Government Policing Discussions on Their Websites…Fine By Me


OK, let’s get into it…

Whenever discussions arise around User Generated Content on government web sites, expect much wringing of hands.

What if somebody posts *wrong* information? What if the government *removes* a post? What if somebody drops an f-bomb? What if there’s a picture of someone’s bare ankle? (Great concern among certain communities who believe in modest dress.)

Well, I for one am utterly over this issue.

Last I checked, I live in a country where a major point of division is whether or not people can carry guns. And the gun debate includes whether or not “registration” is required and if background checks (“reputation”) are necessary. Also, my society seems amenable to outsourcing core government functions from tax collection to national security to contractors who get to play by different rules to sometimes sad consequences.

So, let’s get real. It’s time for rough consensus and running code.

1. Congress and Federal government are RULE MAKING and POLICING organizations; it’s OK for them to make reasonable rules and police User Generated Content on their web sites. Citizens, stop fearing government agencies that monitor the safety of your food setting some guidelines about online posts on their websites. Government officials, grow some backbone. If you can put up with being hauled before Congress, misquoted in the press, and arrested for breaking the public trust. I think you can handle a little well-intentioned user input (even sniping) on your public website and accept a measure of responsibility for how users behave themselves there.

2. Rules for UGC on government websites are not the same as privately owned websites; but they aren’t that different either. If citizens tolerate passing through a metal detector en route to Jury duty, then I suspect citizens will tolerate their posts passing through a filter to remove naughty words. And I think citizens will also tolerate various other citizens being entrusted with special privileges to play special roles, provided they have been given training and pass regular tests. The courtroom has its judges, lawyers, recorders, juries, volunteers, rules, and tradition. The courtroom also has rules protecting the accused. Congress has its rules, roles, and traditions, too. Government websites can have identified community managers and qualified outside volunteers.

3. Any debate around anonymity on a government site these days belongs on par with any debate on the extent citizens identify themselves (and to whom) in various settings; in some contexts registration makes sense, in others optional, and in still others an invasion of privacy that can’t be tolerated.

4. The hard problems remain the hard problems; we need checks and balances, we need to watch the watchdogs. Our representatives should debate and pass reasonable laws to provide oversight mechanisms and consequences for parties who corruptly and capriciously moderate comments on government websites for self or special interest gain.

5. Using 3rd party service providers isn’t a big deal; just use them appropriately, non-discriminatory and take advantage of what’s open and free. The Bush administration paid $400B last year to government contractors. And Bush isn’t the first administration to outsource. Every one’s queasiness over YouTube and Terms of Service and proprietary tools needs some perspective. It’d be stupid not to use these tools proprietary or not, and it be stupid to only use proprietary tools when open protocols and free tools are only a few clicks or a little programming away.

6. We know the principles: everyone has the same rights and freedoms; presume innocence until proven guilty after judgment by a jury of peers; right of appeal; majority rule can’t take away rights of minority. Sounds a lot like Craigslist to me. But with extra attention to enforcing minority rights. We can’t celebrate social media giving us greater voice only to shout down—or flag as inappropriate—the loyal opposition. Government websites, like all government assets, belong to all of us and all of us are responsible for their stewardship.

So let’s stop the hand wringing from all sides here. Let’s have some free comments and content as part of our government sites. Let’s accept some reasonable rules for every one’s safety. Let’s make sure we protect free speech. Let’s get to debugging the beta version of Government 2.0.

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  • Silona: Thanks. I agree about a need to have a place for a more meta-conversations about the rules. I believe our courts are part of our existing attempt to deal with exceptions. An interesting start of the model for talking about talk on a .gov website is the CDC’s page about their website ( It would be easy to see how a meta-conversation could be added there.

    William Perrin: Thanks for the links to acceptable use policies being used in the United Kingdom. They are very good.

    Marc: Yes, petty bureaucrats and no-so-petty politicians will most certainly abuse their power. See #4 and #6 and the links William Perrin shared. Our Federal government was established with checks and balances in the Constitution. And almost immediately the system was upgraded with the First Amendment. Police agencies have Internal Affair offices and government Agencies have Inspector Generals.

    Embedded in the core of the Internet’s design is the embrace of failure—to create a network that continues to function even when partially destroyed, a design capable of routing around faults. The Internet approach has its vulnerabilities, but overall fault-tolerance, inclusiveness, and scalability of the system is significantly improved over analog and centralized approaches before the worst of those vulnerabilities become risks. That’s why I believe that Internet-based Transparency is an improvement on current disclosure regimes.

  • Marc

    Petty bureaucrats would never abuse their power and censor something they did not like. Never happen. Not while the “good” guys are in office, at least.

    Your post is amusing.

  • A helpful contribution to a tricky issue we have been grappling with in the UK as the Power of Information Taskforce goes about its work.

    The showusabetterway competition was entirely UGC but had little or no problem with ‘difficult’ content because we did two things:
    – followed Tom Steinberg’s maxim that ‘if you don’t want a fight, don’t set up a boxing ring’.
    – used a minor variant on what the ‘Downing Street Rules’, an acceptable use policy forged in the heat of e-petitions, now running at over 7 million signatories.
    and the original

    I don’t know if these would be acceptable in the North American settlement, but they seemed to work for us on this side of the pond.

  • I think the main thing I typically see lacking is a management of expectations by those sites.

    “Here are the rules we are going to follow” you can even set aside a place on the site to discuss just those rules…

    but posting those is crucial!

    thanks for the post! I’ll be pointing people to it!