26 July 2007

Today's bad idea: banning bloggers

I've given presentations to foreign government agencies on blogs and social media. My advice (among other things): don't do what Kentucky may have done. Here's a local example of why it's almost never a good idea to restrict or shut down a blog, following up on yesterday's post.

If Michael Inman is to be believed, it seems political censorship is alive and well in the Bluegrass.

Inman was the commissioner of technology for the Commonwealth. Mark Nickolas was the author of Kentucky's most popular political blog, Bluegrass Report. Nickolas didn't like Inman's boss, the Governor, and said so often. It's no suprise his writing irked more than a few people in Frankfort.

Nickolas' now-defunct blog, Bluegrass Report, was a regular read in the state house - until it wasn't. The state acknowledged restricting access to the site, along with a number of other sites, because it was regarded as non-essential to work. Apparently the problem was several political blogs with closer ideological ties to the party in power remained unblocked.

Nickolas, of course, donned his "banned in Frankfort" label as a badge of honor and used it to gain an even larger following, filing a lawsuit and getting mentions in global media. I remember reading about this whole episode and, to be candid, feeling somewhat suspicious about it. (I'm a Democrat, and as my sidebar shows, I've interviewed Nickolas for my column. I thought he was smart. So consider that as well.)

Here's where it gets interesting. Not long after the censorship dust-up, Nickolas gets indicted for failing to pay a rental car bill. Seriously - a judge issues a bench warrant for his arrest over a rental car bill. Then the local paper reports Nickolas was sued by a horse farm owner over another financial matter. Of course, the warrant is eventually canceled and the horse farm owner tells the media the lawsuit is really not a big to-do, but the damage is done. Not long after that, Nickolas decides to leave the state.

If the state government hadn't banned the blog, Nickolas might be known as just another loud-mouthed scofflaw who doesn't pay his bills. But because the state chose to elevate his profile, he's a first-amendment martyr and the victim of a political conspiracy. Now Inman is filing affidavits and lending credibility to Nickolas' story.

And since we're talking about the blogosphere here, this prompts bloggers to look into things, like whether the horse farm owner's name shows up on a list of people who recieved hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal support while the Governor was a Congressman.

Just so I'm clear, I don't think the horse farm owner ever did anything wrong. I also seriously doubt that a horse farm owner "pro-actively" called the media about his lawsuit. I'm guessing he got a call from a reporter who received a tip, and then he tried to downplay the situation like a gentleman would. He's probably as much a victim in this as anyone, and probably just wants what he's owed.

As a post-script, Nickolas is now off doing his thing in the Rockies. Nobody has really picked up where he left off in Kentucky - covering state politics from a rabble-rousing Democrat's perspective.

I think the Governor would have been better served if he simply re-iterated existing policy and started enforcing it. State employees know their web use can be monitored, and they shouldn't use state computers for personal use. If a political blog is "personal use" - frankly, I think a case can be made that reading political commentary is part of a political staffer's job - then issue a warning and then take disciplinary action if an employee is caught.

It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat - banning political sites is usually more trouble than it's worth. If I'm the Governor's technology advisor I tell him the resources we'd spend targeting and banning individual sites could probably be put to better use. If I'm his political advisor I tell him that banning Nickolas' site on state computers only raises his profile and gives a critic a bigger audience.

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