When blogs were born over 10 years ago as a way to share the details of one’s life with a limited number of people online as a sort of journal, no one could have imagined the importance that this type of D.I.Y. publishing would later take on. Today, bloggers who started out just writing for themselves have empires. Bloggers these days have larger spheres of influence, attracting the eyes of more people — even presidential candidates. — and they enjoy the freedom to write whatever they want (within reason) on their blogs.
But is there an inherent danger in this kind of unbridled editorial freedom? Is the democratic state of the blogosphere capable of becoming something more revolutionary? Or even malicious? At least one European lawmaker thinks so. Estonian EU parliament member Marianne Mikko wants to establish a sort of “blogger registry” which would oblige authors to prove their credentials and reveal relationships and potential special interests. And while her recommendation is far from becoming European policy, the suggestion of such regulation has shocked bloggers around Europe and leads us to the question: what if?
Bloggers Must Prove ‘Reliability’ and ‘Quality’
On June 3, European bloggers awoke to a surprising announcement from Europe’s parliament. The Culture Committee adopted a report “on concentration and pluralism in the media in the European Union” which, despite its title, seemed to call for just the opposite. The draft report calls for a motion at the European level to “preserve media pluralism.” At first, the document makes many valid points: European journalists fear for their jobs in an ever more precarious market; media consolidation represents a threat to journalistic quality; consumers deserve a choice in media, etc. But it was “point O” which raised eyebrows across the region:
…whereas weblogs are an increasingly common medium for self-expression by media professionals as well as private persons, the status of their authors and publishers, including their legal status, is neither determined nor made clear to the readers of the weblogs, causing uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuit…
The tone of point O hints at the recommendation that would come later:
Suggests clarifying the status, legal or otherwise, of weblogs and encourages their voluntary labeling according to the professional and financial responsibilities and interests of their authors and publishers.
Reading the parliamentary language as it appears here might not sound off alarms right away. But a week later, in an article on the European Parliament’s website, the intentions behind Mikko’s recommendations became clear:
Ms. Mikko told us “the blogosphere has so far been a haven of good intentions and relatively honest dealing. However, with blogs becoming commonplace, less principled people will want to use them.”
Mikko goes on:
We do not see bloggers as a threat. They are in position, however, to considerably pollute cyberspace. We already have too much spam, misinformation and malicious intent in cyberspace…I think the public is still very trusting towards blogs, it is still seen as sincere. And it should remain sincere. For that we need a quality mark, a disclosure of who is really writing and why.
The conclusion to be drawn from the report recommendations and Mikko’s later comments is that legislation should be put in place to identify bloggers and the “quality” of their writing lest they be used to harm cyberspace.
While Mikko’s statements suggest she isn’t targeting bloggers, her explanation seems to single them out as the source of some potential future wickedness. European bloggers were none too happy about their work being considered a “pollutant” to cyberspace. Comparing bloggers to spammers wasn’t very nice either. But what really got folks riled up was the notion of bloggers being required to identify themselves or “register.” UK blogger Cramner wrote:
Since when has one needed permission from the State to express more than one’s personal view? Are we about to surrender the freedom to blog to the EU’s licensing authorities? Will Euroblogs become the only permitted mechanism for placing information in the public domain?
While the concept of a registry isn’t mentioned in the draft report, comments made by Mikko later seem to point to the creation of one. Rumors soon spread that the EU had actually passed a law that would require bloggers to register themselves. Swedish press went to town with the “blogger registry” story. Bloggers decried the death of free speech in Europe, alluded to similarities with China and compared Marianne Mikkos to past European dictators.
Drastic? Perhaps. But as a blogger myself, my reaction is similar. The generalizations about how “honest” the blogosphere is and its potential danger are disturbing to me. Robbing people of their ability to start their own publications online or publish their views on other people’s blogs would stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. And as an American with a tendency to idealize European social policies in general, this proposal not only seems out of line with EU values, but also wildly misinformed. What does she think blogs are? Others asked the same question, making so much noise that Mikko responded. In an interview with the EU Observer, she attempted to set the record straight, but her comments weren’t very comforting:
We do not need to know the exact identity of bloggers. We need some credentials, a quality mark, a certain disclosure of who is writing and why. We need this to be able to trust and rely on the source.
The Economist is a valuable brand, its articles are trusted by readers without contributors having to reveal their names. If there is a way to validate the best bloggers the same way that publishing in the Economist validates its writers, it should be done. It is clear that a Harvard professor of international relations is likely to treat, for instance, the Middle East peace process or European integration in an educated and balanced manner. The same trust cannot be put in a radical high school student from Gaza or a Eurosceptic who has never been out of his village. The reader should know why this or that blogger should be trusted on a particular issue.
If that’s the case, then why should Marianne Mikko be trusted on this particular issue? What’s ironic here is that someone who seems less than informed about blogs is demanding that bloggers be a reliable source for the information they are providing. Equally ironic is the fact that much of her report is dedicated to warning against a future in which media is in the hands of just a few people — an argument which is, in essence, for independent blogging.
A Regulated Blogosphere
Mikko’s comments seem to suggest that only blogs written by recognized journalists or associated with mainstream media are to be trusted. The term “reliable source” is quite vague and lends itself to the idea that only scholars and the government are to be trusted. So what would this look like in real life?
Let’s imagine: A tech enthusiast writer spots a niche and wants to start a blog. But first he must go through the proper channels. He must prove his credentials on the topic. Passion for and knowledge of the space wouldn’t be enough. Not being a recognized journalist in the field or an industry expert, and without any published writing to show on the topic, this budding blogger probably wouldn’t stand a chance at getting his blog — no matter how informative or useful it is — registered as a “reliable source.”
Then there are the blogs that are already out there. The issue would be how do you certify that blogs have been covering a topic — or a variety of topics — over time? On VivirLatino.com, I write about everything from politics to marketing to current events. But with my background, I could be considered an “expert” on only one of those topics. Would I make the cut? And what sort of criteria would be used to judge me? Would I have to stick to blogging about only things I’m a registered expert on?
These are imaginary scenarios, but the proposal is real and begs the question: Could it really happen? Most people I spoke to here in Europe are skeptical. Tech journalist Lars Pasveer told me that he thinks the law would be hard to enforce.
“Although the EU has seen its share of controversial legislation over the last few years (long-term storage of data on Internet use, email and phone traffic for instance), I don’t see Mikko’s plans as realistic or viable,” he said. “Apart from the fact that it takes all the wrong cues from repressive regimes like China, the fluidity of the Internet and weblogs would make such a database a beast to manage.”
Pasveer points to a Dutch effort that looked to put warning labels on websites, which eventually failed.
“The Dutch justice department made an offhand remark that all sites in The Netherlands should carry warning labels about their content,” he said. “It got some press coverage at the time but has since dusted over, since in reality there is no workable solution for such a system — nor will it prevent people from seeing it elsewhere.”
But draft laws have already been introduced at the country level in at least one EU state: Italy. Last year a proposal, popularly referred to as the Levi-Prodi Law, reached the desk of the Italian Prime Minister for a law which would force all online publishers — including bloggers — to register their sites and pay fees, even if the site isn’t earning money. Popular Italian blogger Beppe Grillo broke the story in English, and bloggers across Italy were outraged when the law was approved at the Council of Ministers level in October of last year. It was awaiting a trip to the Italian parliament for approval but the change in government from PM Prodi to PM Berlusconi derailed that, though it seems it’s up once again for approval.
What do you think? Are laws like the one proposed by Mikko necessary in order to maintain honesty and integrity in the blogosphere? How might laws like this one help or hinder innovation in online publishing? Should freedom of speech protect bloggers from laws like this? Share your thoughts in the comments below.