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    A follow-up discussion with the FT Tilt editor mentioned in this article raised the following correction:
    1. The editor is not an FT Alphaville editor but an FT Tilt editor. FT Tilt is another Financial Times online media venture separate from the Alphaville.

A recent personal conversation with a Financial Times Tilt editor over the FT Alphaville’s commenting guidelines highlighted the grey area of editorial control in online financial discussion forums.

The FT Alphaville website - an online blog provided by the Financial Times

How does the FT define the grey line?

The email exchange called attention to issues of comment traceability, which personally involved signing entries with my initials and blog address, and a blog’s own editorial duty of comment moderation and splogging minimisation.

Unfortunately, the conversation did hit a few stumbling points along the way revealing the grey line between having an open discussion forum and a responsible editorial review.

Personally, I still remain of the opinion that comments, at least within a financial discussion forum, should be signed with a transparent reference to current professional activities. The email discussion (surnames and personal contact details are redacted) is available at the end of this post.

    Background On The Australian Public Debate Over Online Financial Discussions:

Interestingly enough, from a legal and public debate standpoint, the issue of online editorial policies was certainly topical to the recent financial crisis and the ensuing regulatory concerns over online discussion abuses.

In Australia, the regulatory environment I am most familiar with, financial advisory information and discussion are highly regulated and directly covered by the federal Corporations Act (2001) and its financial services amendments, as set out section 7 of the act (the relevant excerpt of the act is attached below).

This area of law was actually referred to back in 2008 when blanket bans on financial short sales were instituted in Australia. Speculation over ‘rumourtrage’ were used, in part, to support the ban: the argument being that the market had gone mad and that therefore short-term opportunists were taking advantage of open forums, and the legislative exemption granted to them, to manipulate the information flow.

Unfortunately, no evidence was ever really provided to support these claims, even though ASIC, Australia’s corporate watchdog, was assigned to increase supervision of these supposed activities. It would seem, with hindsight, that the political debate was, ironically, pushing rumours about rumours in order to support their own stabilisation efforts.

    Background Over The FT Alphaville Editorial Guidelines Discussion

My discussion with the Financial Times editor highlighted a peculiarity that is often the norm within online forums: ie that these forums are aimed at public discussion but with a high level of potential anonymity. Indeed, as my argument with the editor expanded, it became evident that signing my name in a post, a signature that included my current activity as a blogger notably via a link back to this blog, was, according to the editor in question, contrary to the Financial Times online discussion commentary and discussion guidelines. An argument that I found contrary to the need of maintaining clear accountability, even at an online level, over financial information and advice discussions.

The editor’s position was confusing especially as the formal terms & conditions of the forum did not detail any such limitations regarding signatory texts, as long as such comments were kept within the topic and spirit of the online discussion.

However, it would appear that this editorial guideline was one set out at the discretion of the FT Alphaville editorial staff. Though I can understand that the FT chooses to maintain editorial review rights over public comments, I was surprised that this should extend through to signatures over such comments.

Indeed, just to re-emphasise my previous point, given the recent public debate in Australia over such online forums, I thought it would be preferable, if not advisable, to maintain clear accountability within the public arena.

    The Ethics of Journalism In The Online Era:

The printed press, our contemporary fourth estate, are indeed entrusted with giving us an editorial safeguard against spurious, defamatory or discriminatory remarks. Journalism, in large part, has developed a strong code of ethics, sometimes codified and other times implied, in order to confront these issues.

These involve the ability to verify primary sources, to quote and be accountable for publications but also to ensure that a domain of ‘freedom of expression’ is maintained and expanded (please see below a collection of links to journalistic ethic codes or you can reach the SPJ’s own code here).

Screen shot FT Alphaville

Is signing a post unacceptable these days?

However, one of the problems that these editorial guidelines have created, at times, is the risk that the editorial policy may itself become a barrier to free ‘expression’. Essentially, the defences set forth to maintain a ‘freedom of expression’ can in and of itself become a hindrance to this very liberty.

Once again, this is not a clear black and white debate where lines can be easily drawn and barriers easily set forth, instead, there are many grey lines. We understand that there must be an ongoing discussion and an ongoing review of these ethical boundaries, in part to continue supporting the invaluable work of editorial teams but also to ensure that information, however contentious, can still reach its audience when the need arises.

As to online forums, the recent outlier exhibited by the WikiLeaks website is often touted as a textbook example of how information, unedited and too easily disseminated, can become too dangerous when set without appropriate editorial oversight. However, the inverse case is also presented: that it is only through open channels such as WikiLeaks that sensitive and confidential information can easily be disseminated and open for public review.

    So What About Blogs And Their Potential for Unrestrained Information Dissemination?

I am of the opinion, and this was a case I recently made in another blog post, that information does need to be discussed openly. However, it is only common sense, that such discussions must maintain, much like the initial secondary source publications, levels of accountability and traceability.

But how does one enforce such accountability without then restraining the forum of open discussion? Given that the technology that enabled this discussion forums are, in large part, built upon technical foundations of anonymity and privacy, how can a responsible media provider maintain its duty to abide by its professional code of conduct and ethics?

    The Case For Open Policies:

My answer is quite simply to confront the problem like-with-like. If an environment is open and aims to promote discussion then simply ensure that the policies that guide editorial review remain open and transparent. In other words, ensure that appropriate disclaimers are set out, ensure that open and clear editorial policies are spelled out and, by extension, ensure that it is these open and publicly available standards that then guide editorial review and discussion moderation.

As mentioned above, it is understandable that editorial teams develop discretionary policies but these are perhaps best kept away from the open online forum arena. To apply such methods almost runs contrary to the very spirit of these forums and that is why, given this desire to gain the momentum afforded by open forums, that we should ensure the openness of such editorial guidelines.

Given the recent financial turmoil and the abuse of public forums as a convenient scapegoat in support of certain questionable stabilisation policies, it is all the more important that modern and market leading forums set the example towards an effective and safe arena in public discussion.

Being an avid reader of the Financial Times, both in my current form as a blogger but also in my previous role as an analyst for Macquarie Bank, I still respect the standards and market leading investigative reporting of the journal. The daily newspaper manages not only to deliver incisive reporting but also to do so in a captivating and exciting form given its core focus on financial and economic news. But this regard for high quality content should also be maintained in its support for open and accountable online forums.

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    (ea) the service is the provision of general advice and all of the following apply:

      (i) the advice is provided in a newspaper or periodical of which the person is the proprietor or publisher;
      (ii) the newspaper or periodical is generally available to the public otherwise than only on subscription;
      (iii) the sole or principal purpose of the newspaper or periodical is not the provision of financial product advice;

    (eb) the service is the provision of general advice and all of the following apply:

      (i) the advice is provided in the course of, or by means of, transmissions that the person makes by means of an information service (see subsection (6)), or that are made by means of an information service that the person owns, operates or makes available;
      (ii) the transmissions are generally available to the public;
      (iii) the sole or principal purpose of the transmissions is not the provision of financial product advice;

    (ec) the service is the provision of general advice and all of the following apply:

      (i) the advice is provided in sound recordings, video recordings, or data recordings;
      (ii) the person makes the recordings available to the public by supplying copies of them to the public and/or by causing the recordings (if they are sound recordings) to be heard by the public, causing the recordings (if they are video recordings) to be seen and heard by the public, or the contents of the recordings (if they are data recordings) to be displayed or reproduced for the public;
      (iii) the sole or principal purpose of the recordings is not the provision of financial product advice;

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from: Stacy-Marie to tariq.scherer@gmail.com
date: Wed, Sep 8, 2010 at 10:18 PM
subject: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments. It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.


Stacy-Marie
W: http://ftalphaville.ft.com

    from: Tariq Scherer
    date: Wed, Sep 8, 2010 at 10:20 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments. It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy,

    While do, I apologise for the inconvenience. I didn’t realise this was the site policy (perhaps a little disclaimer during login).

    Kind Regards,
    Tariq Scherer

    from: Tariq Scherer
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 6:36 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments. It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy-Marie,

    I am a bit disappointed by the email that I received last night. Reading from the FT’s own disclaimer rules (pasted below), I do not see how my behaviour are in conflict to the site’s stated commenting policies. 
    I have always posted comments both linking to the subject or in direct reply to other bloggers comments. Furthermore, I am not engaged in any adverse “splogging” or other untowards marketing technique, beyond the fact of presenting my own blog as part of my signature line.
    Given that blogs are designed to be open forums to engage discussion, I found it quite disappointing that the FT Alphaville seemed unwilling to let me post my own signature to my posts. Though I can understand that some posters prefer anonymity, perhaps others our hoping to continue a discussion online – beyond the confines of any particular forum. 
    I hope that the FT Alphaville can either amend or correct its blog commentary policies, failing which, I would hope to receive an apology for the unwarranted email received yesterday stating: “including your URL with your comments. It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated”. The email seemed to lack appropriate netiquette let alone accord with your site’s policies.

    With the Warmest of Regards,
    Tariq E. Scherer 

    fromTHE FT ALPHAVILLE TERMS & CONDITIONS: http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/rules-and-disclaimer/
    You may not:
    post, link to or otherwise publish any messages containing any form of advertising or promotion for goods and services or any chain messages or “spam” or to carry out “splogging” or similar;
    post, link to or otherwise publish any messages with recommendations to buy or refrain from buying a particular security or which contain confidential information of another party or which otherwise have the purpose of affecting the price or value of any security;
    post, link to or otherwise publish any messages that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, obscene, infringe copyright or other rights of third parties or which contain any other form of illegal content; * disguise the origin of any messages;

from: Stacy-Marie
to:Tariq Scherer ,
date:Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 7:24 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

Tariq,

There are many AV policies which are not written down but are nonetheless enforced by the team (see for eg ‘don’t be an idiot or a troll).
My email to you was not remotely exceptional. You are not being picked on; this week alone we sent emails to two other users similarly in breach.
Posting your URL does not add anything to the discussion. You are not even linking to relevant posts. AV is not designed to be a forum for self-promotion. I’m sorry you find that disappointing.

Best,
Stacy-Marie

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to:
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 8:45 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy Marie,

    Am I to understand this is formal Financial Times policy – ie editorial response policies that are opaque yet enforced by a ‘tea’? 
    It will make a great blog post over the ethics of internet blogs and daily discussions and I think you for giving me valuable primary source material to assist me in this.
    I hope that you can agree that it is only right that we discuss these matters openly.

    With Kind Regards,
    Tariq E. Scherer

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 8:51 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

Tariq,

Have I missed something? Having a very long day so my sarcasm radar is not up to par – “enforced by a tea”? Is that a piss-take about the FT’s British heritage? Inappropriate and unnecessary, if so.
Our policies are not opaque; if they were, we would just have banned you with no further discussion. Instead, I emailed to say, “look, what you’re doing is annoying/inappropriate/poor form”. We regularly engage in discussions in the comments about our policies (we’ve had spirited conversations about our Long Room access policy, for example) and whenever we are obliged to moderate a comment or in very rare circumstances, ban someone from commenting, we do so openly and
transparently.
You will see every day on FT Alphaville a member of the team saying something along the lines of, “alright, please keep the discussion civil” or “we have had to moderate that comment due to libel risk” or similar.
How that is not transparent, I cannot at all understand. We could easily make a list of every single type of behaviour that we do not encourage or tolerate, but it would run to a couple thousands words. Instead, we provide basic guidelines and inform users of other infractions that are not made explicit – as in your case.

Would you have preferred that I embarrassed you in the comments? That would be have very clear indeed. But frankly, not our style.

Stacy-Marie
FT Tilt Editor
W: http://www.fttilt.com

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to: Stacy-Marie
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 9:15 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy Marie,

    I do apologise for the typographical error. Indeed, it was an unfortunate mistake. I meant to type “team” and not tea, I then also continued on by typing ‘think’ instead of ‘thank’. I have attached below the amended version of that email. It certainly was not a joust at the FT’s british heritage, which would be quite un-self-serving given my own Australian heritage.
    However, I do maintain that open policies, especially as to blog commentary policies and html linking, remain in the best interest of all parties for gaining strong interaction with an engaged audience. That the FT Alphaville tries and maintain such discussion open, as you noted over your Long Room access policy is commendable, however, it remains an ongoing effort. These efforts are best guided by transparent policies or open discussion. Blogs were originally designed to overcome static editorial boundaries and not to become just another extension thereof.
    I was therefore perplexed to be ‘accused’ (I know the term is strong and I merely use it for lack of a better word) of “annoying/inappropriate/poor form” when all I was doing was merely ‘signing’ my name. Indeed, most other forums, small and large, provide the technical means for a commenters profiles (ie your sign-in login) to detail their personal website. Unfortunately, this avenue was not available to me on FT Alphaville. But again, I maintain, it is not considered poor form to sign a statement: whether this be on a blog or in the printed press.
    This conversation and the issues it highlights remain of interest for my blog nonetheless though I can assure you that I will present your response within the context provided and indeed present the thoroughness and accessibility of your staff as strong evidence of the professionalism displayed by your journal.

    With continued regards for the outstanding content of the Financial Times (no sarcasm intended as I am an avid reader),

    Tariq E. Scherer
    Open amended quote
    Am I to understand this is formal Financial Times policy – ie editorial response policies that are opaque yet enforced by a ‘team’?
    It will make a great blog post over the ethics of internet blogs and daily discussions and I thank you for giving me valuable primary source material to assist me with this.
     
    I hope that you can agree that it is only right that we discuss these matters openly.
    End amended quote

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 9:21 PM
subject Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

As a heads-up, the FT’s lawyers tend consider communications with FT staff ‘privileged and confidential’, so you would probably need to ask them before you publish communications only meant for you on a public forum. Happy to forward your emails.

Stacy-Marie
FT Tilt Editor
W: http://www.fttilt.com

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 9:31 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

Actually, and this would be much less involved than you talking to our lawyers, if you wanted to ‘interview’ me, anything that I said to you, you could consider on the record. I stand by everything I’ve said, so that would be easy enough to re-purpose. You’d just need to ‘ask’/email me questions.

Stacy-Marie
FT Tilt Editor
W: http://www.fttilt.com

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to: Stacy-Marie
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 10:18 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Thank you for the reply Stacie,

    Evidently I am not looking to get lawyers involved and incur more costs for either the Financial Times or myself for that matter. I was unaware of the ‘Privileged and Confidential’ nature of these emails up to this stage as I thought they related to Financial Times editorial guidelines and therefore pertained to the public record.
    However, given your invitation, I would like to forward you a couple of questions (properly prepared and without typos of course) as to how the Financial Times have engaged online discussions and editorial content following the shift in review/control occurring with online forums.
    I think this would not only prove to be a valuable commentary area for myself and my readers but also a topical subject as to developments in the financial press. In Australia ,notably, certain new regulatory framework hare being debated regarding the abuse of online forums. This is directly related to Australia’s legislative categorisation of ‘financial advice’, an area limited and regulated by the Australian Corporations Act 2001, but which is exempted when set with a disclaimer of “media and public release”. Interestingly enough, the Australian debate largely surrounds accountability, rather than the substance, of particular comments: ie the ability to trace back the authors of financial advice (e.g. signing a comment).
    Furthermore, I think it would be a valuable addition to the Financial Times own efforts in promoting its new Tilt media forum, an area I would be glad to include in my commentary.
    Would it therefore be alright if I presented this questions over to you by next Monday?

    With Kind Regards,

    Tariq Scherer
    PS though I understand that some of my comments might be construed, at times (though very rarely), as being from an occasional ‘idiot’, I still have trouble digesting the term ‘troll’. Really, I’m not that bad in person.

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 10:20 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

Looking forward to your questions.

Stacy-Marie
FT Tilt Editor
W: http://www.fttilt.com

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to: Stacy-Marie
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 10:43 PM
    subject Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’s not encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy,

    Just as an aside, and as you previously mentioned lawyers, if any commentary is limited to being ‘legal and privileged’ between editorial staff and the public then again such a process should be communicated out explicitly. I am ready to take legal threats directly, when such a need arises, but do not appreciate that legal principles, and the legal process, just be referred to in order to limit discussion (I do understand that this was not your intent).
    One can not merely suspend and or limit this legal knowledge or apply an expectations of such a framework within a commercial setting without appropriate disclosure. I have just reviewed in details the public legal disclosure documents available on the Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/servicestools/help/terms) and again no such exemption such as ‘legal and privileged’ (that in effect would be an estoppel to public discussion) was either stated nor referred to within its text.
    The common policy, in this regards, is to attach formal legal disclaimers as signature to all e-mails. This would probably provide a more reasonable level of assurance as to the nature, form and reach of any e-mail discussion.

    Sincerely,

    Tariq E. Scherer

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 10:50 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

Hi there,

That was in no way a legal threat. I have been absolutely open and forthright with you, but I get the impression you prefer to interpret events as suit your own opinions and purposes. If that is the case, I rescind my offer of further discussions.

Best,
Stacy-Marie

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to:
    date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 11:01 PM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with your comments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy,

    I understand your position. In light of the discussion breakdown, please feel free to forward the below discussion-thread to your legal department if you are concerned as to its usage or of any legal requirements that I may be contravening.
    I am assuming, however, that the ‘legal and privileged’ comment was spurious and not based on any firm legal footing unless your legal department can get back to me in time in this regards.

    Tariq Scherer

from:Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer , [Legal]
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 11:13 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with yourcomments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

Hi there [Legal] – please see below. Easiest to read from bottom up. Guidance appreciated.
As a note, based on standard Pearson/FT disclaimers I gather FT emails are “not for publication” unless otherwise specified. Can you advise?


Sent via BlackBerry, etc.

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 11:15 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with yourcomments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

Done. [Legal] is the FT’s chief legal counsel, but [legal]’s based in London and it’s quite late there, so I imagine [legal] won’t be able to respond until tomorrow.

Either [legal] or I will get back to you.

Best,
Stacy-Marie


Sent via BlackBerry, etc.

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 11:41 PM
subject Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with yourcomments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

Can you acknowledge receipt of those two emails please?

Sent via BlackBerry, etc.

    from: Tariq Scherer
    to:
    date: Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 6:49 AM
    subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL with yourcomments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

    Dear Stacy,

    I acknowledge receipt of the emails (currently located in France). As I am within [legal]’s time zone, I am willing to wait until end of today for [legal] reply.

    Sincerely,

    Tariq Scherer

from: Stacy-Marie
to: Tariq Scherer
date: Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 1:01 PM
subject: Re: Hi there – please stop including your URL withyourcomments.It’snot encouraged/barely tolerated.

Great, have forwarded that to her.

Thanks for getting my name right this time, and I’d really appreciate if you’d stop your thinly-veiled hostility, for which there are simply no grounds.
Best,
Stacy-Marie

Sent via BlackBerry, etc.

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