Networks and Society
The glamour of network technologies is impressive, but it should not blind us to the social and intellectual challenges posed by new media. The real challenges are much more likely to arise from the people using networks for communication and information exchange than from the development of the technology to move large amounts of electronic information very rapidly from one place to another, though technology itself may enable new ways of meeting these challenges. It is the communication and information interchange aspects of the networks that provide benefits to our communities and also give rise to the need to examine how networks relate to culture and society.
NETWORKS AND CULTURE
Networks and culture can be examined from two perspectives: the nature of network culture (culture "in the small") and the impact of networks on culture at large.1
NOTE: In this chapter, all quoted material that is not otherwise identified originated with the individual noted, speaking at the November 1992 workshop.
It is clear that members of networked communities engage in social behavior. For example, these individuals have been known to "meet" each other in these on-line communities. At these meetings, they discuss personal and professional matters, find jobs, advertise their services, engage in "stalking" behavior, and become visibly angry.
On-line social interactions provide the behavioral basis on which much network culture is generated and reproduced; such interactions are also the subject of the behavior that is regulated by culture at large. As a general rule, culture can be regarded as a collection of three elements: (1) values, or general statements about the "desirable"; (2) behavioral norms, including etiquette and convention, that provide the basis for judging, in individual situations, whether a value is being observed, thus regulating behavior in the interest of implementing or reinforcing values; and (3) beliefs that provide history, mythology, and world view. All of these apply to networked communities in various forms. For example:
Many networked communities believe strongly in the desirability of unfettered communication. At the same time, many (especially those that reside on the Internet) believe strongly that commercial advertising traffic is highly undesirable.
People observe forms of etiquette and social convention in networked communities. For example, behavior that is regarded by community members as antisocial is censured through peer pressure and comments (but generally not censored). Even behavior as subtle as typing in capital letters has significance, in that TYPING IN CAPITAL LETTERS IS WIDELY REGARDED AS THE ELECTRONIC EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.
Networked communities have their own myths, their own equivalents of urban folklore stories such as alligators in the sewers. One persistently recurring myth is the report that some government agency is about to impose a modem tax that will make it prohibitively expensive for private users to use telephone lines to transmit data. The story may have some origin in truth,2 but it surfaces so
often as a "new" story that it can be regarded as the network equivalent of an urban folktale.
In short, network cultures exist because networked communities exist, and they are as diverse as any collection of human beings can be. Networked communities exist because networks enable individuals with shared interests or affinities to affiliate electronically.
As with physical communities, network cultures are not homogeneous, and the participants in networked communities often have conflicting values. A recurrent issue in university communities, for example, is whether pornographic images or "hate speech" should be banned. Although some universities have banned entire electronic "newsgroups" that were judged pornographic, most have stayed away from such censoring.3 Several years ago, Stanford University banned an electronic newsgroup on humor because of complaints about an ethnic joke. The newsgroup was subsequently restored after campus protests about free speech.
Electronic networks have also had an impact on culture at large. For example, commercial on-line services have become the virtual equivalent of "singles" bars for many individuals. Using the real-time conferencing services provided by these services, many people seek on-line conversation with potential romantic partners. They flirt through their keyboards, developing romances and carrying on "illicit" or clandestine affairs. In some instances, individuals who have interacted on-line meet face to face and develop relationships in person; marriages have been known to result from such interactions.
A second example is that computer networks have become a grassroots vehicle for lobbying against government and commercial actions. For instance, a large software company once attempted to market a product that contained a large database of information about consumers. An electronic protest was organized against it on the grounds that it had many privacy implications. These protests flooded the electronic mailbox of the company's chief executive officer. As a result, the product was withdrawn.
Finally, computer networks have served as important political tools. For example, the Relcom, the Soviet network on the Internet, played a significant role in the dissemination of information during the Soviet coup attempt in 1991. Relcom was used both for communication among the coup resisters and for communication with the
A newsgroup is one form of electronic conference. See Appendix A for more details.
outside. Some considered it to be one of the best sources of information.
By themselves, the examples given above and many others like them are not individually significant; that is, they do not necessarily demonstrate how networks will be used in the future. But taken together they do illustrate a general and fundamental point—that networks may change conduct and behavior in significant and multiple ways across life and society.
CONFLICTING VALUES IN NETWORKED COMMUNITIES
As noted above, networked communities are not monolithic. With their proliferation (and the interconnection of many across geographic or political boundaries), electronic networks have been described variously as models of "anarchy," "extreme decentralization," and "accelerating decentralization." Most networked communities have little hierarchical administrative structure and few central administrative procedures or systematic methods of policy enforcement, although some communities (e.g., those resident in universities or private companies) operate under the aegis of a single administrative entity and are subject to the rules promulgated by that entity—and yet each of these communities may manifest its own "culture'' within those rules. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that different networked communities might have different values.
Many universities govern their electronic networks through campus policies that are substantially the same as the policies governing other pieces of university infrastructure. Freedom of speech (discussed more extensively in Chapter 4) tends to be an overriding value on these networks, based on the principles of academic freedom.4 But incidents challenging this freedom arise frequently. Jeffrey I. Schiller, network manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, notes that at least once a month someone asserts harassment as the result of someone else's electronic free speech. The values that govern behavior may be blurred further by campus
connections through the Internet to other institutions or organizations that may have different values. "And the only thing that has made the situation tenable has been the fact that most of the policies have significant amounts of overlap and nobody is enforcing them," Schiller said. "Only the most outrageous behavior will ever raise an eyebrow. …"
A different balance of values is found in the world of commercial network service providers. Commercial providers are highly motivated to provide a range of network services that appeal to large audiences and generally try to suppress message traffic found offensive by significant segments of these audiences. For example, a commercial provider will often explicitly prohibit overtly sexual real-time chats on its network.
A third example illustrates the problem of even defining the boundaries of an electronic community. In July 1994, a California couple was convicted by a Tennessee jury of transmitting obscene images through interstate telephone lines through their bulletin board system,5 thus raising the question of whether it is the community standards of California or Tennessee that are relevant to the Supreme Court's position that community standards should define what does or does not constitute "obscenity."
In short, people who use electronic networks subscribe to a range of values that is highly diverse. Although they still represent an elite group in the context of the global population, users vary widely in terms of age, cultural background, and interests. For example, William Dutton, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (USC), polled all users of a USC bulletin board system and a random sample of 50 users from the Public Electronic Network (PEN) system6 in Santa Monica, California, from among all those who had logged onto the system more than 10 times during a particular month. He found that users "vary dramatically in the values and norms they bring to how rights and responsibilities should be negotiated."7 Based on this work, Dutton developed a typology of user values that includes five categories:
Civil libertarians, who value free speech above all;
Regulators, who "call for censorship and actually are more concerned about the privacy invasion and intrusive aspects of the system than they are about First Amendment issues";
Formalists, who rely on previously written documents and are satisfied with the status quo;
Property rights advocates, who believe individual users have no rights and are given the privilege of using the system by USC, which has the right to make the rules; and
Balancers, who weigh the conflicting values of free speech and privacy.
To many experienced network users, this typology does not seem at all unfamiliar (though the various sizes of the groups differ depending on the electronic community in question). The fragmentation is heightened by the fact that user viewpoints are not immutable, especially as a given individual may be a member of many different communities operating on many different networks. Sara Kiesler, a professor of social sciences and social psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, noted that a user's attitudes may change because "this same person in a different situation has a very different view of the rights that he has."
ENFORCEMENT OF BEHAVIORAL NORMS IN NETWORKED COMMUNITIES
The means for enforcing behavioral norms in networked communities are as diverse as user values. For example, commercial providers have contractual agreements with users. Several million individuals use these services.8 Users tend to view the contracts through which their use arrangements are governed less as disciplinary mechanisms than as "guarantees of quality of service," according to Eberhard Wunderlich, division manager of low-speed services product management at AT&T Data Communications Services. Nevertheless, these agreements prohibit certain types of conduct, such as the distribution of obscene or threatening material, and network providers are under pressure to enforce such rules to avoid offending clients.
Still other networked communities are governed by informal social pressures. For example, on the PEN, self-appointed "thread police" keep users from straying off the topic in conferences. "Anything goes, and, therefore, they push a great deal of responsibility on self-policing," explained Dutton. "And the thread police have been one of the creatures of the self-policing. … The thread police will either talk to people on-line or try to talk them into getting into another conference." On the Internet, miscreant behavior is often addressed by members of the community sending many electronic messages protesting the behavior to the person responsible.
Social pressures also may be applied on corporate networks. For years now, the IBM Corporation has had a "sensitive forum" where users may discuss problems concerning each other's messages; almost immediately after the forum was established, users began making rules, according to Davis A. Foulger, advisory programmer at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center. "The rules were never written down formally as a code, but in fact they are enforced rigorously by e-mail, and nobody wants 10,000 IBMers to put mail in their mailbox all at once," Foulger said. "Dozens of these kinds of rules … have emerged through discussion in our media."
Yet another sort of etiquette is common on many electronic bulletin boards and computer conferences. Conferences normally are moderated by an individual who lacks formal powers but regulates activity by severing electronic links with troublesome users. As Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch (a magazine that serves bulletin board operators), said, "There is very limited control of the content of these message areas. … The bulletin board right now is essentially untaxed, unregulated, and censored by rumor more than anything else."
HOW CULTURAL NORMS EVOLVE: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Cultural norms may derive from many different sources. As described by Professor Henry Perritt of Villanova University School of Law, these sources include legislatures, administrative agencies, negotiated contracts, tort law, common law, informal associations, common practice, and academia. Rules tend to originate in informal sources, and then, over time, are codified, first through common law litigation and later by legislatures, Perritt said. Network enforcers basically have three options: disconnect rule breakers, employ peer or social pressures, or apply the law. Although making rules for electronic networks is challenging, enforcing the rules may be even more problematic, he noted, because of technological and economic
barriers to enforcement. Attorney Lance Rose gave the example that "the ease of spread of information on networks can, on a practical level, defeat various kinds of intellectual property enforcement. … If you put something on the network, it's gone before you blink an eye."
Alan F. Westin, a professor of law and public government at Columbia University, described a predictable pattern to the development of rules and norms for new forms of communication. At first, the activity is sheltered and informal, involving only a small number of individuals. As more users engage in the new form of communication, government agencies begin to seek related records for tax and criminal investigations. Then users begin to file civil lawsuits against various parties for assorted wrongs. Tax issues also arise; the government must determine, for instance, whether and how tax-exempt organizations may use the emerging form of communication. Then freedom-of-information issues come to the fore; some records will be public, especially if taxpayer money has been used, but someone must identify the exceptions that should be kept private.
Thus, the law becomes important because it settles conflicts and, in so doing, forms a context for resolving issues in the future. As attorney Allan R. Adler said, "What the law is supposed to do is prevent and resolve conflicts, typically over values and property … [and] any communications medium, by definition, is going to raise the prospect of conflicts over values and property." Electronic forms of communication are evolving in an established legal context and at the same time are reshaping the law, Adler noted.
Because the law is the forum of final appeal, the development of legal precedents or models that can be used in networked communities is of significant interest. This is no small undertaking. Information services once fell into three more or less distinct categories—newspapers, broadcasts, and telephone networks—each with different rules of access, liability, and freedom of speech. "Well, the problem is that these neat compartments are breaking down …," Perritt noted. "Not only that—we have some new kinds of roles emerging. It's no longer only the provider of the information and the customer; we [also] have new kinds of intermediaries that are very important."
Anne Wells Branscomb, a communications lawyer with the Center for Information Policy Research at Harvard University, said electronic networks "are a new environment with which we have not had enough legal experience to know exactly what rules apply. So I think we have a whole new legal world to worry about."
The emergence of cultural norms is often crystallized by some kind of dramatic event or crisis that underscores the need for new
norms or the ambiguity in existing norms. For example, certain crime legislation in California passed in 1994 mandating life sentences without parole for those with three convictions for certain types of felonies was the fairly direct outcome of a social campaign initiated after a dramatic case of kidnapping and murder. More generally, the development of civil liberties law has been chronicled in large part by decisions precipitated by specific acts of injustice perpetrated by kings and political leaders in the context of uncertainty or ambiguity about their privileges or rights to commit those acts.
As of this writing, a similar pattern can be seen in the response of networked communities to the "Clipper" proposal. This proposal from the Clinton administration calls for a standard of secure communication that would nevertheless enable law enforcement authorities to decipher these communications upon issuance of an appropriate judicial warrant.9 Although the Clipper proposal is limited to telephone communications, the overwhelming sentiment in various communities and public forums on the Internet is negative.10 Congressional hearings have been called on this subject, and the status of legislation affecting this proposal is unclear.
ETHICS, LAW, AND THE PROMOTION OF SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR
What is the role of law in the promotion of socially acceptable behavior? Law is arguably a norm that applies across the entire jurisdiction of a political state. Moreover, the phrase "socially acceptable behavior" in this context implies a consensus on what constitutes behavior that is acceptable across that jurisdiction. For a variety of reasons, some deny that a consensus exists, or even that a consensus can exist, and they do not recognize the value in consulting existing legal regimes for guidance. For example, David Hughes, of Old Colorado City Communications, claimed at the February 1993 forum that human behavior on electronic networks exists outside of
present social norms and laws. He drew an analogy to space exploration, noting that "there was no space law until you could reach there. Space was not legally regulated."11
To be sure, law—and the coercive power of the state to enforce law—tends to be the mechanism invoked by society to shape behavior only after all other avenues have been exhausted and found not to be effective. These other avenues include friendly persuasion, parental admonition, social pressure, contracts, licenses, or informal agreements. How such costs and benefits are weighed by those involved is an important factor in determining what avenue is more appropriate for the given problem to be solved. Through these other avenues, codes and standards of acceptable behavior and etiquette are established and enforced. Indeed, this is one key purpose of education: to socialize people into internalizing the rules of behavior that the community has come to accept as reasonable.
On electronic networks, all of these nonlegal mechanisms are used. For example, a popular book called Zen and the Art of the Internet12 describes a set of "netiquette" rules—rules that Internet users are inclined to accept and expected to follow. Newcomers who behave in a manner inconsistent with these rules are subject to reprimand from the group.
With most commercial network service providers, a condition of use to which all users must agree is that users will abide by a certain set of rules about acceptable behavior; violators can be punished by the provider's discontinuing their access to the system. Contractual
relationships between users and providers can be tailored according to the needs of the parties involved, and they often reduce the delays of legislation and the costs of litigation. Others question this strategy, arguing that the contractual relationship is not an even playing field because the user is most often a single person rather than a corporation, and the provider is usually a corporate entity with financial resources far superior to those of most individuals.
Bulletin board operators often operate in a similar fashion: they write their own rules and set them forth the first time a new user logs in. Enforcement provisions are similar to those used by commercial providers. The playing field is arguably more even because most bulletin board operators are relatively small in scale, and thus potential individual users have relatively more clout and greater freedom of choice.13
Many universities have codes of acceptable network behavior as well. For example, EDUCOM has promulgated a bill of rights and responsibilities for users in the academic community that it urges its members to respect. When adopted, such codes are a part of the rules and regulations governing the academic community, and all relevant academic mechanisms for enforcing rules and regulations are available to university policymakers for dealing with miscreant electronic behavior.
Kiesler suggested that human behavior, both good and bad, is more extreme on electronic networks than in other arenas, thus underscoring the need for effective ways to regulate behavior. "I don't mean that people turn into terrible beasts on networks, but on average there is more misbehavior, there is more gossip, there is more 'flaming,'14 there are more extreme opinions, and there is more harassment on networks than there is in other areas," she said. Moreover, the consequences may be worse on networks than in other situations, in that more people are affected and false rumors can spread beyond a local population, Kiesler suggested. She added, "The issue is not how we crack down on people, but how we promote more prosocial behavior. … What do we do to promote more responsibility taking [and] ethical and moral behavior in network communities?"
How this will evolve in the future is an open question, and speculation on whether civility and decorum and respect for others will increase (as more users demand standards for reasonable behavior) or decrease (as the presence of more users leads to greater fragmentation on the network) is just that—speculation—at this time.
John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, framed the issue as part of the challenge of community development. Cyberspace is the community of the future, but it is still emerging, Barlow said; it is "the latest thing in suburbs" as opposed to an updated model of the cohesive small town. Cyberspace still lacks a sense of community experience, which provides a seasoned benchmark for evaluating information, and a sense of responsibility, which derives from development of individual identity, he said. Barlow argued that it was necessary for society to trust a messy process of sorting out community ethics, values, and conscience rather than turn to the law, which by its nature cannot be expected to provide adequate guides to behavior in a rapidly evolving environment. He further suggested that a sense of personal responsibility has been difficult to develop or enforce on electronic networks because of conflicting desires to both authenticate and conceal identities.
Governance of electronic network communities poses special challenges and opportunities. Using a "many-to-many" communications mode, all members of an electronic community can in principle be heard and their comments made part of the official record (this is the root of the political electronic marketplace metaphor described in Chapter 1). This raises the interesting question of the role of elected representatives and how they are to participate in the system. In electronic communities, peer participation and consensus building through iterative discussion are often the rule, but the active participants jealously guard their rights to determine for themselves the rules under which they will operate.15 Some commentators have
even suggested that electronic networks are fundamentally a medium conducive to democracy.16
Although many speakers at the workshop and forum argued that community values and ethics should be given priority, other speakers emphasized that the ethical foundation for behavior on electronic networks was shaky, due largely to a lack of consensus about what constitutes "reasonable" behavior. For example, Branscomb said that where electronic networks are concerned, ethics and the law often conflict, due to shortcomings in the latter. She observed that "when the laws don't make [sense] it erodes ethical values, and that is what is happening, to a large extent. I know a lot of the computer scientists have said the laws really are a pain, they don't make any sense. … I think a lot of that is happening with the copyright law [for example]. It's easy to replicate things, and the copyright rules don't make sense to a lot of us [the users], so we just ignore them. And therefore, we really are in the process of developing the ethical values which we have to impose upon the system before we can decide what laws we want to enact."17
Nonetheless, once laws are passed, all those within the applicable political jurisdiction are subject to those laws, and so the existing legal regime does affect networks; existing law does affect and constrain the behavior of all of us. Instead of asking whether or not law affects behavior on networks, a more useful question might be, How should laws be formulated so that they produce the desired effect? Speaking of another medium, Westin attributed the success of certain laws to their origins in the community that those laws would affect. He specifically cited the privacy provisions in the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Public Law 98-549), which were based on a code developed years before by Warner Amex. He further suggested that laws regulating behavior on electronic networks might well and fruitfully be based on the expectations of reasonable
behavior developed by the community in question rather than imposed as pronouncements from outside.
A question argued repeatedly in both the forum and the workshop was the extent to which special legislation is needed to govern the new networked communities. According to this view, there is something new and unusual about the new electronic environment that may need special legislation to protect its unique qualities. Others argue that there is no particular need for network-specific laws, as existing laws for the most part cover miscreant behavior that might occur on networks. Moreover, to be effective new legislation requires a social consensus both about what is new or unique about networks as compared to other media and about what values that legislation will embody. Such a consensus does not exist today.