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(Private) That essay
I think it probably sucks, but still...
Freedom to Annoy

A civil liberty that all should have (according to some) is the freedom to say what they please, where they please, without fear of recrimination or (worse still) prosecution. Idealistic, and as yet unattainable - in today's society, as soon as a culture becomes "civilized" enough to embrace freedom of speech, they impose restrictions on it to ensure that this free speech is still politically correct. However, in the almost-impossible-to-police Internet, limits are being pushed at, and decisions as to "How far is too far?" need to be made.

However, in what amounts to an indictment of society itself, the criticisms are often not about racist, sexist, or other more unpleasant "abuses" of free speech. They are, in fact, often targeted at instances of free speech that merely irritate the person complaining. Suddenly, calling a person a "moron" has become a capital offense - offenders must be punished to the full extent of the law, and (more often) of their Internet Service Providers' Terms of Service. And when those two resorts fail, it is not unknown for people who feel they have been so deeply wronged to locate the home addresses of these "trolls" and to post them on the Internet in an attempt to silence them.

The Internet truly provides a new environment for this sort of abuse - never before have people been so free to express themselves and yet feel protected against any sort of revenge. And in many ways this is a good thing - often online, the technological restrictions mean that the abuser and the victim are on equal footing - in theory, the victim can give as good as he gets. This is certainly true of the text-based medium for discussion as embodied by Usenet. Should an individual insult another on that, they will most likely be insulted (or "flamed") back. This is, perhaps, more fair than real life - if I pick a verbal fight with somebody, they may well decide to get physical. And it is very much in this way that those people who couldn't survive a physical fight but can carry themselves well in words are able to vent their anger.

So, firstly, is this sort of behaviour right? Can it be justified? And secondly, if not, what can be done about it?

Sadly, the problem is highly subjective. What may be thought of as "amusing banter" or "clever wit" by some people may well be considered "off-topic drivel" and "a waste of bandwidth" by others. It is clear that there will never be a situation where everybody agrees - especially in a medium as diverse as the Internet. It can be said that it is a civil right to be allowed to express yourself, and say what you please, although at the same time, it should also perhaps be a right for a person not to have to suffer insults and derogatory remarks from others. When a person's exercising of a right starts to infringe the right of another, how should such a situation be resolved? Which is the more pressing right? Who has the right to decide?

An example would be appropriate here. Mrs. A frequents the newsgroup rec.pets.cats, and posts about her love of felines. Mr. B arrives in said group, and starts promoting the use of Curried Cat as a nutritious and tasty meal, and begins insulting those people who keep, rather than devour, cats. Mrs. A feels upset by this, and perhaps rightly so. Mr. B feels that his actions were within the law and his ISP's TOS, and as such believes himself to be justified. In such a situation, whose right is more important - that of Mrs. A, who has the right not to be upset (or certainly ought to), or Mr. B who has the right to say what he pleases?

If Mrs. A is found to be more deserving of her rights, then this will infringe on Mr. B's. Conversely, the reverse is true. The Internet gives us a unique chance to examine this situation, since in reality, the person who can shout the loudest, or who can punch the hardest often resolves such situations. Online, one must seek a resolution that is actually agreeable to all parties, since extreme action cannot be taken. We now have to look at this situation, and decide what the best course of action to take is, since neither party is technically in the wrong.

Provided neither party will back down, the situation is akin to The Irresistible Force versus The Immovable Object - deadlock. To this end, groups of self-appointed mediators have sprung up. People with reasonable levels of intelligence, an understanding of humour, and sufficient technical proficiency that they are (seemingly) respected by "the majority" (whoever they are). They make it their business to examine exchanges, decide who is "in the right", and instruct the majority of the newsgroup as to this fact. Due to their (alleged) experience and fairness, this is generally taken to be the decision of the group, and whoever is in the wrong does well to listen to this, should they wish to continue to have any respect in the newsgroup.

But the question then is - are these people fit to judge? Do their positive qualities (which, of course, they assess for themselves) make them fit to decide who is the winner of an argument, and who is in the wrong? Do they have the right to even try? Is a situation where nobody can be proved conclusively wrong such a bad thing?

These are just some of the issues that the changing interaction of people on the Internet are raising, and the "solutions" that people who cannot abide conflict are creating. But is conflict so bad, if it encourages healthy debate? Then again, when it comes down to it, is this writer even able to comment objectively on the situation, or answer any of these questions without falling foul to the crime of making decisions that are not mine to make? The answer is no - that is up to the reader.
We'll just have to see....


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