Creative Commons License photo credit: onnola

I co-host the Copyright 2.0 Show every Wednesday with Jonathan Bailey and we talk a lot about how you enforce copyright on the web, to ensure that creator or owner rights are respected.

What happens, in many of these cases, is that people are taken offline or removed from a certain situation, but they return to commit the same offenses under a different name.

One of the more recent stories that triggered this type of situation was the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) domain seizures where one of the websites that used a domain name that was seized came back online by changing to a new domain name.

And it’s no different from forums or online communities, where you ban members and they return. Some refer to this as “whack-a-mole,” a reference to an arcade game where you whack plastic moles as they pop up. They may go back down momentarily, but they will be back.

Because of this, some people have suggested that the effort of banning, in and of itself, is futile and not worth the effort.

What’s at Stake?

In order to put this in the proper context, we have to carefully consider what is at stake.

If we’re discussing banning, you most likely have some guidelines – or standards of some sort – for your community. I do and we try to give people a lot of chances. We inform them when they violate our guidelines and tell them what went wrong. We answer questions and try to guide people as much as possible. We try to help them to participate in a proactive manner.

But, there are certain people who continue to do the same thing over and over again. There are people who tell you and your staff to buzz off, because they are going to do whatever they want to do on your website. People who demonstrate that they have no interest in treating your staff, your guidelines or your community with respect.

At this point, you are presented with a choice. In so many words, the choice boils down to this: do your guidelines mean anything or are they merely a suggestion? And if they are more than just a suggestion, what is the repercussion when you spit on them? And not a temporary repercussion. Not a game. What is the final repercussion? What’s the last straw?

It has to be some form of expulsion, some blocking of access – a ban, in other words.

Also at stake is the credibility of your site and what it is for. Is what these people are doing really what your website and your community is about? Think about that carefully.

For example, Twitter has been shutting down accounts that are being used to promote distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against companies who have refused to do business with Wikileaks. E.B. Boyd at FastCompany refers to this as “playing whack-a-mole.”

Me, personally, I applaud Twitter for having some vision here, applying their terms of service and not letting their service to be used to promote these illegal activities.

Now, Twitter is a little different from your average community with different expectations. But, they do have terms of service and there is no reason that they should not be applied. Can Twitter shut down all illegal activities on their service? No. But, that is no reason to ignore what they are aware of. Ignoring is the type of action that creates a bad reputation.

But, They Can Just Come Back!

Creative Commons License photo credit: rachoww

Can they? What I’ve found in general is that most of the people that I ban stay banned. A small, though reasonable percentage of people try to come back at least once. A very small percentage tries multiple times. And, of course, there is a small percentage of people who come back and are never caught.

But, that comes as a cost. They have to effectively change who they are and not be themselves in order to ensure they won’t be caught. They have to be careful not to use a name they referred to themselves as previously, not to use an e-mail that has their old username in it, not to have the same website in their profile, not to use the same IP, etc.

Once their first account is blocked, they can no longer use it. They can sign up for a new one, with a different e-mail address. But, the moment that we reasonably realize that it is the same person, that account is blocked and, once again, they must start over. New profile, new name, zero post count, completely unestablished.

This requirement to start over is a serious penalty to many, if not most people. Part of the enjoyment that people derive from community is that, over time, they establish a presence and become well known within it – they become an established member. If you start from square one, that takes away that pleasure. So, even though they can come back, they can’t exactly come back – if you get my drift.

This is similar to the ICE domain seizures. While, yes, the websites can launch on new domains (for the time being, at least), the domain name that they used had established credit online with people and with search engines. That has tremendous value. You can come back online, but that established presence you had with that domain name is gone. It hurts.

The tools we have at our disposal, as community administrators, are unfortunately very limited whereas the tools Рor circumstances Рthat people might use the violate our communities are much more varied and complex, in a manner that makes it difficult or impossible to prevent Рmaking it more a  matter of reacting and cleaning up messes.

Beyond normal username and IP banning, there are always efforts to improve and innovate and you should check out the resources for your specific software. Troll hacks, global ignore, Tachy Goes to Coventry and similar can be very effective. You can also report the worst of the worst to their ISP.

It’s always easier to be the attacker than the one preventing the attack. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth using the tools that we do have in the very best manner possible.

What’s the Alternative?

Another way to answer this is: what’s the alternative? Do you enforce your guidelines only up to a certain point? Until people make it clear to you that they don’t want to follow them and then you just let them do what they want? Or maybe you continue to remove their violations forever, and allow it to become a time suck for you and your staff, for a member who has no interest in following your guidelines and being a serious contributor? Maybe you just get rid of your guidelines.

And if you ban a member and then let them circumvent it by creating a new account, what do your bans mean? Do they have any integrity? So, if they’re banned, they can just come back?

And if you do all of this, where does it lead you? In my opinion, not a good place.