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Citizens for Limited Taxation

Public debates head to the Internet Sunday, July 24, 2005
Theresa (Edo) Freeman 508-626-3919 Metrowest Daily News
Dan was worked up that Marlborough officials have spent close to $1 million to rehabilitate the Olde Central Fire Station.

"This type of City Government, has become a JOKE, but for the city taxpayers who pay for it, it's not very funny.  This is getting old, and it stinks!"  Dan wrote Thursday.

Someone named "Wondering" was interested in Dan's thoughts.  "That's one white elephant but what's the status of the old St. Marks boathouse the City purchased a couple years ago???" Wondering wrote back.

This is an example of an exchange at the online "Speak Out! Community Talk" section of http://www.marlborough.com.  It is one of many online discussions, focused on MetroWest topics, dotting the Internet landscape.

Marlborough.com's Webmaster, who declined to comment on the site or to identify himself, has posted policies for anyone who wants to join in.

"The Marlborough Web is a family/community site intended for people of all ages," the policy states.  "We require that you do not post anything that is libelous, pornographic, obscene, or otherwise violates the law.  Remember that free speech is both a right and a responsibility."

Many online discussions have rules banning libel, sexual content, obscenity, violations of copyright laws and crimes, but often the postings are self-monitored by the Web site's authors.

Steven Orr runs several e-mail mailing lists, including frambors, short for Framingham neighbors, that focuses on town government, and framcom, for Framingham community issues.  After five years, frambors has 800 individual subscribers, he said.

"The goal is that it should be an un-moderated list, but that doesn' always work," said Orr.  "I do not allow any rudeness to occur."

Users can subscribe to the list at http://frambors.syslang.net/.  Messages posted to frambors are sent via e-mail to its subscribers.

Orr said he hopes to keep discussions focused and relevant, but some topics get shut down or users are restricted when they do not follow the rules.

"The point of this was to increase communication in Framingham for the purpose of making people aware of what's going on in town," said Orr.

Orr asks that there be no discussion of illegal immigrants on frambors because, he said, previous postings got heated and overwhelming.  But he said he encourages debate on a huge spectrum of issues including development, conservation, public works and the town budget.

"If I was to allow people who only agreed with me, I'd be out of business overnight," said Orr.

Melissa Sherman, spokesman for the Middlesex district attorney's office, said she believes the DA would not become involved with online discussions unless they were being used to commit a crime, such as child pornography or unauthorized use of a computer.

"I think that's one of the big problems.  There are very few laws that apply to the Internet," said Sherman.

A lawsuit in Smyrna, Del., could be the first of its kind to challenge online attacks published in a Web log, or blog.  The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., reported July 10 that Smyrna Town Council member Patrick Cahill had filed suit in Superior Court for defamation, libel and slander from four separate screen names on the Smyrna-Clayton Issues Blog.

But first, the court is trying to identify the bloggers -- known only as John Doe 1, 2, 3 and 4, or Proud Citizen, Screwed U All, Saw It All and Me Too -- to serve the complaint.  A judge is ordering Comcast Cable to reveal the bloggers' computer addresses.

The postings about Cahill referred to exaggerated body parts, infidelity and drunkenness.  Talk like that has no place in civil discussions, administrators of some local sites said.

Some MetroWest sites take a more hard line approach to confronting town officials.  Launched in April, www.lies-in-ashland.com has initially challenged the Ashland Police Department and selectmen on alleged wrongdoings.

The Web site is registered to Katz Global Domain Name Trust, a Tucson, Ariz., company that offers services to help its clients protect their anonymity online.  The Webmaster, who identified himself via e-mail as John Smith, and who signs his e-mails "Justice," claims to be a "30-something-year-old man living in Ashland," who is not a police officer.

"I cannot ever let anyone know who I am," Smith wrote.  "I will most definitely get sued for everyone else's comments here for providing the vessel, and never be able to leave my driveway without getting pulled over by Ashland's finest."

Right now, most of the site's postings are focused on police and selectmen.

Anonymity is a top priority for the site.  People are more willing to comment on the town's "controlled chaos" when they do not have to give their name, Smith said.

"The problem is the government in Ashland is too selfish and weak willed to deal with its problems," Smith charged.

Joshua Ostroff, administrator of the "Cafe" message board at www.natick.info, said there is a lot of nonsense on the Internet that users have to sift through.  The Internet is a public space, and people should treat it that way, he said.

"Because of the nature of the Internet, there's always going to be people who are going to ask questions, questions they have the right to ask, but they ask in a way that's counterproductive," said Ostroff.  "If it becomes a shouting match people are not going to participate."

Citizens and officials must communicate with one another, Ostroff said.  Natick's Cafe has 145 registered users, and it has received more than 6,700 postings and more than 90,000 visits in the past three years.

"People read it to get the pulse of the town," said Ostroff.  "It's a great way to eavesdrop."

The Web site www.walpole.org was shut down for weeks in March after derogatory remarks appeared on the site about a member of the Elm Street School Naming Committee who voted against renaming the school after a deceased school official.

"My vision for the site has always been to be used as something positive and useful," said Gerry Nelson, who has run the site since 1998.  "Our intentions have always been for something respectful, positive and useful for the town."

After the flap in March, Nelson reopened the site, but required users to sign up for an account.  They can remain anonymous, but Nelson can shut down their accounts if they misuse the site.  He also added a "What I like about Walpole" discussion thread.

Walpole.com poster Mike Iwanawicz said he has heard people in coffee shops and at selectmen's meetings talking about the site.  The Internet provides a simple way to initiate discussions, he said.

"He (Nelson) has provided something which no one else has," said Iwanawicz, a columnist for The Walpole Times and host of a local cable television show.  "It's a window into communication and information."

Mike Doukas and Charlie Findlen founded www.towncommon.net to offer online discussions for all towns in the state.  The Franklin residents developed the concept out of the now defunct Franklin Forum online message board.

"We talked about it and said, 'Hey, what Franklin goes through is what other towns go through,'" said Doukas.  "We're not taking a side, and that's probably the most important thing."

With the rule "be civil," Town Common is aimed at sharing information about topics such as overrides, trash fees, teachers' salaries, health care costs and energy costs, Doukas said.  They hope the site can be a long-term endeavor.

"We're not looking to get anything out of this.  We're just trying to make sense out of a very complicated world," said Doukas.

Many, like Harold Wolfe, who runs www.smocingham.org, www.no-more-overrides.com and www.abetterframingham.com, agree the Internet is a cheap way to communicate a message.  Wolfe is the only one who posts information to his sites, like Wayland School Committee Chairman Jeff Dieffennbach.

Dieffennbach, who runs the blog at www.waylandschoolcommitte.org, said it is a way for the committee to comment on issues that are discussed informally among residents and in the media.

"It's been purely a response forum," said Dieffenbach.  "We're trying to create a record of what we think (about certain issues), like an electronic paper trail."

But with freedom comes responsibility, many said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense weighed in on the issue recently.  Donald Rumsfeld, in an opinion article in last Monday's New York Times, wrote that technology enables us all, including "bloggers," to share information faster than ever, but the government and the public must use it wisely.

"The availability of new communications media can inform and illuminate as well as lead to new challenges," wrote Rumsfeld, who advocated for a "healthy culture of communication and transparency between government and the public."

Bloggers were posting their critique before the ink dried on Rumsfeld's column.  In the end, it's all about communicating and with the Web, more are doing it themselves.

Send comments to: hjw2001@gmail.com