Oh I'm sorry, i didn't know it was a rebellion.....|
These days, the Franklin Telecom thread on the Silicon Investor financial message boards is a bit
On July 24, Silicon Investor (www.techstocks.com) suspended five of the thread's regular
participants, charging that the group was plotting a "group rebellion" against the bulletin-board
Terry Widner of Louisville, Ky., who goes by the screen name of Jack Sman, is one of the regulars
left on the thread these days, but he says the place just isn't the same anymore.
"This thread is essentially dead," says Mr. Widner. "It's a shame, because this used to be a great
thread. It offered a lot of constructive information."
As individual investors flock to Internet stock-discussion forums, censorship has become a
troublesome issue for those who operate on-line message boards and chat rooms. Webmasters
spend hours reading through e-mail complaints from board participants, reviewing questionable
posts and taking action against those who have broken their rules. And software developers are
coming up with ever more intricate means of allowing board participants to self-monitor their
The way Web site operators respond to the rowdy and raucous masses that populate their forums
reveals a lot about how they view their roles as overseers, and shows much about where they
stand on the perennial American debate over free speech.
For its part, Silicon Investor says it does not actively patrol its boards, but will investigate
complaints from board participants and delete posts or ban people it deems to have run afoul of its
rules -- most often for the use of foul language, personal attacks, spamming, solicitation or hyping
The controversy surrounding Franklin Telecom, a Westlake Village, Calif., producer of Internet
telephony products and services, arose over posts made on a thread devoted to the company by
ValueSpec, a board participant who refuses to reveal his or her identity, but who frequently posts
negative comments about the company. Franklin Telecom is a developer of Internet telephony
technology. Many posters, including Mr. Widner, consider ValueSpec's posts "antagonistic."
"I question ValueSpec's motives for posting since he or she claims to have no position in the
stock," says Mr. Widner.
Board participants bombarded Silicon Investor with requests to censor ValueSpec or allow them to
tune him out. Instead, Silicon Investor co-founder Jeff Dryer decided it was the complainers who
"We feel that ValueSpec posts his opposing viewpoints in a fair way. It is often the pro-FTEL
participants who submit messages that are considered personal attacks," says Mr. Dryer.
Over at the Raging Bull (www.ragingbull.com) financial site, where the five former SI members now
congregate to discuss the stock, founder Bill Martin believes it is his site's responsibility to provide
board members with tools to self-censor the boards. Raging Bull offers a feature that allows a user
to block out posts made by board participants whose language or views that user finds
The feature has been a powerful draw. David Neece of Porterville, Calif., known by his screen
name Orangegrower, was won over by it because it allows him to weed out posts by the
naysayers, hypsters and impostors he says often populate the boards. "A lot of us were fed up with
the idiots on the Yahoo! [Finance] board. We pushed for an 'ignore' feature, but they wouldn't do
anything," says Mr. Neece.
Mr. Martin of Raging Bull believes that his site's "ignore" feature is not so much a tool of censorship
but a technology that heightens the civility of his boards. "We've found that very few people use the
ignore feature, but it does act as a deterrent," says Mr. Martin.
Raging Bull also has programmed a unique feature into its message boards that cuts down on the
use of foul language. Common swear words or vulgar expressions typed into a post appear on
screen only as a series of pound (###) signs.
Perhaps the most monitored of the bulletin-board communities are those of the Motley Fool
(www.fool.com). It plucks posters from its boards to join its staff as paid moderators of board
David Forrest, head of Motley Fool's discussion forums, doesn't view the role of the moderators as
one of censorship.
"Nobody likes a Big Brother watching over them," says Mr. Forrest. "The primary reason for their
presence is to engage users and make sure they're enjoying their on-line experience."
Nevertheless, the moderators are watchdogs. Motley Fool offers a "Fool Alert" key that allows
board participants to praise or complain about fellow participants, and the moderators do warn
offenders and remove people from their boards.
And, Mr. Forrest says Motley Fool is working on a feature similar to Raging Bull's "ignore"
technology that it calls a "kill file." The site used to offer this feature, but it slowed down response
times, he says. By reinstating the feature, Mr. Forrest says Motley Fool will be giving users the
same option that television viewers have to surf past objectionable material with a remote control.
At the other end of the spectrum, Yahoo Finance! (quote.yahoo.com) takes an extreme hands-off
approach. Not surprisingly, the boards have gained a reputation as an on-line Wild West. But Mike
Riley, producer of Yahoo Finance, believes his laissez-faire approach has the weight of Internet law
"The courts have come down on the side of the Internet as a marketplace of ideas, rather than a
medium that needs to be heavily policed," he says.
Last year, when the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, a provision of
the 1996 Telecommunications Act that made it a crime to transmit indecent material to minors, it
left one crucial section intact: on-line publishers of information provided by a third party cannot be
held liable for the content they transmit.
"The real weight of this ruling is that the Internet was granted the highest level of First Amendment
protection," says Nicole Wong, an attorney of Internet law for Hosie, Wes, Sacks and Brelsford, a
San Francisco law firm. "It affirmed that it is not possible to edit the Internet and that to require that
would break down the Internet."
Ms. Wong believes the court ruling was on target, but thinks legal protections will not prove to be
the best way to regulate financial message boards.
"Any legal or policy solutions will be outpaced by technology," she says. "Operators of on-line sites
will figure out what the market wants in a way that law can't answer as efficiently."
Intertwined with the censorship debate, many believe, is the issue of on-line anonymity. That
anonymity creates an environment in which people can create and spread rumors with no
substance and do a lot of damage in the process, charges Tyler Thatcher, manager of investor
relations at Iomega Corp., the Roy, Utah, maker of data-storage and backup devices for personal
"Iomega is a poster child for this debate," Mr. Thatcher says. "Our stock was discovered in 1994 by
the retail investor just as the bulletin boards were beginning to proliferate. We were a small
company going through a period of tremendous growth, and a lot of the stock's volatility was due to
the message boards."
While Mr. Thatcher says Iomega is far less affected by on-line chat today, he does occasionally
ask board operators to delete fake press releases that find their way onto the boards, or to remove
posts of people posing as company employees claiming to have inside knowledge.
In the end, however, board participants themselves will probably dictate how the issue of
censorship plays out. Silicon Investor acknowledges that user pressure like that coming from the
Franklin Telecom thread could force it to change its stance on the ignore feature, at the least.
"We don't agree with it -- we think it just lets people create their own utopias. But if demand for it
grows greater, we'll have to consider it," says Silicon Investor Webmaster Jill McKinney.
Paranoid delusional SI. Jeff....you need to mellow out dude!