Comment Wars

April 21, 2008

Zanshin.net is just a speck of lint under a finger nail on the long arm of the Internet.  As a weblog it gets few visitors, and even fewer comments.  While the domain has existed for over 11 years now, the site has been formatted as a blog only since December 1999.  I have no accurate, end-to-end accounting for the total number of site visits or page views, but I can make some guesses. 

In the last two years and four months the site has enjoyed just over 11,000 visitors who have viewed some 20,000 pages.  I have several regular readers who visit the site daily.  If we say there are 5 regular visitors, who each visit the main page of the site 5 days a week, then in the last two years these regular visitors account for approximately 1300 of the visit and page view counts.  The remaining 9700 visits are random visitors, usually from a search for "shotski's ring" or any alphabetical construct involving the letter "z."  I believe that the number of visitors is slowly increasing, but even assuming 5,000 or so per year, I've had no more than 50,000 unique site visits; a statistical insignificance compared to the total number of site visit the Internet must get.

The nearly 1500 entries I've posted here have attracted a grand total of 86 comments.  Since converting the site's backend to Wordpress at the beginning of the year, the number of comments have doubled.  Most of those were a result of the generosity of another site providing a link to my humble little Internet backwater. So the idea that a comment would suddenly become the nexus of a controversy is astonishing to me.

The Comment That Roared

Last month, I wrote about a topic that was interesting to me.  I referenced a couple of articles I had seen online and expressed my opinion about the topic.  The posting must have resonated with more than one person as it almost immediately received a couple of comments.  The first linked to yet another posting that was relevant to my central theme.

The second comment has become the center of a tempest in a teapot.  The comment author linked to a story with a real world example of the central topic of my posting.  About 9 days later a third comment was added to the posting, refuting the claims made in the second comment.  Yesterday a fourth comment was added, refuting an obscure portion of the second comment.

Yesterday afternoon I received an email with the subject line "defamatory web comment."  The mail appears to be from the subject of the second comment, and author of the third comment.  The email objects to the comment, calling it a "knowing or reckless falsity" and ask "whom my lawyer or I can contact about asking that this false and defamatory post [sic] removed as soon as possible."

NB: The posting I made on my site has nothing to do with the subject of the comments.  I believe the author of the letter is actually referring to a comment attached to the posting.

Maybe my little site has been promoted from lint under the finger nail of the long arm of the Internet to a hair follicle on its little finger.

The Sky is Falling

A number of thoughts run through your mind when you are presented with what appears to be the precursor to a cease and desist letter.  And a number of emotions go along with these thoughts.  The extremes can be summed up as "you've got to be kidding me!" and "why didn't I use a pseudonym when I created this site?"

Some web searching revealed some interesting facts.  The same comment, letter for letter, appears on other personal blogs.  Followed by the same rebuttal.  That the contended comment has a malformed link which doesn't lead anywhere in all instances I've found of it seems to have escaped notice.  I have no way of knowing how prominent the handful of other sites infected with this comment are, but I suspect they are not any closer to the head of the Internet than Zanshin.

Turning to the potential legal aspect of this soap opera I eventually found the Electronic Freedom Foundation's (EFF) Blogger's FAQ.  Which has an entire page devoted to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  While many sections of the CDA have been struck down as unconstitutional (partly as a result of the EFF), Section 230 remains as law.  In brief it states: 

Section 230 says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This federal law preempts any state laws to the contrary: "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section." The courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to limit the reach of Section 230 to "traditional" Internet service providers, instead treating many diverse entities as "interactive computer service providers."
In other words, as a web publisher, I am not liable for the content of comments posted on my site.  The US 9th Circuit court has upheld this law and, since the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, this ruling remains as the legal precedent.

A Bully is as a Bully Does

There are two aspects of bullying at the core of this story.  On the digital playground of the Internet there aren't any monitors, teachers, or responsible adults.  Bullies can, and do, run rampant over other online citizens, often with little or no consequence to themselves.  Much like the American West during the pioneer expansion, individuals often have to find ways to stand up for themselves, without the infrastructure of an established society's framework of norms to assist them.

The second aspect of bullying here is the tone of the email I received.  "Whom may my lawyer contact" is a conversational gambit designed to put the recipient on the defensive.  What ever happened to simply asking first, with an explanation, to have the offending comment thread removed?  Trying to dictate the outcome you want, to an unknown party, using the thinly veiled threat of legal action is bullying.  The emotional response I am experiencing is no different than what I would feel were I to be the subject of "defamatory web comments."

I fear that in her quest to erase all record of what the she feels is "reckless falsity," the party wanting my web site comment thread altered has reduced herself to the same level as the original author of the alleged falsity.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.