Back in the early days of the Internet those of us involved in putting some of the first sites on the World Wide Web foolishly thought it might improve the quality of communication and discourse in society.

Instead, the ‘Net is, in many ways, a cesspool that reflects the worst of our culture.

This story by Ellen Nakashima in today’s Washington Post caught my eye:

A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about “the daily ins and outs of being a mom” was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms — a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.

A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to “sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.”

Joan Walsh, editor in chief of the online magazine Salon, said that since the letters section of her site was automated a year and a half ago, “it’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men.”

Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post site is among the most prominent of blogs founded by women, said anonymity online has allowed “a lot of those dark prejudices towards women to surface.” Her site takes a “zero tolerance” policy toward abusive and excessively foul language, and employs moderators “24/7” to filter the comments, she said.

Sierra, whose recent case has attracted international attention, has suspended blogging. Other women have censored themselves, turned to private forums or closed comments on blogs. Many use gender-neutral pseudonyms. Some just gut it out. But the effect of repeated harassment, bloggers and experts interviewed said, is to make women reluctant to participate online — undercutting the promise of the Internet as an egalitarian forum.

The venom aimed at women is just part of the coarseness that threatens the ‘Net. An ongoing debate among web publishers questions the value of ‘Net-based commentary, especially when it comes to comments posted to news sites and web blogs.

I wrote this on Capitol Hill Blue in March:

Comments also play into a current debate among web publishers on the value, or lack of value, of allowing direct – and unmoderated — comments directly to news stories and opinion columns.

Over at Huffington Post, readers are required to register before being allowed to comment on stories, but that didn’t stop some posters from wishing that the suicide bomb attempt against Vice President Dick Cheney had succeeded.

Arianna Huffington ordered the posts removed and some of the posters banned.

“No one at HuffPost is defending these comments — they are unacceptable and were treated as such by being removed,” she told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.

The Post is grappling with the same problem as posters with vile agendas espouse racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred.

Kurtz says executive editor Jim Brady complains that he does not have the staff or resources to pre-screen the 2,000 daily comments that come into the Post site but has dedicated one staffer to delete offensive comments and ban authors of those comments when readers complain.

Yet many Post reporters and editors feel the tone of the comments degrades the image of the paper and makes life difficult for writers. Post reporters have had doors slammed in their face by subjects of stories because they were upset over comments posted on the web site.

Says Post reporter Darryl Fears:

“If you’re an African American and you read about someone being called a porch monkey, that overrides any positive thing that you would read in the comments,” he says. “You’re starting to see some of the language you see on neo-Nazi sites, and that’s not good for The Washington Post or for the subjects in those stories.”

Concludes Kurtz:

“What is spreading this Web pollution is the widespread practice of allowing posters to spew their venom anonymously. If people’s full names were required — even though some might resort to aliases — it would go a long way toward cleaning up the neighborhood.”

The explosion of blogs in recent years has added to the noise level of the ‘Net. Some blogs offer real information and thought-provoking commentary but far too many of the 71 million blogs that Technorati esimates now litter the Internet are exercises in vanity or platforms to preach hate and intolerance.

Some bloggers refer to themselves as “civic journalists” yet many of them refuse to abide by any code of ethics or conduct.

Writes Bob Steele on Pointer Online:

There are significant ethical questions embedded within this debate, a debate that swirls around and cuts beneath what we have come to know as civic, public, or community journalism. It is a debate that often gets bogged down in polarized positions, as advocates and critics stake out their respective territory. That polarization may ignore the common ground. It may prevent us from capturing the best elements of civic journalism while moving beyond those approaches that serve poorly both the profession and society.