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Accountability in Action: Between exposé and libel: online activity and the lack of institutional accountability

One World Trust: Accountability in Action: Extract From Global Accountability Newsletter: Issue 15, July 2007

Accountability debates often focus on powerful organisations, whether formal or informal.  This makes sense – the benefits of accountability can be most felt when powerful organisations adopt the necessary policies and put them into practice.  However, with the focus on organisations, the growing power of the individual has often been overlooked.
As online publication becomes easier, through innovations such as blogs and websites such as YouTube, millions of people are finding a voice.  With the right combination of luck, judgement, timing and the Internet an individual can have a great deal of influence.  Yet, this individuality of the Internet means users are often acting outside of an institutional framework.

Whilst most bloggers have readers in the tens or hundreds, some have acquired followings in the hundreds of thousands.  With such large readerships these bloggers are starting to challenge the dominance of traditional media outlets.  Their online editorials signify a progression from the commentating on news stories reported by the mainstream media to setting the news agenda themselves. 
A notable example is the attention brought by US bloggers to the remarks of Senator Trent Lott, then Senate Minority Leader, at the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond in December 2002.  Speaking of Thurmond’s run for President, which was on a segregationist platform, Lott said:
… if the rest of the country had followed our lead [that of Mississippi, which had voted for Thurmond in the election], we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years…
Whilst reporters from mainstream media outlets were present at the party, it was the action of bloggers that brought consistent attention to the remarks and eventually forced Lott to resign as Minority Leader.1
Similarly, the use of videos posted through YouTube is having a remarkable impact on the way in which the American 2008 Presidential campaigns are being run, with greater online content and the emergence of “attack ads” unaffiliated with any campaign.2  Another example is the “gripe site” of  The site has played a watchdog function on the activities of Shell, and has acted as a central point for the gathering of complaints.3  With the power of the internet harnessed for both whistleblowers and scandalmongers, it is clear that such great influence can be positive or negative.
Whereas traditional media organisations have internal accountability – with editors being ultimately accountable for published material – bloggers are independent and lack such an institutional framework.  There is no editor, no lawyer, and no proprietor to be persuaded of the public interest case for a story.  Even under the UK’s notoriously strict libel laws bloggers are effectively able to circumvent the risk of the large financial penalties that can come with an adverse court judgment. They can limit liability through a company that holds few assets, as little is needed to publish a blog.  In the USA, where the Constitution places great value on the freedom of speech, there are even fewer legal risks.
This lack of internal accountability and the possibility of circumnavigating legal accountability brings into question how bloggers, and other individuals online, are accountable.
To address the absence of accountability mechanisms and concomitant concern that there is power without responsibility, there have been some attempts to develop self-regulating Codes of Conduct.  One of the most high profile is that started by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term “Web 2.0”.
With a series of “opt-in badges” for different levels of enforcement, the O’Reilly-Wales proposal have proved very controversial, prompting attacks as well as support from within the blogosphere.  However, the proposal lacks any enforcement mechanisms – and it is unclear what form an effective enforcement mechanism could take.  With the ease of online anonymity, and the opprobrium of others worn as a badge of pride for some, forms of self-regulation that rely on social norms and pressure may be ineffective in this sphere where there is little to be lost.
It is not the case that the Internet is a lawless place; fraud is still fraud, and activities that would be criminal offline are criminal online too.  But where is the line drawn in the often casual, conversational manner of the Internet that can be accessed by millions not just heard by the few?  With the international and individual nature of the online world, it is difficult to transpose the accountability mechanisms of the offline world, from courts of law to social norms.
Furthermore, with the borderless nature of the Internet, who would enforce?  Is it the state’s responsibility? Consumers?  Registries?  Or even families and partners?  With the lack of the institutional frameworks of accountability present in traditional media organisations applying to bloggers, yet the unquestionable ability of such individuals to impact the ‘non-Internet’ society, these questions are starting to be asked and need to be addressed.
  Claire Wren
1 Scott, Esther, “Big Media Meets the Bloggers: Coverage of Trent Lott’s Remarks at Strom Thurmond’s Birthday Party”, Case Study, Kennedy School of Government, 2004 (
2 Wood, Gaby, “From the web to the White House,” The Observer, 8 July 2007,,2121069,00.html.
3 See Accountability in Practice.

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About One World Trust: Information from Wikipedia and One World Trust Website

The Trust develops recommendations on practical ways to make global organisations more responsive to the people they affect, and how the rule of law can be applied to ensure access to opportunity and participation for all. The organisation shares its findings with political leaders, opinion-formers and the wider public to help improve policy and practice for accountable policy processes and political decision-making at global level, in Europe and in the UK.  Established in 1951 in support of the All-Party Group for World Government, the Trust continues to have a close relationship with the UK Parliament. The Trust also is an NGO with Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Lord (P eter) Archer of Sandwell PC is the President of the Trust. Vice Presidents include Lord Foulkes of Cumnock PC, Lord Maclennan of Rogart PC, Baroness Whitaker, Sir Richard Jolly, KCMG and Sir David Knox.

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