Saturday, November 26, 2005

Comments in web portals

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about anonymous comments posted on web portals, in Estonia. Many of these comments have promoted violence or hatred, violating the constitution. As it is very difficult to track down the person who posted such comments, criminal investigation has rarely been started.

Today, i was having an argument on the issue with my cousin. Having a degree in law, she was strongly convinced that the portals should be held responsible for the illegal content, like newspapers are responsible for all the material they publish. I tried to refute her on the grounds that web portals are a public medium and nobody can or should answer for the content but the writer.

I later developed the idea looking at it from the point of practicality. The comments section in web portals (or newspapers' on-line versions) is built on mutual interest. It is benefitial for the portal (otherwise they wouldn't have such sections) as well as for readers and commenters (otherwise they wouldn't be commenting). For the system to function, both sides must be motivated to contribute.

Clearly, for the web portal the benefit arises from attracting readers back for additional information with very little additional cost for the company. However, if the portals should be held responsible for the content, they should read all the comments received before publishing which would incur significant costs, thus making it impractical to run the comments section at all. So who would be losing out from this are the commenters and those reading them, large majority of whom are not disbehaving in any measure. As most popular articles in receive more than 1000 comments, the crowd should not be underestimated.

I believe that one of the most important tasks of a judicial system in any democratic country is to prevent crime without restricting the liberties and opportunities of those behaving lawfully. Based on this i am convinced that it would be wrong (if easy) solution to put the blame for the comments on the portal.

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