Thursday, 1 August 2013

Bouncers for Cyber Clubs?

Take any club in physical space. In order to gain admission, people have to sign up to the terms on offer. They go in and meet others, some they know as friends, some they have heard of, and many are strangers. They mingle, they join in some conversations and avoid others. Common courtesy suggests that people are free to exchange views respectfully, and everyone should desist from rudely confronting others. So far, so good.

What if some new members of the club were to put on masks and go up to others to shout nasty abuse at them? Any responsible club would warn them about their unacceptable behaviour, and throw them out if necessary. In cases where the abusive reprobates go so far as to threaten other club members, the club would have to consider reporting the individuals to law enforcement agencies to protect the innocent and hold the culprits to account.

But when the club is located in cyber space, however, we are told different rules apply. Club owners maintain that they are not ‘publishers’ and cannot be held responsible for the ‘contents’ that appear in their domain. For good measure, they throw in the claim that their club is a ‘democratic’ space which is open to anyone saying whatever they want.

The inescapable fact is that club owners who set up a meeting place which is under their control, and where the terms of admission are set by them, have a choice in either preventing or facilitating nasty, threatening behaviour against people who have entered their clubs. If they want their clubs to be a free-for-all venue for malicious abuse, where vicious threats can be directed against anyone without consequence, then they should be honest about their intent. Social media clubs making millions of $ and £ out of their members have to decide if their business is to serve as a refuge for unconscionable abusers to quench their pathological craving to intimidate others.

Some may say that any suggestion that the abusive behaviour of a minority should be curtailed is not only an overreaction, but unworkable. But it is hardly an overreaction to expect any reputable club to take a firm stance against anyone using its facilities to launch attacks on its members.

As for how abuse can be detected, evaluated and dealt with, cyber clubs are actually in a much stronger position to determine exactly what is passed from one member to another. A code of conduct can be crowd-sourced. Volunteers for adjudication panels would not at all be hard to find. Decisions can be reached rapidly. Ejection of those who have breached the rules, subject to appeals, is easily implemented. Similar procedures can be set up for referrals to the police for any hateful, abusive, threatening behaviour targeted at anyone with the aid of the cyber club’s facilities.

It’s time to end the pretence that perpetrators of abuse in cyber space can transcend censure. There’s certainly no reason why they should be shielded from punishment.

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