Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tessa's-Space- The Dome With Pixels.

When Tessa Jowell was appointed as Culture Secretary she proclaimed that she wanted her department to be a Ministry of Free Time, that fact alone says a great deal about New Labour's sense of entitlement to control people's lives as they see fit. She's at it again with a call for a 'Civility in Cyberspace'.
Should we introduce a blogging code of conduct to increase the quality of internet debates? Today, I'll be online to discuss this.
In a word, Tessa, 'no'. In several words, 'who exactly gave you the right to become the nation's net nanny in the first place?'.
The internet is a vigorous and now invaluable part of the public realm, or what I prefer to call "ourspace". Ourspace, whether physical or virtual, includes those places and spaces where people meet as equals; where public engagement and debate takes place.
Tessa's Space is right between her ears, there's this assumption that the people, through their beloved New Labour representitives, have some sort of proprietarial interest over what people do in their own time. Yes the internet is vigorous and it achieved this all by itself without the help of the Ministry of Free Time.
Ourspace is part of the "commons" of the UK and something that goes much wider than just the state to include, for example, public service broadcasting; the arts, culture and sports; parks and other public open spaces; and of course the internet - in short, spaces where all feel welcome to participate, to enjoy themselves and to learn.
So let me get this right the Internet, sorry 'Ourspace' must be open to all and fun for everybody, with the possible exception of Gary Glitter. What if some people enjoy certain things on the internet and 'feel welcome' on certain sites, but other people prefer other sites? Perhaps we could let people decide which sites they enjoy and avoid those which they don't. Tessa appears to want 'Ourspace' to cater for every taste and offend no one. Now that I think about it she wants the Internet to become the Millenium Dome with pixels.
User-generated content on the internet - citizen journalism - is just one welcome example of "virtual ourspace" being used in this way. But as power shifts increasingly into the hands of citizens, responsibility must follow.
To a point, it very much depends on what she means by responsibility. If she means that bloggers and the like should obey the usual rules of Libel and Slander etc then that is fine. I don't think she does mean that though, I suspect she means that politicians and journalists who could once define the limits of public discourse should retain that privilage.
The internet is transforming the way the government interacts with people and the way people interact with one another. But change never comes without challenges.
I'm only including this string of cliches for the sake of completeness. No information whatsoever was conveyed by those sentences.
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.
How about a 'talking code of conduct' or a 'book writing code of conduct'?
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.
Well no, but being in government shouldn't be a licence for abuse, bullying and threats either should it? But that has hardly prevented her colleagues has it?
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.
When 94 year old Rose Addis, who is both older and a woman, tried to participate in a debate about the abysmal standard of care she was recieving, Tessa's party felt that the 'civilised parameters' included leaking her medical records and those of other patients to the press and smearing her as a racist.
I'm not wedded to the specific words and phrases in the draft code that O'Reilly and Wales have proposed (that is up for debate), but I do think their proposal is right in principle and should be adopted here too. Blogging took off earlier in the US and the blogging community has become a powerful political force there - I hope the same happens here. But surely its full potential to benefit civil society cannot be realised unless the quality of online debate itself is civilised?
Of course she supports a code that could be used by Labour apologists to marginalise critical commentators.
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?
Again who is this 'we', who gets to demand how private citizens choose to discuss politics? If I don't like the tone of a site then guess what? I don't read it.
Some commentators have suggested that the idea of a code of conduct shows the growing maturity of the blogging community in the US,
Rather more commentators have suggested that it show the growing pompousity of the US blogging community, or more accurately a sub section of US bloggers.
although some of the more virulent attacks on the suggestion (and on O'Reilly and Wales themselves) have shown nothing except the immaturity of some users.
Well that's us told, it's not big and it certainly isn't clever to mock the net nannies.
But perhaps, taken as a whole, this proposal is a rare example of a good lesson for us in Britain to learn from American politics?
Or perhaps not, the main lesson I've taken from this proposal is tha however awful Cameron's Tories are they are still worth voting for ahead of Nu-Lab.

(via Peter Briffa)

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