A month ago, a special committee of the Israel Press Council recommended changing its code of ethics to include Israeli Internet content sites under the term "newspaper." It was seemingly a reasonable thing to do. Many people get their news from Internet sites, especially during working hours. If the Press Council accepts the recommendation, those sites will be required to meet the ethical standards of the Press Council.
But once the awe over the Press Council's responsibility and concern for Israeli Internet users passes, it will become clear that the decision is meaningless. If you thought the council had provided a clear and precise definition of "a content site" or an "online newspaper," you are wrong. The committee members explained that they deliberately did not define these terms, in order to allow the ethics tribunal to use its own judgment. On what exactly will this panel base its judgment? The criteria will no doubt include whether a site is credible. But that is essentially a subjective criterion. Many sites, which appear bizarre to some, are perceived by others as a source of credible news and information, and even scoops.
The mainstream media's sites are in any case subject to the Press Council's codes of ethics, since they are already connected to the traditional press. The same holds true for other mainstream sites, such as Walla or MSN, which make use of content from veteran media outlets like Ha'aretz or Army Radio.
The Press Council is deliberately ambiguous about basic concepts like "newspaper" or "journalist" because it wants as much freedom as possible for itself and for journalists. If that was their intention, why the urgent need to add another vague definition that does nothing to change the status of the Internet in the Hebrew media? Can anyone see how the committee's recommendation will help either the "online" press or the press in general? How can one welcome a recommendation that cannot be explained? No matter how you look at it, it is odd.
The Israel Standards Institute announced last week that it will start issuing a standards rating for sites. Seemingly, that is also a reasonable thing to do. Internet sites provide a service to the public, sometimes offering items for sale or asking for personal information. There is no reason why they should not meet tough standards that ensure that what is advertised is credible and that the site is secure when a surfer hands over personal information.
But after welcoming the responsibility and concern for the consumer displayed by the Standards Institute, it becomes clear that the promised standard is very odd, and that its main purpose is to funnel money into the institute's coffers. First of all, there are already a number of veteran organizations that set such standards in the online world. Some of these examine the level of security - and the international standards are far more stringent than the one proposed by the local institute.
Secondly, the international bodies conduct ongoing tests to make sure that their rating of the site's integrity is justified.
The Israel Standards Institute only examines sites once every six months. What will happen to a site that, two months after winning the approved rating, goes wild and starts harming consumers? Nothing. Will the Standards Institute take responsibility if it turns out that after making an initial effort to win its approval, a web site owner betrayed the trust of the site's visitors? No. And will the Standards Institute examine all those aspects meant to help web site visitors, such as whether the site is accessible to people without Microsoft's web browser? Forget about it. No matter how one looks at the Standards Institute's new "rating system," it is toothless and meaningless.
A few months ago, the Education Ministry opened an Internet forum for kindergarten teachers. The purpose at first was to allow the teachers "to conduct fruitful, focused discussions about pedagogical issues in early childhood education." That appeared to be a reasonable thing to do. The kindergarten teachers, like many others in Israel, are online. There is no reason not to use the Internet to take part in a useful forum that helps the teachers professionally.
But after welcoming the ministry's creativity and the way it is taking the trouble to raise the professional standards of teachers, one discovers that there is a limit to the ministry's pedagogic tolerance. When the teachers began expressing their views about the contradictory instructions issued by the ministry and the teachers union over whether the kindergartens should be opened while the kindergarten aides were on strike, the ministry decided to close the forum, because of "insults and incitement against the ministry director-general and ministry professionals." No matter how one looks at the welcome initiative, one finds that as always, the Education Ministry is at the forefront with respect to openness, criticism and real understanding of the online medium.
The Press Council, the Standards Institute and the Education Ministry would do us all a big favor if they would stop trying to tame the Internet with hollow, outdated methods.
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