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January 2000

For Your Staff: Using the Web

Talking On-Line

When visiting jewelry industry chat rooms and discussion groups, speak freely but think first

The Internet has been called the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the best advancement in democracy since universal suffrage and the greatest soapbox ever built, on which people freely speak their minds about issues of the day.

Yet freedom on the Internet is the snarly sort, with faceless and nameless ranters cyberbashing anyone and anything they please. Truth often becomes the victim.

There's a war out there between those pushing the free-speech envelope, sometimes anarchically, and those trying to reign them in, sometimes oppressively. For the mass of individuals and organizations in the middle, you can take steps to help avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Why Care?

Surveying recent headlines shows how central an issue this is:

  • In the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, students' Web sites containing derogatory or threatening comments about teachers have been taken down, and some students have been expelled.
  • Presidential candidate George Bush Jr. bought the rights to 200 Internet domain names, including "bushsucks.com," to prevent critics from using them to create highly visible Web sites critical of him.
  • A jury ordered a group of pro-life activists to pay more than $100 million in damages after they created a Web site listing doctors who perform abortions. The site, called the Nuremberg Files, offered rewards for doctors' addresses and license plate numbers, with lines drawn through the names of doctors who had been murdered.
  • Defense contractor Raytheon filed suit against nearly two dozen of its employees for exchanging chitchat about the company at a Yahoo public discussion board, using aliases. Through the suit it learned the identities of the chatters and took disciplinary action against them.
  • An anti-hate crime activist was forced to move after she was threatened with hanging at a Philadelphia-based Web site operated by white supremacists.

Be Careful Out There

If you like to participate in on-line discussions, post as if you're sitting in the living room of those reading your messages. If you write something that disparages someone else, be certain it's true. Don't threaten others with violence.

If you're an employer or supervisor and intend to monitor employees' e-mail, establish a policy and communicate it to employees to prevent hurt feelings and lawsuits. If you're an employee, recognize your employer has the legal right to read e-mail you send using company equipment.

If you're employed, be circumspect about what you say on the 'Net, or use a pseudonym. The First Amendment prevents the government – not your employer – from stifling your speech. Though it happens rarely, and when it does it's sometimes challenged in court, people have been fired for statements they made through their personal
Web sites.

If you come across a Web site critical of you or your business, try to establish a dialogue. Ask about the circumstances that led to the person's dissatisfaction. Your reputation can only improve if you try to solve the problem instead of calling in the lawyers.

If you're concerned that others may be spreading false rumors about you or your business on the Web or in Usenet discussion groups, you can use a commercial Internet intelligence service such as eWatch (www.ewatch.com) or EclipZe (www.eclipze.com).

If you'd like to comment about a Web site, a new way is through a
free software program called Third Voice, which you can download at www.thirdvoice.com. It lets you append Post-It-type notes to others' sites, though your notes will be visible only to other Third Voice users.

Court of Public Opinion

Freedom of speech is both a privilege and a burden. Sometimes what you read can make the hair on your neck stand on end. But it's long been recognized in this country that the best answer to "evil" speech is "more speech," as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than a half century ago.

The late newspaper reporter Richard Pothier, who spent his last years as an on-line debater, put it
this way: "Censorship is never the answer to unpopular opinions. The court of public opinion makes its own judgment. Intolerance, bigotry and other stupidity are seen for what they are."

by Reid Goldsborough

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.



Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.



 

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