Sorry Marcel, I think you're wrong

Marcel Berlins is one columnist I usually enjoy reading and have a lot of time for his views - they're normally well-balanced and provide food for thought. But his column this week - on the dangers of the internet and blogs - is most unlike him. It, strangely, feels ill-informed and pandering to the worst case scenario.

The basic gist is that anybody can say anything on blogs and, as we often don't know the writers behind them, this makes them dangerous.

I take Marcel's point about libel. As Nosemonkey said in a comment on this blog, it would probably be a good thing if a blogger was done for libel as this would help clarify a badly out of date law. The legal points, as you'd expect, are sound.

But then... well, it's difficult to know how to describe it without taking the piece apart.

"An Estonian MEP, Marianne Mikko, is worried that a growing number of blogs are written with "malicious intentions or hidden agendas". She proposes that bloggers identify themselves and declare any interests they have in the issue they're writing about. Her concerns should be taken seriously. We, the readers of blogs, do not, and normally cannot, know who lurks behind the funny nickname. We need more information about the writers so that we can decide how seriously to take their opinions. Has she a personal stake in whatever it is under discussion? Does he belong to a dodgy or extreme campaigning body? Is she the sister of the owner of the restaurant she's recommending? Does he bear a personal grudge? We don't know."

I've come across Marianne Mikko's campaign before and think it's possible one of the daftest things I've ever heard. How on earth you'd ever create some form of state regulation or registration for bloggers is utterly beyond me.

This only way, as far as I can see, that this would work would either be to get worldwide compliance on the issue, which is never going to happen, or to block certain sites or blogs, which would be unpalatable.

As somebody who spends a large amount of time in the blogosphere (yes, I should get out more), it's reasonably easy to separate the crank blogs from the sensible ones. It doesn't take too long to sift these.

It's also worth bearing in mind that there are a large numbers of blogs and many of them have tiny readerships. The more successful a nuttier blog, the more attention and scrutiny it's going to get.

I've always thought of blogging as an extension of Habermas's idea of the public sphere mixed in with the basics o the free market. The best written, most accessible ones with clear aims and readerships and a sense of author tend to flourish while the small personal ones or nutty cranks remain within their small community. And I'd personally rather the nuttier cranks were posting this stuff in the open than conspiring in darkened rooms.

Where an author works hard to keep their anonymity, it's usually for a good reason, like the Girl WIth a One Track Mind or PC Blogs. Often te profession blogs are the most fascinating. At best, blogs can illuminate and enlighten areas that usually remain locked to others and, I think, are a small step on further democratising society.

At worst, they read like the rants of a nutjob with deeply unpleasant views. And, again, I'd rather these kind of people had their views out in the open and were traceable.

Why blogs are any more dangerous than... well, anything is not made clear. Mostly they're just people with opinions. Many of these opinions may be daft, unpleasant or plan pig-ignorant but that's reflective of society.

"Coincidentally, last week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, confessed to his own worries about the way his invention was being used to dispense disinformation, conspiracy theories (that 9/11 was the work of the US government, for example) and harmful ideas. He particularly mentioned the spreading of the rumours that the MMR vaccine risked leading to autism in children."

And again, the 9/11 stuff is, as far as I can tell, largely consigned to the corner of the web labelled nutjob. The day the conspiracy theories start becoming accepted truth is the day I hang up my wireless.

As for the MMR, that's one thing the media cannot start claiming any kind of high ground over anywhere. It was bad science reporting that give more prominence to this issue than ever should have happened. t's now largely accepted this wasn't the media's finest hour. The media gave a voice to the MMR scares, not the internet.

"For the moment, the advantages of allowing virtually unrestricted access to the net outweigh the undoubted negatives mentioned by Mikko and Berners-Lee. But what's also clear is that more and more participants are abusing that freedom, whether as bloggers or on websites"

How are they abusing the freedom? By writing whatever they want to write? Why is that abusing freedom and who is it to decide what writings constitute abusing freedoms or not?

There are plenty of laws that extend to the internet (including libel - and the reason this is a bit woolly is hardly the fault of bloggers) and users are bound by them. If it's serious enough to be considered a crime online, then it will usually be dealt with as such.

"We may soon have to consider devising controls on entry, though what form they'll take is not easy to envisage. It is possible that we will find out, in five or 10 or 20 years, that, in the internet, we have created a monster we cannot tame, whose capacity for doing harm exceeds any good it once brought."

Quite.

I still the internet as a force for good. It makes people and organisations more accountable and gives a voice to people who can't normally be heard. If anything, I genuinely believe it has enhanced social interaction, democracy and society and speeded up the exchange of ideas. The thought of imposing rules and conditions on who can and cannot access the internet sends a chill down my spine.

Marcel may be pessimistic about the internet. Despite the large swathes of sheer uselessness, idiocy and downright unpleasantness that can be found online, I'm generally positive about the online world and feel it can be a force for good. Marcel, however, is far closer to those who make the law than I will ever be.