Bloggers’ Rights and Blogophobia

With the news of another weblogger losing his job because of posts on his weblog — this time Joe of the Woolamaloo Gazette — the issues of what webloggers can and cannot expect to be able to post on their weblogs has started bubbling ’round the blogosphere again.

This time, Ellen Simonetti of Queen of Sky, who lost her job as a flight attendant due to pictures she posted on her weblog, has started a project she’s called the Bloggers’ Bill of Rights. I’ve had a few people e-mail me about this (including Ellen herself), but I’ve been holding off on posting anything about it until I’d had some time to think about it.

The Bloggers’ Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights reads as follows:

We, the inhabitants of the Blogosphere, do hereby proclaim that bloggers everywhere are entitled to the following basic rights:

FREEDOM TO BLOG.

FREEDOM FROM PERSECUTION AND RETALIATION BECAUSE OF OUR BLOGS:

  1. If an employer wishes to discipline an employee because of his/her blog, it must first establish clear-cut blogging policies and distribute these to all of its employees.
  2. Blogging employees shall be given warning before being disciplined because of their blogs.
  3. NO ONE shall be fired because of his/her blog, unless the employer can prove that the blogger did intentional damage to said employer through the blog.

Blogophobic companies, who violate the Bloggers’ Bill of Rights, will be blacklisted by millions of bloggers the world over.

After running this around in my head for a couple days to be sure of where I stood on this, I’ve got to admit that I may end up taking a rather unpopular stance — but I can’t help but think that while I appreciate the ideals behind this, this particular effort seems rather silly, pointless, and unlikely to be of any real consequence.

First off, there’s the simple fact that this is not a real “Bill of Rights” in any real legal sense (which Ellen has made sure to call attention to). Well-intentioned as it is, it carries no weight whatsoever beyond that which the participants give it, and as the sole participants are going to be those webloggers who sign on to it, it makes the whole thing pretty one-sided.

As for the three points of the Bill:

  1. If an employer wishes to discipline an employee because of his/her blog, it must first establish clear-cut blogging policies and distribute these to all of its employees.

    While a specific, targeted, “clear-cut blogging policy” sounds good, and there are a few companies starting to implement such things, I ‘m not entirely sure if it’s a necessary thing in most cases, and it seems rather redundant if you’re working under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

    Terrance has been thinking about this side of it more than I have:

    But what should a corporate policy on blogging look like? That’s something I never quite got back to wrapping my brain around but seeing this list of people who were fired for blogging got me thinking about it again.

    For employers, assume that your employees are going to blog, and establish clear guidelines to guide them should they choose to do so. Make the penalties for not abiding by the policy clear, such as under what circumstances an employee will be warned and under what circumstances an employee will be terminated where blogging is concerned. And, of course, one of the best things to do is to set an example by starting a company blog if appropriate.

    If you’re publishing something to the ‘net, then you need to think very carefully about the fact that you’re publishing something. The ‘net is a public forum. You’re not talking to one or two friends over a pint in the local bar — you’re putting that information out for Google and the entire world to see. Even if you generally only have a small handful of friends and family visiting your website, if the site is publicly available, than you have a potential audience larger than any printed newspaper or magazine on the face of the planet, and once a post is made, it makes no difference whether your words were printed with ink on paper or electrons on a screen.

    If you’re under an NDA, than it’s blindingly simple: don’t talk about anything covered by the NDA. Period. Hopefully nobody’s foolish enough to question that.

    If you’re not under an NDA, it may seem a little hazy, especially without a blogging policy in place. Many people think that attempting to blog anonymously, using pseudonyms for their co-workers or employer will keep them safe. I tend to think that that’s a somewhat naïve belief, something that I’ve talked about in the past (when I chose to start weblogging under my given name, and again when I was wrapping up my experiences with Microsoft). Really, it’s very simple, and boils down to common sense: if something you write might get you in trouble, assume the worst before you post it for the world to see.

    Maybe it seems a little overly paranoid — but while there are times when it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, that’s not a game that I think is very reasonable when it comes to your employment.

  2. Blogging employees shall be given warning before being disciplined because of their blogs.

    Oh, how I wish I’d been given a warning and the opportunity to delete my offending post! I don’t have any problem at all with this clause — in fact, I think that in quite a few of the cases where webloggers have been dismissed from their jobs (including mine, Ellen’s, and Joe’s), a warning or even mild disciplinary action on the part of the company would have been far preferable to simply firing the offending employee.

    However, that’s a decision that is solely up to the company. We as webloggers can sign all the agreements, petitions, and Bills of Rights that we want, but it’s the employer that makes the final call, not the employee. My one hope is that as more of these cases come to light, more employers will realize that they’ll receive far less bad publicity and word of mouth by requesting that the offending material be deleted and reprimanding the employee, rather than simply cutting all ties as quickly as possible. However, until and unless that happens — and some companies may decide that it’s not worth the risk of keeping the employee around, even with the potential bad press — it’s far better to err on the side of caution (at least if you’d like to continue receiving a steady paycheck).

  3. NO ONE shall be fired because of his/her blog, unless the employer can prove that the blogger did intentional damage to said employer through the blog.

    First off, and most importantly, again, this is solely up to the discretion of the employer.

    That said, how does one define “intentional damage” — and why “intentional”? What if an employee were to blog about a project of a co-workers that they’d been peripherally involved in, only to find out later that it was a secret project? They weren’t part of the main team and hadn’t signed a specific NDA regarding that project, so any damage that publishing that information may have done to the company wouldn’t have been intentional — but that wouldn’t mean it was any less damaging to the company, or that the employee was any less at fault for having disclosed the information.

    What we as employees, customers, and webloggers see as damaging might be (and likely is) far different from what a company would see as damaging, especially if we can be seen in any way as representing the company. Joe Shmoe on the street saying “Product X sucks” is one thing, a programmer on the Product X team saying the same thing in their weblog is very different, even if the average reader might not know that the weblogger is associated with that project.

In the end, it really boils down to something very simple: it’s the employer that holds the cards. That certainly doesn’t mean that they should be able to get away with doing anything they wish (as has been demonstrated many times over the years through unions, strikes, and so on), but it does mean that the employee needs to take their employer into consideration before publishing work-related subjects to their website.

Lastly, about this “…blacklisted by millions of bloggers the world over” bit. Nothing personal to Ellen or anyone else who’s signed, but so far, there’s all of 44 signatories to this — a far cry from “millions of webloggers.” Plus, even if this did gain traction and there were millions — or even thousands — of participating bloggers…blacklisted?

So, anyone who has signed or is about to sign this thing is pledging not to mention or support any of these companies in any way? That’s going to be interesting to see. Apple‘s on that list, so there better not be any Mac users — and if there are, then I hope they’re not planning on covering the Macworld Expo that starts tomorrow. Microsoft might be on the list, too. With both Apple and Microsoft on the list, I assume that everyone who’s signed up so far are either currently using Linux, some Unix variant, BeOS, or Amiga computers, or about to make the switch. Starbucks is on there — that’s going to seriously cut into the number of Seattle webloggers that sign up.

Anyway, you get my point.

Is Microsoft ‘Blogophobic’?

Apparently, there’s been a fair amount of back-and-forth discussion in the comments to Ellen’s list of Blogophobic companies as to whether or not Microsoft should be listed, with my experiences being one of the more prominent arguments for why they should be. Ellen e-mailed me tonight to ask my opinion.

In short: Absolutely not.

What, you’re surprised? The guy who got booted off the Microsoft campus for posting a picture on his weblog doesn’t think that Microsoft belongs on the Blogophobic list?

Damn skippy I don’t. I’ve had the same opinion of what happened to me ever since the incident took place: I made a mistake, and while I think Microsoft could have handled the situation better than they did, they were entirely within their rights to do what they did.

From my wrap-up posted two days after I was ushered off campus:

Who’s to blame? In the end — me. I really don’t blame Microsoft for their actions. By my best guess, they saw me as breaking the rules…and decided that rather than give me a second chance and run the risk of me doing something similar in the future, it would be better to just cut me loose before I could do any more damage. [...] I may not like the way that they handled this. [...] However, I cannot fault them for making the decision that they did, however much I wish that that they had made a different decision.

As the old saying goes, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” Not only did I happen to be one of the first highly-publicized cases of a major company dismissing someone for a weblog post, but that company was Microsoft, which added a whole new angle to the stories. Not only was Microsoft dismissing someone for reasons that many people would find trivial, but the person they were dismissing was an admitted fan of traditional rival Apple’s products — and it was a photo of those very products which triggered the entire thing! You couldn’t ask for a better setup than that for another round of Microsoft bashing.

However, as with most things, it’s hardly that simple. There are two major reasons why I don’t believe my experiences should put Microsoft in the “Blogophobic” category.

  1. I was in the wrong.

    As I’ve said before, I made a mistake. I may wish that Microsoft had taken a different approach after finding my post, but it was my mistake, and I paid the price. Life goes on.

  2. Microsoft supports weblogging.

    Robert Scoble has been a prominent and prolific Microsoft weblogger for quite some time now, since long before I was dismissed. He’s also quite good a what he does — I may not always agree with him (apparently they forgot to stock the snackroom in my building on the Microsoft campus with the right Kool-Aid), but he’s a fan of Microsoft’s work, and he writes what he believes.

    He also doesn’t just blindly fawn over everything Microsoft does (though, admittedly, there are times when it seems like it). However, he knows the difference between saying something like “Product X sucks” (as in my example above) and saying “we need to work on this.” It may seem like a minor thing, but there’s a huge difference in tone there. I know I’ve seen him say that there are areas and products where Microsoft could do better, but I don’t think I’ve seen him out-and-out slam Microsoft for something.

    (There’s also one huge difference between Robert and I — he is employed directly by Microsoft, while I was a third-party contractor. The gap between being a Microsoft employee and being an employee of a temp agency who contracts you to a second company who happens to provide on-campus services to Microsoft is immense.)

    Beyond Robert, though, there are a multitude of Microsoft-employed webloggers. blogs.msdn.com currently lists 1,239 different weblogs — that really doesn’t sound like a company that’s afraid of letting its employees blog to me. I’d bet that every single one of those webloggers knows where to draw the line between what is and what is not permissible to talk about on their sites, too.

    Much as it pains me to point this out, too, I have to ask — are there any current Apple employees aside from Dave Hyatt weblogging? Not that I’m about to chuck my PowerMac G5 out the door, buy a PC and drink the Kool-Aid (at least that flavor, I’m still quite happy with my Apple-flavored Kool-Aid) over an issue as trivial as this, but if you really want to use this as a basis for comparing whether a company is blog-friendly or not, Microsoft really isn’t doing badly at all.

So, to sum up: The Bloggers’ Bill of Rights, while well-motivated, doesn’t look to me to be all that useful in the real world; Microsoft isn’t ‘Blogophobic’; and I talk a lot when given the opportunity. Geez. See what happens when someone actually asks my opinion on something? Over 2,400 words on whether people should be surprised when they get canned for being snarky about their job on their weblog.

You’re probably better of leaving me to play with silly online quizzes and memes. Less pain for your newsreader, at the very least. ;)