for the sort of community or public forum you want to foster via your blog comments, then using this to figure out what sorts of comments to disallow.

  • Todd Jonz

    Welcome to the thorny world of online moderation!

    For my sins, I am a moderator for a very busy online forum frequented by trombonists of all ages, amateur and professional alike, from around the world. Because we believe it’s important to maintain a family friendly atmosphere amongst this disparate membership, we publish a detail Terms of Use policy and expect our membership to adhere to it. Needless to say, name-calling, mud-slinging and ad hominem attacks are strictly verboten.

    While there are still periodic cries of censorship (despite the fact that the forum is not a democracy) and complaints about forced political correctness (we prefer to call it civil discourse), the vast majority of the membership supports the efforts of the staff to maintain a generally friendly environment — even members who occasionally cross the line themselves.

    You should by all means take whatever action you feel appropriate to maintain decorum here, but you can probably expect that decision to generate a fair amount of negative reaction from some quarters.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    How about letting someone moderate the comments, not with only the option of deleting them, but by doing one of the following:
    1) Do nothing – the comment is fine
    2) 50% font size – the comment is ok but irrelevant/way off topic
    3) Redact (javascript hyperlink to reveal) – the comment is puerile/frivolous/ad hominem
    4) Delete – the comment is unmistakably spam/threatening/hate speech/etc.

    I think you need to define ‘attack’ a little more clearly. There’s attack as in ‘use a series of strong, but non-emotive arguments against’ and attack as in ‘vituperative volley of insults, unsupported accusations, and demeaning insinuations’.

    I don’t think you should delete comments that use strong arguments against people who are the subject of your posts, or commenters on your posts.

    Freedom of speech is ethically constrained by measures to prevent: impairment of truth (libel, misattribution, misrepresentation), violation of privacy (unauthorised publication of otherwise unpublished material), or endangerment of life (incitement to violence, hatred, persecution, fatwa, death threats, etc.).

    Even so, you remain a publisher and editor of your blog.

    On one blog I visit (W.Patry’s), many of my comments are embargoed for several weeks or not published at all – much to my bemusement.

    It’s an easy step from an ethical but open commenting policy to an editorial commenting policy. You can lose sight of protecting people’s rights, to protecting their feelings, and then to protecting their arguments (against criticism).

  • http://www.scienceaddiction.com Devan

    Sounds reasonable to me. Deleting things like ‘straw man arguments’ (as suggested above) seems to be going too far and puts you in much grayer area.

  • http://johnthomson.org/blog John

    It’s great that you’re asking your readers for feedback, but in the end, you should be able to approach commenting in whatever way you see fit. Your blog, and to some degree the comments, are an extension of yourself which allows you some degree of editorial judgement.

    Perhaps the best approach would be to clearly document whatever this new policy is, so that commenters know what to expect.

  • joe

    If the issue was prompted by just one case, why not make comment deletion a case-by-case basis. Once you get into Establishing Policy, it’s not always a perfect fit. Maybe, “Lessig reserves the right to delete comments that reflect personal attacks” if you feel compelled to write something. Then, if there’s an issue, you can make a judgment call.

    And I agree with John–without sounding blase, it’s your blog. You can do whatever.

  • http://yumyumcafe.blogspot.com lilalia

    I think that you have every right to define a policy of commenting according to your own terms. It is admirable that you are worried about how your readers, making comments, are treating each other. Yet, why do you not delete those comments that attack you personally? What you are writing is just words, ideas, personal opinions, why does that mean you have to be open to uncivil response? If this happened face-to-face wouldn’t you require that the person act with a certain degree of decorum? Why not ask for this on “paper”?

  • http://yumyumcafe.blogspot.com lilalia

    I think that you have every right to define a policy of commenting according to your own terms. It is admirable that you are worried about how your readers, making comments, are treating each other. Yet, why do you not delete those comments that attack you personally? What you are writing is just words, ideas, personal opinions, why does that mean you have to be open to uncivil response? If this happened face-to-face wouldn’t you require that the person act with a certain degree of decorum? Why not ask for this on “paper”?

  • http://reagle.org/joseph/ Joseph Reagle

    WP:Civil might be of use in sorting out some of these quesitons:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Civil

  • http://www.changemod.com robojiannis

    I agree with the idea, but I would also suggest to take it a step further:
    let people vote on comments.
    If a vote gets more then x down-votes, it is not visible until clicked. If the comment is also offending, then it gets removed. (a bit like digg’s voting system on comments)
    Sometimes the boundaries between “uncivil” and “offensive” are flexible and this option could help being more objective.

  • http://johnsmentaldetritus.blogspot.com/ John J.

    I have to agree with you that removing ad-hominem attacks is the best way to enforce a civil discourse, especially when the topics you bring up here can be controversial. I don’t think, however, that it should be moderation by committee or a comment rating system. The best way, and most accountable way, is to have a single point person.

  • Eyal Ben David

    I don’t think this blog should have a more complicated comments approach than any other blog:
    If someone is using the comments section in a way that is Trollish (inflammatory, obscene behavior), the comment should be deleted, and if he persists his ip should be banned.

    This should work well enough. Usually, I feel that moderating comments should be reduced to the bare minimum required to maintain a civil discussion, and deleting comments should be a last resort. But trolls should be dealt with, as they have a tendency to proliferate if left alone.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_(Internet)

  • Ben Alexander

    I’d highly recommend using the slash discussion system (it is open source and available at slashcode.org). I often read slashdot.org (which uses and develops the slash code discussion system).

    It allows for the community to be self-moderating. Personal attack entries in the blog can be identified by anyone who has randomly been given moderation points, and mod’ed down, yet no actual removal is necessary.

    The only drawback is the the system only really works if active posters log in (i.e. they must register). If you read slashdot.org for a little while, you’ll find that slashdot readers sometimes complain about the moderation system, but for people who set their default reading level at ’5′ (the highest possible) the best entries become easy to find and read. And there is probably a critical mass of readership (that registers and logs in!) required for the moderation system to be worth anything.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    If someone does both in one comment (needlessly attacks and also says something thoughtful) would you favor censoring the comment to preserve the good and be rid of the garbage?

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    For example, someone posts:

    “John Doe, you are a waste of human skin. Your ideas hold court like water in a sieve. And you’re ugly. However, I agree with you on one thing. That copyright terms are currently too long in the US.”

    If John Doe requested, it would probably be reasonable to censor the first 3 sentences and keep the 4th and 5th – even if John Doe is, objectively speaking, ugly.

  • http://interi.org maiki

    I am surprised to find so many different methods for dealing with comments from your readers. I had to make this decision recently for the website of the NPO where I work, so I have been thinking a lot about the topic of censorship/moderation.

    I like your proposal of having a volunteer handle it. I particularly like having a trusted person handle it, instead of software and/or your other readers. This blog is a particular type of forum that I believe would be best served like that, instead of other fora that have a different structure, such as a range of topics or authors.

    One thing I would consider is the allowance for folks to contact the volunteer even if they are not the target of a post. However, I would not worry about it unless I saw a bunch of people being attacked and they weren’t around to say so. I dislike being reactive to hypotheticals like that.

    One last thing, Movable Type?! (I was wearing the WordPress shirt at the CC 5th B-day Party). =P

  • Mark Schmidt

    Great question…I agree with the comments supporting your proposition of the volunteer moderator and also the comment above that you place a, “Lessig reserves the right to remove uncivil discourse. This is a place for intelligent free speech.”

    The other suggestions, while good intentioned, are non-value added. The readers of your blog are smart people, who come together to share ideas, not to police the chance delinquent.

    Cheers!

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    I can’t say that I noticed the problem compared to other blogs, but I don’t drill down into all comment sections. Or if I did not noticed, the problem could be me.

    If related to the political race, the problem and nastiness may go away, when you return to more academic subjects.

    Not that I have looked, but all moderating schemes tend to include other problems, just as limiting campaign contributions (free speech) have other problems. (This example of campaign contributions could be off topic). There is no perfect solution.

    If just one or a few people, you could ask them to refrain or leave, if you have not done so.

    Damm what are stripper doing in this Enron DVD I am watching. Something about one of the Enron execs. I better stop multitasking.

  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    I delete all personal attacks, no matter who they’re aimed at, offensive comments, comments that are irrelevant or off-topic (because they’re just a type of spam IMHO), and outright spam. I leave the rest.

  • Daniel Freiman

    Sounds fine. But I don’t see why you need a volunteer. If running/working for the half dozen organizations that you have founded is taking up your time or even if you simply don’t feel like doing it, then ok. Also, why can’t you remove comments against you? I understand not wanting to delete constructive and even angry or poorly thought out criticism against you, but some comments are simply name calling and I don’t think anyone cares if you delete those.

  • three blind mice

    This change has been encouraged by many people, but prompted by one case in particular, where there’s apparently a stalker who is faking his/her ID (poorly, as I can see they all come from a common set of IP addresses), and attacking someone who left a couple comments on my blog. That’s not the sort of place I want here.

    it’s not the sort of place you may want here, professor, but it’s part and parcel of the new company you keep.

    the lessig blog is like a biker bar we mice used to frequent (and love) that turned upscale, starting attracting yuppies, and went all to hell.

    a new set of rules on the wall won’t change the people sitting around the bar.

    It’s a damned pity because good bars (and blogs) are hard to find.

  • David Jefferson

    I have no problem with this change. It seems to me that you are being entirely too defensive here. There is no need for such caution.

  • http://www.maxxkredit.de Maxx Kredit

    Sounds democratic – ..I also agree with the comments supporting your proposition of your moderator. Well let´s see the future comments ! Maxx

  • Marc

    I don’t read the comments here often, but I don’t think this blog has a real problem with uncivil discourse in the comments, especially compared to others that I read.

    Since the problem which precipitated the discussion was forgeries, why not just start by forbidding those? I have no problem in principle with deleting attacks on others, but if you introduce moderation, I would suggest doing it in small steps.

  • John

    Hello,
    Frankly speaking, I have looked through all the comments before expressing my own opinion on this issue. What I have observed in here is that many good ideas have been put forward and all of them have both positive and negative sides. Quite another question is what is the side we are inclined to see and to favor. In my opinion, a policy change for comments at lessig.org is a good idea. I highly favor your way of thinking and your new ideas of change; however let me not agree with you on one point: what seems uncivil and unethical for you may sound quite nice for the one who has written it. Wouldn’t you agree with me that the freedom of speech is one of the fundamental human rights and no human creature on the Earth, irrespective of the circumstances can ever take or give these rights? I think it is a sin. If you are ready to sin for the sake of others reputation thinking that it is more just then go ahead.

  • http://spokeninsanskrit.blogspot.com Dave

    I don’t see any problem with the changes that you set out, and agree with others who say that you have no reason to feel defensive about it. For me, a general statement saying you reserve the right to remove posts you deem to be attacking or personal would be sufficient. Ultimately how you conduct yourself will speak more to how your actions are perceived than the policy you write.

    As for the “free speech” argument, I don’t think that you have the responsibility to provide a forum for *anyone* to say *anything* they want at your expense. Any person in the world can sign up for a free web site at a number of services and say whatever it is they want. If what they have to say is compelling and important, they will garner readers, just as you have. If not, they will be ignored of their own merits. You are not obligated to provide a forum for behavior you find offensive.

    In other words, it’s your house and you can ask folks to leave if they’re being rude.

  • http://www.streetwriter.net Jim

    We all suspect that people who attack us, however uncivilly, might have something important to say to us. Our friends and relatives, who usually like us, flatter us to make us feel good.

    The story goes that Frederick II stopped his coach when he saw an ugly caricature of himself posted on the side of the road. He got out and tore the poster down only to discover that it contained scurrilous lies about him too.

    His companions expected the worst and looked at each other nervously. Frederick then handed the poster to one of his coachmen and ordered him to place the poster higher up so that passersby could better see it.

    The coachman complied, Frederick II smiled approvingly, got back in the coach and ordered the party to drive on to their destination.

  • David

    Larry, you ignorant slut! (sorry, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. 5 brownie points to anyone under 40 who knows the reference.)

    What distinguishes personal attacks from well done sarcasm, satire or parody? It’s been a while since I read Dante’s Inferno (John Ciardi’s translation), but I recall that much of it consists upon attacks on contemporary Italians, usually deceased but not always, and their politics by placing them in various circles of Hell.

    Referring to someone as a “m-f” is almost always abusive, but is it abusive if you refer to someone as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts,” a phrase which has been used both in literature and politics or perhaps use the Shakespearean “cream faced loon” (my personal favorite)? How important is civility even if impugning someone’s talents or abilities?

    Is it abusive to say that someone is prostituting him/herself if you mean that you believe that s/he is expressing views motivated less by personal belief than by some type of external reward? I think that this description can be abusive, but not always.

    What general guidelines are you considering?

  • http://www.greatestate.com P. from Weston MA

    I have another suggestion: How about deleting comments that make no sense or are off-topic?

  • http://overbreadth.com Cameron F.

    First of all let me make a personal attack on all the others who have commented here. You’re all flugtunkers. Yes, that’s a made-up word, but it’s very offensive. Trust me.

    I’m assuming that the new change in policy will not have retroactive effect and thus my above flugtunker insult will stand for the ages. Changing to a retroactive rule would, I think, reveal the good professor to be nothing other than a flugtunker himself.

  • Richard

    I communicated with Comcast thru E-Mail. I would like to copy and paste my comments to them and their response; if it’s ok.

    This went to Comcast

    First of all,you did not answer my question. (Why are you blocking me
    from sending E-Mail attachments and/or photos)?

    The second thing thats wrong is: You don’t read the incoming E-Mail or
    you don’t understand what you are reading. Had you
    been alert, you would have noticed that my concern is a Mac computer.
    What you sent to me only applys to users who have
    Internet Explorer running on Microsoft Windows.

    If you will take the time to go to the Apple forum and type in,”E-Mail
    Problems” you will see numerous folks complaining about
    the same thing. The SMTP servers are BLOCKING people from sending
    photos and/or attachments. I have tried your E-Mail
    program and it does not work with uploading photos.

    This was their response

    hank you for taking the time to write us.

    I am sorry for the confusion, Richard. We do not support MAC’s. Nor
    does your email state whether you are using Mac Mail or if you are using
    webmail to send the messages. Below is some of the restrictions placed
    on our SMTP server. If you are not hitting these restrictions look to
    the program you are using and/or the email address you are using to send
    the messages from. For instance, are you using your comcast.net email
    address or are you using a .mac email address to send these items.

    I understand you have questions about the limitations that are set on
    our SMTP servers. The limitations on our servers were put in place to
    manage the amount of e-mail that is transmitted through it. This is done
    as a means to stop spam and other unwanted e-mail from inconveniencing
    our subscribers and slowing down mail delivery.

    The following are restrictions placed on the SMTP servers to assist in
    the elimination of spam from the Comcast mail servers:

    * There is a maximum number of recipients that you can have in the To:,
    Cc:, and Bcc: fields, a maximum number of times you can click Send per
    minute, and a maximum amount of messages you can send at one time. Due
    to security concerns, we cannot reveal the actual limitations as
    disclosing these limits may allow persons running a spamming server to
    spoof these limits and send mass e-mails.
    * Once our mail server detects that multiple addresses in your To: field
    do not exist, an error will be generated and the e-mail will not be sent
    to any other recipients.

    Comcast has established two levels of throttling to manage outbound
    traffic, however we may place additional restrictions on the SMTP
    servers as situations warrant:

    If you attempt to send too many messages over one connection, you will
    be required to end the connection and establish a new connection. When
    this happens, you will receive the following error message: “450
    requested action aborted: too many messages on a single connect”. In
    most cases, you will send a single e-mail over one connection. For
    example, in Outlook Express when you click Send/Receive to send a
    message, one connection is established and one message is sent.

    If a source IP attempts to make too many connections to the mail server
    within a minute, there will be a “cool-off” period where you will lose
    the ability to connect to the server to send more messages. When this
    happens, the error message, “Too frequent connects from ,
    please wait shortly” will show. You establish a connection every time
    you hit “Send/Receive” in Outlook Express.

    The size of your mailbox is 250 MB. Any e-mail you send or receive
    including text, attachments, and header information must be less 10 MB
    as that is the size limit for an individual e-mail. Since text, coding
    information, along with header information adds about 35% to the size of
    e-mail, I suggest you avoid sending or receiving an e-mail larger than
    7.5 MB.

    Thank you for the opportunity to assist you. If you need further
    assistance with any of your Comcast services please reply to this email
    and we will be happy to assist you. Thank you again for choosing
    Comcast we appreciate your business. To visit our local support page
    including links to contact us via Live Chat, as well as many
    downloadable forms, and FAQ pages, please visit:http://www.comcast.com/nesupport/

    Did you know that Comcast offers its customers a variety of free
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    to see all of the extras that we provide.

    Sincerely,
    Stacy

    Comcast Electronic Customer Care – New England

    Thank you for making Comcast a part of your day.

  • Stephen Allison

    I do believe it is first and foremost your editorial prerogative, but I respect your effort to ground those decisions in some of principle. if nothing else, demonstrating consistency of thought in all aspects of your work certainly seems good for the ‘Lessig’ brand.

    Wishing you the ‘sort of place’ you’ve always wanted,
    Stephen

    p.s. Cameron F. is a flugtunker

  • Anon

    You should delete all comments, including those which attack you and your work, which are expressed in a fashion which a civil adult would not use when speaking face-to-face with another adult. Off-topic comments also get launched. That is, being on-topic is necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain. Being civil is also necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain.

    Larry, there’s an adage which applies to hiring, that says: A-quality people hire A-quality people. B-quality people hire C-quality people. So you need to only make A hires, or your business is headed downhill.

    In commenting, I’ve observed that A-quality comments attract A-quality comments. B-quality comments attract C-quality comments.

    I’m an *old hand* at the internet discussion forum game, though I don’t care to list my name here. Your blog is already headed downhill as far as comments are concerned. If you want to maintain comment quality, you must prune rather ruthlessly. Now, nothing terrible will happen if you don’t. Your comment section won’t be any good, but then most comment sections aren’t, so yours won’t stand out. I don’t know that you actually want the hassle of maintaining a good comment section, it’s certainly harder than maintaining a bad one. But I’m telling you how, if you want to: if you want to maintain an actual GOOD comment section, one that literally *attracts* A-level commenters, you need to prune ruthlessly.

  • http://slootsky-law.com Miami Dade Personal Injury Lawyer

    I think it’s a good policy. Free speech is threatened when people feel that they cannot comment for fear of being personally attacked for their comments. I also like the fact that you are not so egotistical as to delete comments that are opposed to your viewpoints. This is the essence of freedom:

    “I don’t agree with a word you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” –Voltaire

  • http://unitedhollywood.ning.com/profile/ScottEllington Scott Ellington

    Rather than simply removing and entire objectionable comment, I suggest that the volunteer be empowered to strike-through or dim the objectionable elements, phrases, sentences, paragraphs…in order to maintain the integrity of the commenter’s communication, while transparently identifying its objectionable components.
    Any editing process, though significantly more labor-intensive than simple deletion, more clearly identifies the practical parameters of objectionable commentary than anything else. Any TermsOfService guidelines (I think) should evolve from defensibly, evidential citation that simultaneously reveal the standards of the moderator/community.
    Whether eminently on-target commentary should be highlighted (by means of the same editing process) is another suggestion I’d like to tender.

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