The two-edged sword of freedom (part 42)

Among the many social forums in which I tend to roam, I also happen to be one of many moderators on a forum whose name I won’t mention (since this post derives, at least in part, from a conversation on a private section of that forum). The issue was a recent change to the rules allowing (perhaps even obligating) moderators to edit posts that contain personally-identifiable information like email addresses and/or physical addresses. The issue is not one of free advertising (which is also an issue on this particular forum) but “protecting” newbie posters from mistakenly revealing information they might not have otherwise. One of the reasons given was that moderators have an “obligation” to protect users from themselves.

I have no real problem with a forum that prohibits the posting of personal information on general principle. I disagree with the suggestion of “protection” as an excuse. It’s hard to believe that anyone who stumbles across an online discussion forum and reads some of the posts has no idea that what people post isn’t visible to the entire world. I don’t have a hard time believing that some people can’t conceive of what that means. And I don’t doubt that some people press the “Save” button way too soon.

Protection almost always implies restriction… one person circumscribing someone else’s freedom because they believe they are more experienced with the dangers that lurk just beyond the defined boundary. It’s really more a case of preventing someone from learning from our own mistakes (or those we might have read about) rather than letting them make the mistakes for themselves. In some cases, such as when the “someone else” is a child or when the mistake can be fatal, most of us agree that the benefit of avoiding the mistake is worth the price of restriction. It’s not “Thelemic” to let someone shoot themselves in the head (literally) because you figured that preventing them from pointing the gun to their head in the first place was interfering with their Will. (Of course, you could be interfering with their Will if it was their Will to die in that particular moment but the odds of that actually being the case will compel most humans to choose interference over freedom.)

The odds are also fairly low that publishing one’s email address on a public forum would incur a fatal result. Most likely, the poster would simply experience a sudden increase in spam (which some of us might consider “fatal” in a metaphoric way). Maybe the poster doesn’t know that. Maybe there is an “obligation” to do one’s best to convey that information in the spirit of “informed consent” — for example, by mentioning the risks in the Terms and Conditions when the user signs up. Of course, we know nobody actually reads those T&C documents… and another debate could center around whether the obligation to inform stops when the user refuses to read. But opting for a solution that prevents the user from doing something that can only harm themselves seems a bit too restricting.

When I was running the Thelemic League forum, there was no such restriction. Of course, there didn’t really need to be because the only people even interested in posting there already knew well the dangers of posting personal information on a public forum and many of the regular users at the time weren’t even using their real names. The forum mentioned earlier caters to a less sophisticated user base. But I still don’t see why we can’t let newbies make their own mistakes, assuming we’ve informed them of the consequenses in a document that they probably won’t actually read.

If you allow others the freedom to fondle loaded weapons, you have to tolerate the occasional shot foot. You can attempt to isolate those who would shoot someone else in the foot rather than themselves. But the only way you can prevent foot shootings is to restrict anyone from posessing loaded weapons and that takes the conversation into the realm of Thelemic Social Politics — in which everyone has an opinion and nobody’s opinion is clearly the right one.

In the meantime, I support the forum’s new rule (even though I resent the fact that I’m obligated to be the bad guy). Why? Because the forum is private property and if there’s one circumstance that tips the scale in favor of restrictions on visitors, it’s the fact that the restriction is limited to private property and the user, if offended by the restriction, can opt not to visit the forum.

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