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The unbalanced relationship between customer and provider

A friend describes how he returned from Paddington late one afternoon, when the station and trains were busy, and was delayed by two hours by staff who refused to accept his ticket, even though it was valid. He felt uncomfortable - threatened by staff who at one point even called in a "Gorilla" to threaten to eject him from the station, even though he was simply looking to exercise his right to travel on a ticket which I believe was completely valid - and indeed which they agreed was valid in the end.

Had the boot been on the other foot - had my friend blocked a member of the railway staff going about his valid legal business for two hours, my friend would have been in all sorts of trouble, facing arrest, sanctions, and possibly more serious consequences. But because it was the railway people who got it wrong, all they had to do was smile sweetly (and some of them did say "sorry") and that's regarded as matter closed.

There's a lack of symmetry in relationships like this - and that's a general feature of these whale and minnow / us and them / provider and user type relationships. Before Christmas, I picked up on a (I felt) rather drastic assumption by the Wiltshire Police, which I questioned. Their support officer appeared to be assuming guilt in certain cases - a very serious matter - and I question him on that. Numerous promises of a reply, a promise to come round and talk to me, but he's convenienetly neglected to do so and is probably hoping that I've forgotten the matter. I haven't, and I'm now wondering how he would he reacted if I had avoided answering his questions for a month - I suspect he would have been less than happy with me and would have taken sanctions.

I'm afraid that neither of these is isolated cases. I too have been in "trouble" for using valid tickets because (I'm assuming) the railway employee didn't properly understand the validity. And I have had a couple of other issues with the Wiltshire Police - which pale into insignificance behind a couple of other incidents in Melksham of which I know / where I have been on the peripehry in recent years. Each time ... I try to let time heal, to say "perhaps lessons have been learned and it's better now" ... but (alas) I'm mentioning current stuff / new incidents in recent weeks here.

Of course, it's very easy to have the boot on the other foot. An enquiry from another friend about an online forum (NOT ours) where the administrator has acted in quite a different manner to the way he requires his users to act had me thinking not only about the imbalance of rules / setups in those cases, but also about how we do things when we're running our own forum. His particular issue was with the other forum's administrator (a) Reading personal messages between members, (b) Commenting in a public post about a member he had banned in very uncomplimentary terms and (c) threatening to ban my friend too unless he responded sharpish to a question about what the wrote in a personal message.

Here's my "take" on the position of the site owner on a public forum

The agreement you "sign" when you join an online community such as a formal is typically unbalanced What you (as a user) agree to is not agreed to in equal and opposite measure by the operators of the forum unless they say so. For example, they may say "you may not advertise" but that's not to say they won't advertise to you. And they say "you may not invade someone's privacy" but that in itself does not mean that they can't do so.

As a forum administrator, it is very tempting to try to "control" your users. There are elements of where you have to do that - for example to stop signups / posts for the purpose of bulk unsolicited advertising of products which are completely irellevant to the membership and would dilute the forum beyond irritability to the point of unusability. And you also have to ensure that you (as the admin / owner) aren't liable for hosting copyright breaches, hateful material, indecent material, material which incites or assists in the commititng of criminal activity.

But how far do you go as an admin? There's a temptation to stop users expressing views you don't agree with, and to stop users from talking about sites which you may be considered to be competition. There's often an element of conflict here, with users who sign up (for free) having a general view that there's a "freedom of speech" on the internet, and that they should not be restricted. In my experience, it's wise to have stated policies for the administrator team, publish them, and keep them as unrestricting and trusting as possible of your regular / long term / genuine members. You'll find a lot of this in the welcome board on our forum.

I have been asked the question "how far, legally, can an admin go"? I'm no legal expert, but as stated above the rules that a user agrees to when he signs up must not be assumed to be equal and opposite in the other direction. In the UK, the admin needs to be aware of the cookie laws, of data protection / registration laws (which, however, may not apply to a "club" type site where everyone is a voluntary member). And whilst the standard forum software packages usually keep things like private messages (PMs) between members carefully, and avoid them being read widely (or indeed by the moderators and admins), I would be hard pushed to find any legal basis if it wasn't in the forum agreement that they must be kept private. Morally, I think it's wrong to read personal messages - but the temptation can be there for an insecure admin who fears that a member has signed up purely to contact members who are susceptible to be poached to a competitive site, and wants to know if such conversations are going on. At the end of the day, the admin can say "it's my site, my rules, and my interprettation of my rules. If you don't like it, you can leave".

I will add one caveat. We are all subject to laws such as defamation, discrimitation, equallity, harressment, copyright, decency, incitement, libel, commercial contract laws that we sign up to, etc. And that includes administrators. So a site owner can only post up that "Walter was banned because he slept with my girlfriend" or "Sheila has been banned for poaching people to a competitive site" if he can prove that in a court of law ... though in reallity it's pretty unlikely that either Sheila or Walter would take it that far, except on a point of principle. There *are* people who takes these things further on principle - we've come across four (to my recollection) over the years who have threatened us as admins over what has been posted. In two cases, the complaints were about copies of quotes from reputable newspapers, which we found amazing. In another, a retrospective copyright restriction was applied so "please help us by pubicising this" became "please take this down - you don't have our permission to still have it there". And in the final case, an individual felt he was close to the description of someone in a post, and that it was aimed at him. In all 4 cases, it should be noted, that the protagonist would not have had to use their personal funds to take the matter further (insurer, 2 x legal aid, 1 x public body on taxpayer's money). As admins in all four cases (and that's not a bad number with 166,000 posts!) we have simply removed the post or thread from pubic view. In three cases, we made it very clear that this was a pragmatic action - we felt that we had done nothing incorrect, but didn't have the time or inclination for a principled fight over something petty. In the final case, a court judgement against the paper we had quoted was brought to our attention, and we had a very friendly exchange with the person concered and sorted it on really good terms.

And in relation to the First Great Western Coffee Shop?

It's probably worth saying ...

a) The general ethos is that if you treat the moderator and admin team as you would wish to be treated, they'll treat you as a member or as a guest in the same way

b) For the most part, moderator and administration actions are positive - answering questions, welcoming member, helping keep topics in the right place, and so forth. Where something may necessite something more, it's discussed around the moderator team and if need be enquiries are made, without going public, unless immediate action is needed.

c) The forums is strong and it shares views, including those which are not held by the moderators, openly. And we don't mind people talking about other forums, services, etc. We do draw the line at advertising of unrelated products (especially by people who sign up just to advertise), and posts which facilitate law-breaking - such as those which provide information on fare evasion (mind you, such information can easily and accidentally be posted, and the issue is usually solved with a coulpe of messages rather than by waving a stick)

d) Personal messages are NOT read. There might (at some future date) be a time that we're legally required to divulge something, and there mignt be times where I in my technical role of database admin have to check data if we have s problem, and said messages might flash up on my screen as I sort things out / debug. It's never happened yet, though.

e) We try to be as open as possible with policies and decisions, making sure that there's published details of what actions are and may be taken, and why. Occasionally, such as when we're looking to reduce the number of "spam" signups (they can drown out genuine ones!) we'll not publish the algorithms.

f) We try to keep as much of the information on the forum as we can public - after all, we're a forum for passenger and we want casual / occasional visitors to be able to gain from the site with the minimal of requirements on them

g) We are free from advertising and signup fees. In the future, funding the service could become an issue, so I'm not saying "never", but any steps taken would be reluctant and measured.
(written 2015-01-21, updated 2015-01-24)

 
Associated topics are indexed as below, or enter http://melksh.am/nnnn for individual articles
G903 - Well House Consultants - Running and moderating forums and social media sites
  [4492] Almost so wrong, but perhaps it's right for some? - (2015-05-11)
  [4315] Welcoming genuine forum posters quickly - but turning away off topic advertisers - (2014-11-16)
  [4307] Identifying and clearing denial of service attacks on your Apache server - (2014-09-27)
  [4283] Can a legitimate forum post become illegal a year later? - (2014-07-11)
  [4239] Facebook marketing - early experiences - (2014-01-19)
  [4234] Change to Libel and Defamation laws from 1st January 2014 - (2013-12-31)
  [4065] Handling requests to a forum - the background process - (2013-04-17)
  [4025] Backups, Codebase, Strategy and more - dealing with forum incidents - (2013-03-03)
  [4017] Acceptable User Policy / vexatious interacter - (2013-02-24)
  [3910] Identifying your real customers and keeping them well informed fast - (2012-11-02)
  [3479] Practical Extraction and Reporting - using Python and Extreme Programming - (2011-10-14)
  [2820] Netiquette for forum newcomers - (2010-06-20)
  [2781] The 500 pound question to get you started - (2010-05-26)
  [2569] How to run a successful online poll / petition / survey / consultation - (2010-01-10)
  [2527] Flying tonight - (2009-12-05)
  [2526] A reluctance to move from old shoes to new - (2009-12-05)
  [2386] Computing under the influence of alcohol - (2009-08-29)
  [2254] Forum membership - a privilege not a right - (2009-06-22)
  [2177] Preventing forum spam - checks at sign up - (2009-05-12)
  [2162] Admins thoughts on banning a member from a forum - (2009-05-09)
  [2156] Stopping forum spam - control of the signup process - (2009-05-04)
  [2116] Why do we delay new forum members through authorisation? - (2009-04-03)
  [2103] Ask the Tutor - Open Source forum - (2009-03-25)
  [1972] Pettifog and forum boards away from public view - (2009-01-03)
  [1923] Making it all worthwhile - (2008-12-04)
  [1759] While the world sleeps ... - (2008-08-19)
  [1678] Software - changes and delays. But courses must run on time! - (2008-06-15)
  [1595] First Great Western Weekend - (2008-03-30)
  [1578] Please don't shout at me! - (2008-03-16)
  [1569] I dont care - goodbye - (2008-03-09)
  [1563] Guidlines for posting on a forum - (2008-03-04)
  [1539] A forum is not always the best vehicle - (2008-02-14)
  [1532] Comment spam blocked. Please comment via Forums - (2008-02-05)
  [1523] Ive just received an email from myself. Should I be worried? - (2008-01-29)
  [1485] Copyright and theft of images, bandwidth and members. - (2007-12-26)
  [1472] The Horse goes on and on - (2007-12-15)
  [1362] No Thank You - (2007-09-23)
  [1190] Save the Forum - A regular clean sweep - (2007-05-17)
  [1088] Why use BBC code not HTML? - (2007-02-21)
  [948] Running an on line campaign - (2006-11-27)
  [923] Why shouldn't I spam? - (2006-11-13)
  [919] Freedom for X is denial of privacy for Y - (2006-11-09)
  [841] Forum help - a push in the right direction - (2006-08-21)
  [828] Freedom of speech and freedom to post - (2006-08-10)
  [806] Check your user is human. Have him retype a word in a graphic - (2006-07-17)
  [651] Please Register with Opentalk - but just once! - (2006-03-19)
  [516] Open source questions? Anyone can ask. - (2005-12-03)
  [424] How not to run a forum - (2005-08-24)
  [248] Use me, but use me effectively - (2005-03-16)
  [231] Feedback as lifeblood - (2005-02-28)
  [204] The confidence to allow public comments - (2005-02-06)
  [130] Spelling and grammar - (2004-11-25)
  [115] Expiration dates or times on web pages - (2004-11-12)
  [29] Silence is Golden - (2004-08-26)
  [22] Falling out over the silliest things - (2004-08-21)


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Python - even named code blocks are objects
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Backup procedures - via backup server
Which (virtual) host was visited? Tuning Apache log files, and Python analysis
The unbalanced relationship between customer and provider
Finding sum, minimum, maximum and average in Python (and Ruby)
Selecting RECENT and POPULAR news and trends for your web site users
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The Campus in Melksham - name, logo, and livery choice
Accessing variables across subroutine boundaries - Perl, Python, Java and Tcl
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This is a page archived from The Horse's Mouth at http://www.wellho.net/horse/ - the diary and writings of Graham Ellis. Every attempt was made to provide current information at the time the page was written, but things do move forward in our business - new software releases, price changes, new techniques. Please check back via our main site for current courses, prices, versions, etc - any mention of a price in "The Horse's Mouth" cannot be taken as an offer to supply at that price.

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