BOSTON — The line between free speech and vandalism can sometimes be fine. Is graffiti spray-painted on a building free speech? Or is it vandalism?
Now, a new kind of software program brings these issues to cyberspace. Third Voice software allows Web surfers to post virtual "sticky" notes on Web sites. And Web-site owners can't remove them.
Sounds scary, doesn't it? Before you can post a note or read one, you need to download the Third Voice software, which includes a registration process. Once you're on a site that you feel deserves a note, you must launch, then log on to Third Voice. When the program is activated, you can see if anyone has left a note. Just click on the note marker and a window opens with the comments.
To leave a note, highlight the text you want to comment on. Then decide if you want the note to be private (only seen by you), group (a selected group of people), or public (everyone with Third Voice software). Then - much like any forum on the Web - you write the note, give it a title, and post it to the page.
Many Web surfers will see Third Voice as a benefit. After all, who hasn't wanted to make a comment about product information or a news story that seems false or misleading?
But the potential for abuse is enormous. Imagine the sort of note that will be left by anti-abortionists on abortion-rights sites, or vice versa. Or on sites run by gay or lesbian organizations. Or even sites run by religious denominations. What's particularly disturbing is that no site can remove these notes once they're attached.
The company that created Third Voice says it won't restrict comments. But it will take complaints about offensive or illegal speech, and determine if it will remove them. But with only 26 people on staff, it's a big Web to keep an eye on. (Currently, the software is only available for use with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 browser.)
Is it free speech or vandalism? I love the Web and believe it's a real boon to society. Still, now and then I stumble on a Web site or software program that looks promising, but turns out to contain more minuses than pluses, regardless of the intent of its creators. Third Voice is one of those cases.
*Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. E-mail Tom@csmonitor.com