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Online Forums -- Friend or Foe? 31 August 2000 Edition
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At 2:15 pm yesterday, NZ's media became free to print the name of the US millionaire who, earlier this year, faced drug charges in an Auckland court.

After the 4 NZ Herald primed readers in Tuesday's online edition and again in yesterday's morning edition, the very few people who still interested in this morsel of information were probably waiting for 2:15 pm to roll around with bated breath.

Although it was probably just a tiny point of law, that 2:15 pm time is probably quite important -- insomuch as publication of the name prior to that precise moment would, I believe, have been a technical breach of the suppression order. That's why the disclosure wasn't in yesterday's print edition right?

And, sure enough, at 2:15 pm, the NZ Herald published 4  this story containing the previously suppressed name.

However -- the NZ Herald's website had already, unwittingly, been carrying this information since 1:16 pm -- apparently in breach of the still active suppression order.

How could this happen? Why would a responsible publisher seemingly operate in breach of a suppression order?

Well the answer is simple -- they likely didn't know they were doing it. That's because the name had been published by some member of the public calling themselves "Nude Boy" who posted the information to the NZ Herald website's discussion forums.

4  This screenshot shows the posting that visitors could read yesterday -- note the time it was posted.

As an online publisher who has, on several occasions, used online forums as a method of encouraging debate and increasing traffic levels, I'm very much aware of the risks involved.

If such forums are fully automated (as are the NZ Herald's) then the publisher would appear to be protected from prosecution if they are abused by some delinquent user -- so long as any postings which are offensive, defamatory or breach the intellectual property rights of others are removed as soon as they're detected.

I'm not sure however that this protection would apply to the breach of a court order covering name suppression -- perhaps a reader with the necessary legal qualifications would care to comment?

There can be no doubt that, if you have enough vocal readers who act responsibly then online forums are a real boon to your site. However, it only takes one idiot to ruin such a facility for everyone. What's worse -- if your site has little traffic to start with then your forums can become mute testimony to that fact.

Having had the forums on my own site repeatedly hijacked by a small group of idiots, I've opted for a moderated feedback system that sees me approve (although I do not edit) each piece of feedback before it is published. While this definitely slows down discussion, it is the most effective way to guarantee the quality and relevance of such contributions.

Forums -- Friend or Foe? The answer is that they can be both. Tread carefully!

From Yesterday
There was a very positive response to the prospect of Aardvark Weekly being revived in PDF format -- it seems that Aardvark readers spend a lot of time at their conveniences and paper still rules in the toilet!

Several offers to supply a copy of Adobe Acrobat were also forthcoming and I'll get back to those making the kind offers today -- then it's full steam ahead.

Another common request was that Aardvark be made available in a format suitable for the Palm Pilot (also allowing "convenience" browsing) and as a result I am currently preparing an AvantGo channel that will be announced shortly.

Also, after yesterday's request, I did receive a few emails from people working on entrepreneurial projects despite the current climate of gloom and I'll be doing a feature on some of them in an upcoming issue. It's not too late to have your efforts included though, so tell me about them.

And, don't forget that tomorrow is "Lighten Up" day -- so if you've come across any little humorous gems on the Net, please let me know now so they can be shared with Aardvark's readers.

As always, your feedback is welcomed.

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Copyright © 2000, Bruce Simpson, free republication rights available on request