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Introducing Disqualifying Materials
By Wendy Sears -- November 5, 2003
If you look behind the scenes of any successful awards program you will see a flurry of activity.

Like some extravagant theatrical show the award program invites its audience to participate in what it hopes will be a well-tested flawless production. Behind the curtains people scurry, remembering lines, hoping not to miss deadlines and praying that the props work properly.

 

Wendy Sears
One of those important behind the scene activities is the constant monitoring of award winners. Monitoring is a tool used not only to ensure the integrity of links but also often to ensure that winning sites continue to comply with the award program's criteria. Award winners earn their right to be listed within award programs. They have paid their entry fee, by meeting the award program's criteria. But what happens when, having gained entry, they subsequently introduce disqualifying criteria?

Rules are rules!

If a member of the audience breaches the theatre's rules then that member may be ejected. A theatre has a right to set its own rules and in purchasing the ticket the customer is agreeing to abide by those rules. Is this any different from an award program imposing sanctions against award winners because of questionable changes made by the award winner's site after the award has been given?

There is an assumption of course that the award winner realises that changes within his site could result in his award being revoked. But what about the situation where the award winner is unaware of the rules, either because they are non-existent or unclear or so deeply buried that no reasonable person could be expected to have know them.

Imagine the theatregoer purchasing a ticket and settling down in his seat, only to be ejected from the theatre for loosening his tie or taking his shoes off. It would hardly seem fair to point out that on the back of his ticket, in fine print, there is a statement that visitors must comply with rules that are held in the box office.

It is clearly important that the award manager makes his rules clear. A great deal of effort is made to ensure that written qualifying criteria are clear, concise and understood by all. Just as much effort must be expended in ensuring that rules relating to those who have already attained an award are in writing, clear, concise and easily understood. To this end, it is good practice not only to post such rules within the award program, but to draw these rules to the attention of the award winner when distributing an award.

But some things are obvious?
An award manager might argue that the introduction of certain disqualifying site changes after attaining an award would be so obviously unacceptable that an award winner would clearly know that there would be consequences. Anything this obvious would surely not need to be put in writing. No one would think of telling a theatregoer that constantly barracking the actors or uttering obscenities could result in their ejection. This is so obvious it does not need to be said. Similarly, award managers might argue, certain acts such as the promotion of racism, or the use of profanity would naturally result in the revocation of an award.

However there is a danger in relying upon the 'so called obvious' in preference to written rules. Firstly, what is obvious today may not be so obvious tomorrow as attitudes and standards alter. Secondly, a successful award program attains and retains its reputation, in part, through the impartial and dispassionate implementation of its rules. If sanctions are imposed because of breaches of implied rules, then what is to stop an award manager from implying a whole host of rules beyond those written on the pages of the award program?

A right to evolve!
We have talked about the right of award programs to impose sanctions where an award winner alters his site after receiving an award and the need for the award program to make clear in what circumstances sanctions may be imposed. But perhaps the question that should be asked is, is it ever a good thing to do? A site gains an award because it meets the criteria at the time of evaluation. Surely, to impose sanctions against a site that endeavours to evolve can never be right. Is this a case of the award program's criteria constraining a site's development?

Perhaps the answer depends on the site changes made. Let us place such changes into five categories:

  1. Behavioural Changes: e.g. Where the award winner publicly and consistently insults the award program or its officers.

  2. Changes of Ethos: e.g. Where the subject matter of the winning site totally changes, especially where submission was limited to sites containing or not containing specific topics.

  3. Changes contrary to Legislative Requirements: e.g. Where COPPA or copyright legislation is breached

  4. Changes contrary to Good Taste: e.g. Where profanity or hate is suddenly introduced.

  5. Changes contrary to current Good practice: e.g. Where horizontal scrolling becomes evident or the right mouse button is disabled.

It would arguably be difficult to find anyone who would criticise an award program for imposing sanctions where the winning site introduced any changes identified in categories 1 to 4.

A webmaster who openly and persistently criticised the provider of an award could hardly expect magnanimity on the part of those being criticised.

A site that received an award from an award program specialising in awarding sites about music could expect a request for the award to be returned where all musical content was subsequently removed from the winning site.

Sites failing to comply with legislation could rightly expect the award program to ask that they 'shape up or ship out'.

Finally, sites that suddenly indulged in, promoted or encouraged hate could hardly complain at the revocation of an award. Could the revocation of awards in the four examples above be seen as stifling the evolution of a site. Some, although I suspect very few, might view this as such. However, if rules relating to revocation of awards in these instances are in writing, then such revocation would not only be justified but undoubtedly would be applauded.

What about Category Five?
But what of the fifth category - the situation where an award program penalise sites for introducing elements that are contrary to currently perceived 'good practice'. Why indeed should sites be penalised for taking their sites into new directions, for experimenting, for challenging the perceived norms?

The simplified answer would be 'because the rules of the award say so.' And indeed that is the right of the award program.

But are such rules bad rules. And if so can imposing sanctions for breaches of bad rules, even those in writing, ever really be supported. One can understand measuring a site against disqualifying criteria of this type to determine eligibility. But to penalise a winning site for subsequently introducing horizontal scrolling, for example, is surely draconian.

Perhaps we are looking at this question from the wrong angle. Perhaps we should look at this issue from the perspective of an award giver. If an award program establishes criteria which an applicant must meet to gain an award, then what is wrong with expecting the award winner to maintain the standards as set by that criteria? Admittedly there is a degree of rigidity in this 'my way or the highway' policy. But what is the alternative…A Laissez-faire approach where the award program treats award applicants like examination candidates, marking their sites against the criteria, giving them a passing grade and then allowing them to go on their merry way. This laissez-faire approach would almost encourage award applicants to make their sites compliant in order to gain an award and then almost immediately, change their sites.

A possible compromise?
When it comes to the application of disqualifying criteria after an award has been attained a possible compromise springs to mind. An award program could introduce a system of time limits, beyond which an award winner could introduce changes that might otherwise have disqualified the site.

Obviously such a system would not be appropriate for all changes made to a site ( for example changes that breached legislative requirements or which were hate in nature would have no acceptable attributable time limits.) However this would be an ideal system regarding changes relating to current good practice. It would be for the award program to be prescriptive about the waiting periods applicable to specific disqualifying criteria. The load time placed on each disqualifying criterion would depend on the importance the award program placed on the issues.

One could imagine seeing criteria such as the follow:

  • Awards will be revoked where the disqualifying criteria is introduced within the following time-scales:

  • Right mouse key button disabled - within six months

  • Horizontal scrolling - within three months

  • Commercial Element - within 1 calendar year … and so on

The use of timescales is nonsense of course unless the award program has a systematic process in place for the monitoring of its winners' sites. Monitoring is vital. In addition the imposition of different timescales would be a bureaucratic nightmare to police. So the provision of one set timescale for all criteria would be more practical.

Such a system could perhaps satisfy those award managers who wished to see a genuine commitment on behalf of award winners but would not be so prescriptive as to hinder future experimentation and development.

What sanctions should be imposed?
The question of the sanctions to be imposed is an interesting one. The more draconian award programs might demand summary execution but would undoubtedly settle for instant removal of the award. Others might impose other sanctions ranging from suspension from the winners' list to reduction in the level of the award.

In any event, whether an award program operates a system of strict liability or allows for a process of mitigation, good practice would dictate that the erring site be informed of any identified infraction and of the consequences.

Conclusion
So is it a good thing to impose sanctions on a winning site for subsequently introducing disqualifying material? The jury is still out. In the final analysis, if such a policy exists within an award program and it is made clear to all applicants before submission of their sites for evaluation, then the question of good or bad becomes an irrelevancy. It simply becomes a question of whether the applicant can live with this policy and whether the award program has time to monitor winning site to ensure enforcement.

Copyright 2003
All Rights Reserved
Wendy Sears

About the Author
Wendy is a law graduate who is currently employed as a health and safety adviser for local government in England. She has been creating websites for over three years and was the awards manager for the retired Assess Risk Website Awards program. She is an advocate of computers for all, from 9 to 90, and believes we have only just begun to scratch the surface of this media's potential. She also believe that there is such a wealth of talent out there that remains untapped because of a misguided belief that the internet is the sole province of the pre-pubescent. It is a pleasure to correct this myth where-ever she hears it espoused.

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