Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Double Standards

“Afghans and Iraqis have voted for their Governments. Those attacking them are doing so to destroy those slender democratic roots. We are defending them. We should be absolutely proud of doing so.” Tony Blair address to the TUC 12th September 2006

13th September 2006 Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visits Toney Blair in Downing Street. A Downing Street spokesman said: "This visit will underline the expanding relationship we have with China…” This is one week after China tightened restrictions on foreign media operating in the country. It happens despite numerous documented cases of human rights abuses in China and despite Chinese people having no democratic rights whatsoever.

Clearly, some people’s democracies are more important than others.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Forum's Future

At the end of this post is a comment box where people can add their views about the spamming incident. Anyone can comment, but in an effort to prevent further abuse, the comments will only be published after being approved, so I am afraid there will be some delay before they go live.

The Forum's Future

In the early hours of Saturday 9 September, someone registered for the Brookmans Park Newsletter Forum with the user name of Colin Farrell.

Whether or not that was the person’s real name is not known to us.

The new user then proceeded to sent instant messages containing adult, pornographic material to all 670 forum members. Half a dozen forum posts containing obscene images were also created.

We took the indecent images down as soon as one of our moderators spotted them, but, unfortunately, once the messages were sent out, there was no way we could retrieve them.

As a result, many innocent forum members were exposed to adult images and links.

The Brookmans Park Newsletter can only apologies, unreservedly, for this incident.

We have since closed the forum and have been replying to the dozens of complaints that have been pouring in since the incident.

I have to say that once I explained the circumstances to those who complained, their follow up response was one of full support and backing. Such is the richness of the community that has built up around the Brookmans Park Newsletter Forum over the years.

Two forum members have asked for their profile to be deleted from the database, and this has been done. They both know they are free to join again at any time. Communicating with them over this issue has been a warm and refreshing experience.

The Brookmans Park Newsletter is non profit-making community venture supported by volunteers.

It is not pre-moderated but is post-moderated by a great group of local volunteer moderators who help keep an eye on the site. We also use reactive moderation (where we take action having been alerted by a users who has expressed concern about, or been offended by, something that appears on the forum).

Our volunteer moderators come from a variety of backgrounds. They do not work shifts and we share the load based on the philosophy of ‘keeping an eye on things’. However, because we are not online around the clock we are probably an easier target for spammers - particularly in the early hours of the morning.

Having said that, this was our first such attack in the eight years since the site has been running a community forum/notice board feature.

In fact, such has been the strength of this online community that we have never had to ban a member, edits have been minimal (usually typos) and the spirit has been wonderful, open, engaging and honest.

So, what do we do now? I have introduced two new security measures.

1) New members have to be checked after they register before they can post. This is perhaps more a delaying strategy rather than an absolute safety guarantee - but it could delay the opportunist who logs on late at night with dubious motives.

2) I have turned off the instant message option for forum members who have made fewer than 50 posts. The majority of the regulars have posted more than that, and so they will still be able to instant message their forum contacts.

The remaining issue is this.

Do we take a risk, having introduced a number of safety measures (including those mentioned above and some stronger blocks not mentioned here for obvious security reasons), or do we leave it closed.

If we open it again, there is probably a good chance that spammers will find a way round the security measures and the incident could be repeated. If we leave it closed, they have won and we have lost a valuable online community resource.

Perhaps there is a half-way position?

Perhaps we start again, delete the existing forum and invite people to register afresh on the understanding that with all online communications there is a possibility of it being abused?

The downside is that the archive of local debate including more than 10,000 posts on 870 topics will be lost.

I have bumped into several forum members over the past 24-hours and all said we must not give in and that the forum should continue, but they are just a few of the 670 registered members.

Any thoughts would be welcomed. Anyone can add their comments.