Gone are the Wild West days of the wide open forums where people could do anything they darn well pleased. A flurry of recent court cases (including yesterday's US Supreme court ruling), pending legislation, explosive forum growth and voluntary changes in forum policies are imposing law and order in a formerly free-for-all environment.
I recently read an interesting PC Magazine article by the legendary columnist John C. Dvorak entitled "The Miserable End of the Open Forum". This got me thinking about the changes witnessed in the various forums I visit.
Dvorak discussed recent court cases and the effect that it has had on forums. He writes: "Over the years, open forums in the U.S. and elsewhere have been fairly wild and amazingly open. The courts have long since determined that something such as a computer forum or bulletin board has a kind of Hyde Park Corner status where people can say and do what they want, and the host of the forum has no legal responsibility to police these folks. With several recent cases ... combined with the looming influence of foreign jurisdictions, I cannot see this sort of freedom lasting much longer."
Dvorak discussed legal cases against Yahoo! and sees a progression of lawsuits. He writes “it should turn out that the rationale for a judgment against Yahoo! can be used as a rationale for other actions against the company. That should be followed by actions against all the open forums where libelous commentary is rampant. Watch each domino fall. You can also be certain that as this dam begins to break". Faced with these legal implications, Yahoo has recently closed many of its chat rooms.
There are also international law implications. Dvorak writes “The internationalization of the Internet and the Web mean that American laws do not apply. Do you know that calling someone a monopolist in Canada, for example, is libelous? This is because being a monopolist in Canada is a crime, and you generally slander someone when you call them a criminal (unless they've been convicted, of course). Comparison advertising is illegal in many countries, and Web sites do it all the time. None of this is going to last as we spiral down to the lowest common denominator." [Northern Sound is based in Canada and I imagine the admins will find this interesting.]
We are seeing a growing body of laws emerging that will govern conduct on forums. Recently Apple has won a round of lawsuits against bloggers who posted trade secrets and that free speech and journalistic privilege was no defense. Today the US Supreme Court held that Internet file-sharing services will be held responsible for swapping music illegally. Justice David H. Souter wrote "We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by the clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties". This ruling may have implications for forums and chat rooms that either promote or turn a blind-eye to illegal trading. There is also proposed/pending legislation as new laws are being drawn dealing with cyber postings.
In keeping with the legal evolution, administrators have become the new sheriffs in the cyber-community. With the Wild West, as people started settling the wide open spaces, very little government involvement was needed. The community was small enough enough that unwritten codes of conduct governed behavior usually enforced within the community.
Online forums have been experiencing explosive growth and as many more people began moving to online communities, more interactions create inevitable conflict. To avoid increasing conflicts, Administrators impose more self regulation. Administrators in almost all forums are no longer tolerating difficult people and are running the bad guys out of town. This seem necessary in running a forum and to prevent theft, harm to others or from ruining an otherwise civil experience for the vast majority of citizens. Instead of the latest pistol or revolver, the new sheriffs use the latest technologies which provide admins with the ability to "see" behind proxies and multiple aliases. All forums seem to delete posts or ban (or temporarily suspend) disruptive outlaws. Sometimes a renegade Billy the Kids seem intent on challenging the sheriff and some who participated in the once wide-open forum bemoan the loss of what once was as they move to new territories.
Like with the Wild West, businesses moved in and they had to be regulated. Commerce often needs predictability and orderliness to thrive. With so many getting into the sampling industry, administrators must come up with rules governing commerce on their forums. There was hardly a forum that permitted us to post about a group buy with no restrictions. Musicplayer.com, KvR, Sonikmatter, FutureProducers, GANG, Sweetwater, HarmonyCentral, Sweetwater, LogicUsers, Cubase, Cakewalk, ProTools, Daw-mac, and many more - all had stringent restrictions for commercial posts. Many outright forbid it and some place various restrictions and some had "unwritten rules". I found out that almost all of the forums have rules and it is best to contact the local sheriff (admin) first before posting commercial announcements.
What does columnist John Dvorak foresee with forums? Her write: "I expect a slow death to nonmoderated wide-open forums and open public commentary, as the courts finally realize that [forums are] commercial publishers with the responsibilities of publishers...the tendency will be to track down the worst offenders. Personally, I think it's long overdue. The current mess has encouraged laziness and accomplished nothing positive."
It took the US Cavalry some 50 years to tame the US Wild West and bring law and order. Much if it ruthless.
The nature of forums is changing. Although we will see a divergence of opinion here, we may be witnessing a maturing and a settling down. Like the Wild West, we are beginning to see order and civility brought to many forums.
Forum owners are faced with increasing liability. With converging factors such as recent court rulings, pending legislation, international issues, explosive growth, increased commerce and voluntary actions by sheriff administrators, it seems like the wild forums are being tamed. It will be interesting to see what happens as the forums and the law becomes settled.