Off the Beaten Track - when Free Opinion collides with Censorship

One of the great things about the world wide web is that it has always been open to everybody and free to use. Because of this, the internet has become for millions around the world the venue to express themselves, share information and use as a versatile learning/research tool.

Being familiar with life in a country under staunch communist dictatorship, however, I also know very well what it means to not have that freedom and face censorship. It becomes ironic then, that in a society that preaches freedom of opinion and free press, websites should moderate reader feedback and enforce a policy of publishing only select information. Websites that by virtue rely on readership and depend heavily on page views for ad revenue.


Normally I wouldn't make a big deal about websites or people that ignore feedback - it's their loss at the end of the day, not mine. One of the reasons behind my creating lgpOnTheMove is to present information that others fail to cover. But I also won't hesitate to point out things that just aren't right, and I ran into such a situation recently.

James Kendrick authors the Mobile News blog at ZDNet. I have been a stubborn critic of his work way back to the days of jkOnTheRun, which has since been sold to GigaOM. I was impressed with his extensive coverage of the HP 2133 mini note, a device that at the time received a lukewarm reception from other media outlets. Yet James churned out video after video on his orange and black blog, demonstrating the device with a hands-on approach, showing real-world usage and offering up critical opinion paired with solid written content.

Of course, our opinions can also differ greatly when it comes to mobile gear as we have varying requirements when it comes to working on the move. On more than one occasion, article discussions have become intense when opinions clash. And not necessarily because those opinions were wrong or right. I will always welcome constructive criticism and a healthy debate any day of the week.


ZDNet has been known more lately to have issues with spam, so trying to get links posted in article comments is a no-go, despite that sharing useful links adds to the reader experience. I've never been one to distribute spam, but feel compelled to share information when that complements material, provides a contrasting viewpoint, or depending on the mood, encourages a little bit of humor.

Sucks trying to make your voice heard
You can imagine my reaction then when I was greeted to this rather unfriendly message (shown) when commenting on a recent article. Yet the comment written contains absolutely no reference to spam whatsoever, rather is a direct response to a reader comment submitted earlier, and points to information actually mentioned in the article.

Too aggressive spam control? Censorship gone out of hand? According to the author, who I contacted directly explaining this issue, this is an automatically-generated response from the system. In his own words, I should "chill out", and that there is "no evil" going on here. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. But I'll also make it clear that whatever their spam control admin was smoking that night, my comment in no way required any moderation.

Additionally, I was told that my comment would no-doubt appear once it had been cleared by the site moderator.

That was over one week ago!!!

Needless to say, my comment never appeared in the thread.

Again, I wouldn't be making a big deal about it - mistakes can happen. Except this isn't the first time I have had ZDNet's spam commissar purge a perfectly clean comment. Safe to assume, then, that if something is going wrong more than once, it's no longer a mistake any more.

It's open to speculation why my comment failed to appear, except WHY is not the pressing concern. What disappoints me is that ZDNet is following a policy of preventing freedom of opinion, by introducing measures that effectively BLOCK reader input.

You would think that knowledgeable readers could get around the problem by avoiding usage of content that triggers the above message. Unfortunately I have found it impossible to determine exactly what content triggers this annoying message in the first place, nor does ZDNet's system provide a clear explanation. Inserting HTML links in the comment field is no longer allowed, and even regular text now comes under what I feel is unnecessary scrutiny.

My information from James has revealed that even his own comments to reader feedback have triggered the same annoying response. That an article author must have his comments moderated to participate in a discussion on his own work is simply absurd!

Giving free speech a chance
Here on lgpOnTheMove, and any other site running the Blogger CMS, comment moderation is completely optional. Authors can choose to have it on or off, as well as delete reader comments from posts at any time. I admit I have only once had the need to delete a reader comment, and don't moderate comments explicitly to promote freedom of opinion. That's not to say though that I won't deal with spam at all, and can and will report users that place spam on my site as one of those options. Of course, I could argue my site's traffic is far below that of ZDNet, making my effort magnitudes simpler.


I certainly understand the widespread problems spam creates on a website with multiple authors posting as many articles per day as ZDNet handles. Yet there are better ways to tackle the issue than outright block free speech. Since commenting requires registering a username, it wouldn't be too difficult to track down those who go around the usage terms and conditions and have those accounts deactivated. Username registration should include proactive account/owner verification, and it would be easy for the site's admins to toggle off comment moderation for trusted accounts. In a similar fashion, many other sites use IP blocking to curb offenders that have been flagged as spam. If ZDNet wants to make spam control effective, the website is going to have to get it's act together, or risk losing readership to competing tech sites.

I feel very much obligated to share my negative experience, not to pick a bone with James or ZDNet in general, but because I want to be able to comment freely and share my thoughts on articles where I know I can provide valuable input. Every tech site has it's own usage conditions and peculiarities, but out of the handful I frequent, I have never had such problems posting comments and links as I've encountered using ZDNet - that alone should indicate there is something seriously out of the norm.

Censorship is an ugly word and an unpleasant experience to have to live through. I don't like being muzzled one bit, and I don't need an iron fist in my face either. ZDNet as an online venue should actively encourage reader feedback. Yet their existing comment moderation method goes against that - and becomes a failure - when users have that ability to express their opinion taken away from them.

For the big dogs at ZDNet who may be reading this, it's a situation that cannot continue and needs to be addressed in a timely manner. You cannot risk losing readership tackling a problem caused by a reckless few at the expense of legitimate users. I am confident there is a solution that can help the site without creating a complete disaster.

As a reader, I would certainly like to keep ZDNet on my bookmarks list and continue visiting the site daily. It would be very unfortunate if their inability to get their reader feedback system working as it should results in a loss in viewership.

Now, if you will excuse me while I go "chill out".

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