A UK blogger has been cleared of charges relating to a story he wrote detailing the kidnap and murder of pop group Girls Aloud. Daryn Walker’s story, entitled ‘Girls (Scream) Aloud’ was published on a niche pornography site.
The Internet Watch Foundation, a UK organisation that monitors the web for offensive material, reported the story to the police and Walker was charged under the Obscene Publications Act in February 2008. Today he walked free. The BBC quotes defence lawyer Tim Owen QC as explaining:
“He had written what he had described as an adult celebrity parody and was only meant to be for an audience of like-minded people.
“As soon as he was aware of the upset and fuss that had been created, he took steps himself to take the article off the website.”
While you may question the sanity of a man who would write such a story for fun it’s pretty clear that the right judgement was reached in this case. A key piece of evidence was from an IT professional who stated that the story could only be discovered by people who were looking for that type of material. There was little-to-no chance of people stumbling upon this unintentionally. That said, the case may well raise questions as to whether blogs should be subject to regulation.
The blogosphere is currently quite a free and easy place. As long as you don’t break the law or annoy someone so much that they sue you, you can pretty much say what you like. This regulation-free environment has seen blogs thrive. While some bloggers have moved onto quicker and easier means of self-expression like Twitter, blogs still fill a vital gap somewhere between general online gossip and established mainstream news organisations.
With blogs now breaking news stories on a regular basis (TMZ was around an hour ahead of the mainstream media on announcing Michael Jackson’s death last week) it’s easy to see why there may be an appetite to regulate blogs. The thing is, it’s just not needed.
As the blogosphere has grown it’s developed its own ethical code, when people break that code chances are they’ll get a disparaging post written about them on someone else’s blog and most likely lose much of whatever reputation they had beforehand. Even in the extreme ‘murder story’ case above the author removed the story as soon as he became aware of the upset it had caused. Blogging operates under a self-policing system that works and means anyone can jump in to express their point of view without too much fear of ‘real-world’ reprisals.
However, there’s one form of regulation that might be required. In the USA there is talk of the Federal Trade Commission monitoring sponsored blog posts to ensure that they disclose when a payment has been made in return for a positive review of a product. As failure to disclose this type of ‘advertorial’ can seriously hurt the public, this is a positive move. Ethically-conscious bloggers flag up sponsored posts as such anyway.
If a government was to go further and start to regulate what bloggers can actually say, they would be hurting blogging in an irreparable way. They’d probably get a lot of nasty blog posts written about them too.