Whatever name you prefer for the current state of the Internet (user generated content, Web 2.0, the social web etc.), it clearly seems like a good time for consumers of goods, even of those we still rather reluctantly consider as such like healthcare or education.
The opinion of the general public is in high demand as exemplified by a recent announcement of the British National Health Service (NHS) to introduce NHS Choices which among other things will allow patients to comment on their hospital treatment. The move has clearly been inspired by the success of PatientOpinion, a not-for-profit site which has allowed people for more than a year now to voice their experience with treatment received in hospital (and for which this new state-run competition raises some problems of its own).
Commendably recently even the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit within the Cabinet Office has launched a review that is intended to highlight ways on how to leverage the Power of Information generated by state as well as the public.
However, not all is perfect for this new form of user empowerment. Especially one form of rating site has come under attack: sites which allow to comment on the performance of teachers, in particular a site called RateMyTeachers. These sites have come under fire as teachers complain about cyber bullying:
“Another teacher at the same school is criticised by a pupil because they “cannot speak English” and another as “the worst person ever” and “everyone hates her”.” (BBC, 3rd April 2007)
“Mr Brown said: “Comments are one thing but what about teachers who’ve had images of their heads super-imposed on to gratuitous images or who have had pictures taken and posted of their cleavages or underwear as they bend over, or who have had comments questioning their fidelity to their partner?”" (The Independent, 4th April 2007)
As every reader of newsgroups or forums has learned long ago many people have yet to master the art of making constructive criticisms and it is understandable that teachers take offence at anonymous comments like the ones quoted above. The concerns are serious enough for some to even call for a closure of such sites.
A new court decision in Germany could lead the way in assessing these issues in the future: The German website MeinProf.de which allows students to rate their professors and comment on their performance had been sued. After some nasty comments (including naming the professor a “psychopath”) that were quickly removed by the web site owners the professor in question went to court demanding the operators to pay 3,000 Euros (about £2,000) for any similar comment about him that might appear on the site in the future.
The court has decided that a general “cease and desist” for unacceptable comments is against the law. As a professor one has to face public criticism that cannot be prohibited ex ante. (see full coverage as well as press announcement – all in German I’m afraid).
(btw I wonder what Wendy’s take on the situation is…)
Several things have to be noted: In general this is a positive outcome for web sites that leverage the wisdom of the crowds as it offers some protection for the often not-for-profit operators of these sites. However, this does not justify defamatory comments on those sites and the court has emphasized the operators’ duty to remove those entries as soon as they are recognized. Last but not least, the subject under public scrutiny does matters as professors might well be made to face personal criticism in their role as public figures while teachers and nurses might have to be treated differently.
Since October 2006 I am both a DPhil student as well as a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and here I share with the accidental reader my musings on different aspects of the Internet and society. Feel free to comment or simply ignore :-)
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