Friday, March 25, 2011

iShareGossip Anonymous Gossip Website Targeted

The German Family Minister has cyber-bullying in his cross hairs and it's looking like on-line gossip website iShareGossip is in the line of fire. Several weeks back we reported on the increasingly critical attacks of social networking websites with that have an anonymous forum or venue for their users. Formspring has fallen under the critical eyes of parents who fear the website is a haven for sex offenders and on-line predators. Germany is declaring that they are going to take a hard-line stance against cyber-bullying and websites that facilitate it.

The announcement from Germany's Family Minister followed just days after a highly-publicized incident where a 17-year-old in Berlin was beaten-up as an online dispute turned into real-world violence. The victim had apparently tried to confront the boyfriends of a group of girls who had been insulting his girlfriend on the website 'iShareGossip.' As a result of the incident, Family Minister Schröder said she has requested the government youth media watchdog to consider monitoring the site and indexing it. This would effectively make it inaccessible to German search engines. However, it would not prevent direct traffic or traffic via a proxy server from reaching the site.

Schröder told the Wiesbadener Kurier, "No one needs to try to make this into a debate about censorship, here are young people viciously insulting one another and dragging the reputations of others - particularly young girls - through the dirt under the cloak of anonymity."

But this is about censorship. Keeping young people from expressing themselves (whether hurtful or not) and blacklisting websites only makes it more attractive. Demeaning on-line speech that contains hurtful or harmful comments posted about someone on-line will never go away, regardless of being posted anonymously or not. There is no doubt that cyber-bullying is wrong and should be curtailed. But getting back to the basics is where the answers can be found.

Just like real-world bullying, teaching teens conflict resolution and how to be self-confident negates the effects of hurtful or demeaning comments, whether in real life or on-line. This is the nature of adolescence. What happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?" Have we become that overly sensitive about our own self-images; so emotionally defenseless that we allow words to hurt us? Granted- teens are particularly sensitive at this stage of emotional development. However, even a teen has enough emotional and intellectual capacity to "know" how to handle being a victim of bullying. Also, parents and schools can embed more lessons on the ethical dilemmas of on-line activities in their own parenting style and school lesson plans.

You cannot expect an adult, even a government official such as the "Family Minister", to step into the shoes of a teen and understand the world of social networking in the eyes of a teen. And teens don't understand the ramification of their actions or the power of anonymity. Silent Sender would suggest that the preservation of anonymity and freedom of speech should always prevail, while efforts to correct abhorrent behavior such as any form of bullying be handled by the parents of those teens. We do not need any government using this as a precedent for limiting on-line speech. It only creates resentment and ultimately can lead to civil dissidence. In the meantime, there are "adjustments" that these websites can make to monitor comments for potentially harmful or abusive language without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Anonymous messaging and anonymous email are important tools. Websites that offer freedom of speech though anonymity are no less important then being able to send an anonymous "letter to the editor" of a newspaper. We can all do a better job at curtailing the abusive side of anonymity by thinking before we "click."

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