April 18, 2024

Online Principles

Susan Crawford recently proposed a list of “online principles” to guide development of the online world. Seth Finkelstein comments, “Been there, done that, doesn’t work”; but John Palfrey counters that Susan’s effort is worthwhile.

Surely it’s worthwhile for almost any group to spend at least a tiny fraction of its time talking about its overall goals and principles, especially where (as here) that discussion doesn’t crowd out the pragmatic problem-solving the group needs to thrive.

But Seth is right that past attempts to define online principles have often gone off the rails. One reason is that they have lost their connection to the Net and have devolved into general attempts to redesign society as a whole. And while society as a whole could surely be improved, its structure reflects a subtle set of compromises resulting from centuries of struggle, which are unlikely to be forgotten because of the Internet’s arrival.

The starting point, then, for devising online principles must be to ask how the online world differs from the traditional offline world. Internet exceptionalism is not the answer, because the Net doesn’t change everything. We need to focus instead on specific things it does change, and devise principles for dealing with them.

UPDATE (3:10 PM): Don’t miss Hal’s insightful comment.


  1. Re: Hals’ comment:

    He says that “online communications differs from older methods in degree, not in kind” then later mentions “new forms of anti-social and harmful behavior; and communications”. Don’t these “new forms” indicate a difference in kind, not just degree? One can even look at myriad web applications that allow people to collaborate in very intricate ways (many of them positive) that simply could not ever have happened without the Internet’s existence. The Internet is not simply an nth-degree extrapolation of offline affairs; rather, it has provided many novel ways of accomplishing political and other tasks. For an analogy, compare today’s automobile to a “horseless carriage.” The 1980 presidential campaign, e.g., is a horseless carriage compared to what’s going on this year.

    Re: Susan’s article and approving comments:

    In the real world, human beings are _not_ uniformly trusting of others, and further, are not always conditioned to cooperate in a collaborative manner. Therefore, efforts online must not be designed from a blue-sky perspective, but rather from the perspective that not everyone is going to agree, not everyone is going to get along, and not everyone will want to see success in a “worthy” project. My own efforts with looking into prospective e-democracy projects bears this out. The world isn’t perfect, never will be, and if we want to have a “successful” online world, we have to gird our systems for the worst while aiming for the highest, noble ideals that many of us hold.

  2. Hal,

    Thoughtful comment indeed.

    Great observation, but I disagree with your conclusion.

    In particular, I disagree with this statement: “Online communications differs from older methods in degree, not in kind.” The entirety of this paragraph proves the opposite: how new information technology can fundamentally transform communication.

    Consider skype, a secure peer-to-peer internet phone. Although this service has many legitimate purposes, I still shudder to think how easy this service makes it for terrorist to collaborate undetected anywhere around the globe. Groups acting collectively but in private is more than just an incremental improvement for terrorists.

    It is for these reasons that Susan’s call for online principles is all the more important.

    – Mike

  3. Hal’s comment is very thoughtful, but points me back to the need for principles. Let me explain.

    Telecom agencies and governments all over the world are using spam and other antisocial behavior as support for their assertion that “someone should be in charge” of the internet — that we need central rules to make the net a more liveable place. The principles I’m proposing suggest that livability depends on decisions that users make about their own environments. That’s a policy — that’s a form of governance.

    Without being explicit about the need to keep users in control of their own experiences, we’ll be driven towards a very different, deeply-authenticated, drivers-license sort of internet. So, while I agree very much with Hal that it’s too early to make rules, I don’t think it’s too early to be certain that those rules should be decentralized. We’ve already got that principle in place. It’s the principle that allowed the internet to flourish. But we need to be explicit about it.

    That’s why I posted those principles. I’m not suggesting that we make rules about behavior! To the contrary. I’m suggesting that no one do so.

  4. There really is no “group” of online people. There are no “netizens”. The set of people online is not different in any material way from the entire body of the people. This is becoming more true every day.

    Our principles and goals, to the extent that “we” can be said to have any such thing, are merely those principles and goals which guide every person in their life. They do not differ when one goes online.

    What matters, then, is not defining special principles for being online; but rather, examining how our existing goals are best implemented given this new communications technology.

    Online communications differs from older methods in degree, not in kind. People have always had free and universal communications with their nearest neighbors and close friends. The net expands this capability by many orders of magnitude, which raises new problems. Where communications before were largely confined to small and relatively uniform groups, where there was a certain amount of public visibility and awareness of the activities of others, the net spreads communications around the world, and allows the formation of groupings which are anonymous and relatively invisible to others.

    These are the challenges of online communications: new forms of anti-social and harmful behavior; and communications which cross cultural and jurisdictional boundaries. Our existing policies and principles are not well adapted to the worldwide scale of today’s net. I suspect it will take many years before we learn how to incorporate these new capabilities into our lives in a way which is beneficial and harmonizes with our goals and principles. It is premature at best to begin writing the rules today.