Rights and Responsibilities Online: A Paradox for Our Times
First Monday

Rights and Responsibilities Online: A Paradox for Our Times by Jonathan F. Fanton

The Internet is hailed as a democratic force freeing people from inherited orthodoxy and hierarchy. Yet some observers and visitors of virtual worlds decry the absence of the individual rights we have come to expect in a democratic society. This paradox of the Internet’s democratic promise and lack of democratic protections raises vexing legal issues. What are the rights and responsibilities of owners and users of digital media, profilers on social network sites, game players and participants in virtual worlds of all types? These issues must be addressed if the power of community is to be realized in a just and sustainable way.


Introduction and Discussion



Introduction and Discussion

It is a pleasure to be here and to learn first hand about the WebWise Conference. I have watched the evolution of WebWise over the past eight years with admiration. It speaks directly to the challenges articulated on the Web site of the Institute of Museum and Library Services:

“As stewards of cultural heritage, information and ideas, museums and libraries have traditionally played a vital role in helping us experience, explore, discover and make sense of our world. That role is now more essential than ever.”

I commend you for the experimentation underway in your institutions across the country, for thinking hard about new tools and environments that motivate, deepen, and sustain learning.

And you have made a good choice of a co–host for this year’s Conference. The Wolfsonian’s mission, to tell the story of social, political and technological changes that have transformed our world, makes it the ideal partner for the Institute.

The topic of this Conference, WebWise 2.0: The Power of Community, strikes me as quite different from past themes on the Digital Divide, Sharing Digital Resources, and Teaching and Learning with Digital Resources. The Power of Community speaks to the active engagement of people in shaping their environment, sometimes mediated by institutions, sometimes not. How to keep institutions — schools, museums, libraries — central to providing information people need “to make sense of our world” is a challenge worthy of our collective exploration.

Like you, I believe that the more technology empowers individuals, the more they need trusted sources of information, guidance for how to cope with overabundance of information, and help in making judgments.

There is another paradox that I want to reflect on with you this morning. The Internet is hailed as a democratic force freeing people from inherited orthodoxies and hierarchy. Yet its use has raised vexing ethical and legal questions. Indeed, a debate has arisen about the absence in virtual worlds of the individual rights we have come to expect in a democratic society. This paradox of the Internet’s democratic promise and lack of democratic protections must be addressed if the power of community is to be realized in a just and sustainable way.

First, however, a few words about MacArthur and what brought us, like you, to issues of digital media, learning, education and changing institutions. MacArthur is best known for “genius” grants that recognize individual creativity and for its support for public radio and television. But the Foundation does much more, here in the U.S. and in 60 countries around the world. This year, we will award nearly $US300 million in grants and low–cost loans from our headquarters in Chicago and offices in Mexico, India, Nigeria, and Russia.

Our mission is to help build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. Our interests include strengthening urban communities, affordable housing preservation, juvenile justice reform, population, conservation, and human rights. Throughout it all runs a search for what is new. We are committed to illuminating patterns and trends that are reshaping our world, opening opportunity but also posing challenges.

Technology — specifically digital media — is one of those forces. We are witnessing the first generation to grow up digital — coming of age when the use of computers, the Internet, video games and cell phones is widespread. For members of this generation, expressing themselves and building communities with networked digital tools is becoming the norm. Consider these facts:

  • On a typical day, 60 percent of U.S. teens use a computer;

  • 83 percent of young people play video games regularly;

  • 50 percent of young Internet users have created media content, many sharing it online;

  • Popular virtual worlds are growing, with over three million 10–12 year olds active in Whyville, four million pre–teens in Club Penguin, and 10 million adults in Second Life;

  • 53 percent of all youth are projected to be active in a virtual world within two years; and,

  • MySpace has more than 100 million regular monthly users.

We see this activity, but do not yet understand all that it means — for individuals, families, institutions, and even our democracy.

That is why, in December 2006, MacArthur announced a $US50 million dollar initiative to explore the premise that digital media use is changing how young people think, learn, play, make judgments and relate to others. If this is true, there are profound implications for schools, libraries, museums, and other institutions charged with preparing young people for the future.

Through grants to researchers, designers, and practitioners, we are asking important questions about young people and digital media. How do young people reason and confront ethical dilemmas? How do they judge the credibility of vast amounts of information? How do they acquire content and analytical skills? How do they interact with each other and relate to adults and authority? How does technology affect their sense of identity and notions of community, their attitudes toward civic participation, and their awareness and understanding of other cultures? Finally, the digital world fosters and demands new skills — collaborative problem solving, collective intelligence, performance simulation, negotiation, discernment of and respect for multiple perspectives. How do these skills prepare young people for the economic and political imperatives of the twenty–first century’s more complex and connected world?

Of course, these questions do not apply to young people alone. Many adults also face challenges as they navigate, judge, and use digital media and information. Might we all be changing in important ways as well?

Grants in our new initiative range across research, media literacy, game design, and early efforts to create the new interdisciplinary field of digital media and learning. They include a large–scale ethnography at the University of Southern California, collecting information about young people’s social networks and peer groups, family life, how they play, seek information and learn.

We already know that children should be learning more than reading and math to prepare them for productive adulthood in a digital world. With funding from MacArthur, MIT professor Henry Jenkins has developed a new framework for media literacy. He focuses on the skills needed to succeed in what he calls participatory culture — skills in experimentation, performance, teamwork, and skills to navigate, negotiate and synthesize across multiple sources of information. A pilot application is underway in after–school digital media programs at the University of Chicago’s charter school.

We have also made a set of grants related to games and learning. A team at the University of Wisconsin has created “Gamestar Mechanic,” which is designed to promote young people’s media literacy through participation — by making games themselves.

We reached an important milestone in December, when MIT Press published the six–volume MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Topics include identity, credibility, race and ethnicity, the ecology of games, civic engagement, as well as unintended and unexpected consequences. At the same time, we announced a call for papers for a new quarterly journal, the International Journal of Learning and Media, which will be enhanced by a robust online community to probe, challenge, and expand on articles in the Journal.

I am urging that a new volume in the Series and early articles in the Journal grapple with the legal and ethical issues that are the topic of my remarks today. Many of these issues arise as adults and young people engage in increasing numbers with social networks, multi–player games, and in virtual worlds. I raise these issues with you because of your role at the forefront of adapting our social institutions to the realities of a changing world.

MacArthur–funded Harvard professor Howard Gardner is exploring ethical issues, particularly for young people, online. He has suggested that digital media have opened up new and perhaps limitless frontiers — open spaces without rules and regulations that offer both promise and peril. In a posting for MacArthur’s Spotlight blog on digital media and learning, he wrote:

“The laws, rules, regulations, and implicit [ethical] norms that have developed gradually over time are all vulnerable in the era of new digital media, and it remains unclear which of them will remain intact, which will have to be reformulated, and which may need to be scuttled.”

For example, the online world offers new and greater levels of participation. Blogs give people voice on issues they care about. Games like World of Warcraft invite players to modify them as play proceeds. Through social networking sites Facebook and MySpace, millions of people establish connections with others — beyond the reach of physical world friendships, schools, communities, even countries. In the virtual worlds of Second Life or the Sims, participants can make, buy, and sell virtual artifacts, using the local currency Linden dollars or simoleans. These artifacts also are available on eBay, in exchange for real money. What rules, regulations, even rights should apply?

Some see the activity in MySpace and Facebook as an alarming invasion of privacy; many young people see it as an essential tool of communication, learning and personal validation. Some view Wikipedia as a threat to traditional notions of credibility, authority, and expertise; others see it as an exciting new approach to sharing knowledge and authorship. Many believe that music is “owned” by a musician or production company; others, including perhaps most young people, experience digital music and images as resources for creating or remixing new material.

Gardner suggests that these different perspectives challenge us to reconsider basic assumptions about identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility and participation. Each of these could be the topic of an entire speech, but let me raise questions today about just one of them — participation — which is at the center of an emerging debate.

Relationships between participants, players, and site owners are governed only by use agreements, activated by a click of the “I accept” button and subject to small type that may say that terms and conditions can be changed at anytime without notice.

Social networking sites and virtual worlds can invite or deny access to anyone. No one has a right, under the U.S. Constitution, in common law, or by statute, to enter Second Life. Facebook accounts can be terminated without notice for no reason. Relationships between participants, players, and site owners are governed only by use agreements, activated by a click of the “I accept” button and subject to small type that may say that terms and conditions can be changed at anytime without notice.

Participants or players may experience social networking sites and virtual worlds as traditional meeting sites, town squares, or local communities. They are indeed this, but with one important difference. These sites are private spaces, designed, owned, and operated by individuals and corporations. While they are game–like, private spaces today, over time, they are likely to used for much more serious purposes — commerce, education, training, medical consultation, therapy, and for social and economic experimentation. Again, what rules, regulations and rights should apply?

Blogs contain anecdotal reports of accounts closed, access denied, or use agreements altered. Recently, a member of the British Parliament’s Facebook account was suspended when the operator decided he was an imposter, requiring him to prove that he was indeed “himself.” A comedian and author found himself cut off from his fan base when the social networking site terminated his ability to send a group message about upcoming events to 1,000 people.

In virtual worlds, words take on new meanings.

YouTube recently suspended the account of a prominent Egyptian human rights activist who had uploaded videos portraying police brutality and anti–government demonstrations. In virtual worlds, words take on new meanings. If you are “toaded,” your avatar is eliminated, your identity disappears, and your ability to participate comes to an end.

Game site operators decry hackers who make money modifying the game and selling access to prize levels or virtual goods. In virtual worlds, attacks have repeatedly come from ‘griefing’ groups organized specifically for disruption, including a shadowy group of individuals, whose motto is “ruining your second life since 2006.” How should site operators respond when accused members defend their actions as “for laughs” while others make claims of intimidation, harassment, or even terrorism? On social network sites, there have been numerous reports of people using the sites’ tools to taunt, torment, or prey on other users. Should there be rules and regulations that protect owners who wish to operate their sites as designed? Should there be sanctions for individuals whose actions diminish the online experience for others?

Discussions abound in law journals. Disputes between site owners and participants about copyright, ownership, and authorship are already being fought in court. The legal battle will likely extend to questions of identity, privacy, and participation. Calls for regulation of virtual space are beginning. But it will take time for the courts or legislatures to sort through these complex issues as they play out online.

A better approach may be to convene a forum for a reasoned debate of the issues before the battle lines are set. What are the rights and responsibilities of owners and users of digital media, profilers on social network sites, game players, and participants in virtual worlds of all types? MacArthur would be willing to support, perhaps even convene, such a forum.

A thoughtful discussion would acknowledge the increasing importance of media in people’s lives and their reliance on digital media for information, commerce, community, health, entertainment, and creative expression. That forum would accept the private and proprietary nature of ownership and design of virtual spaces. At the same time, it would recognize the increasingly public nature of their use and the consequences of such use for owners and participants. It would look for reasonable ways to extend already well–accepted principles from other domains into the online world.

That forum would consider, as do many legal scholars, the ACLU, and others, what fundamentals of due process make sense, such as specific notice of offense and the right to appeal when an individual is barred from a site [1]. I would start with three principles:

  1. Clear guidance about what constitutes behavior for which participation would be terminated, with specific examples of past behavior that prompted expulsion.

  2. Specific notice about the inappropriate behavior or material, which might include violation of copyright, offensive behavior, or unacceptable language or images in a profile.

  3. Opportunity to appeal, which might come in two stages. The first, informal, intended to clear up factual errors or misunderstandings. A second stage would have a formal hearing, with written procedures, before a neutral party. While appeals are underway a participant’s identity and data would be preserved.

Beyond these three basic points there are many, many interesting questions.

What is an identity online? Should there be protections from alteration and destruction by operators? Should First Amendment protections apply to speech or behavior, even though a private operator has no legal requirement to be neutral to the viewpoints or actions of users? Who owns identity? Is it quintessentially you? Or, as a database entry, is it the intellectual property of the operator? Is it reasonable that the right to exit is the only route away from operators with objectionable practices?

Finally, what about the rights of site owners and operators? They control what goes on in two ways — through software code and end–user contracts. They write and rewrite the software that defines the space, grants powers to users, supports social interactions, and even tracks what is going on. They also control what goes on through a contract with users, covering issues of behavior and decorum that cannot be written into code. Should they have recourse against participants who gain unfair advantage, use the platform for illegal, offensive, or harmful activities or diminish the pleasure of participation for all?

These are just a few of many questions that have arisen with the use of digital media and their many platforms.

Legal scholars have identified many more complex issues — the blurring of the boundaries between actions in the virtual world and actions and consequences in the physical world, and the challenge of country–specific regulations of a space that is by its very nature accessible throughout the world.

Solid ground has been laid for the kind of thoughtful debate that will help us rethink assumptions related to identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility, and participation. It is time to move the discussion from the pages of legal journals, from blogs and online chat, to a more organized debate that engages humanists, social scientists, legal scholars, and the public.

The forum I have proposed could make a useful contribution. But voluntary action to implement the three basic protections I articulated earlier need not await a larger philosophical discussion. The principles of clear warning, specific notice, appeal, and a fair hearing before a neutral party are so basic they should be implemented without delay.

In fact, MacArthur will incorporate them into the basic operating framework of sites that the Foundation creates, operates, or funds — in fields as diverse as digital media and learning, juvenile justice, and affordable rental housing preservation.

I know I have only scratched the surface of a profoundly complex and important topic. But in the spirit of the Institute’s mission “to help make sense of our world”, I ask your help in thinking through the norms and principles that should underlie rights and responsibilities online. I welcome your thoughts on the three principles I propose, the idea of an ongoing forum and thoughts on the questions for the forum.

Throughout history, our highest accomplishments have had the aim of bringing people together [2].

Though many online sites are dismissed as entertainment or places for teenage gossip, Second Life, Facebook, MySpace, and other tools are the places that bring more and more people together today. We talk about physical and virtual worlds, both real. With reality comes responsibility. We need to address the gap in norms for behavior and procedural protections for both participants and platform operators. Otherwise our highest aspirations for the power of community on line to advance our quest for a just, sustainable and peaceful world will fall short of its potential.

MacArthur stands ready to work with you to unleash the power of community guided by norms and protected by procedures that reflect America’s best values End of article


About the author

Jonathan F. Fanton became president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on 1 September 1999. Previously, he had been president of the New School for Social Research in New York City for 17 years.

With assets of over $US6 billion, MacArthur is one of the nation’s largest foundations. It makes grants and program–related investments in the United States and abroad totaling more than $US225 million annually. Domestically, its programs encompass community development, housing, juvenile justice, and education, with a focus on digital media and learning. Internationally, it works in the fields of human rights and international justice, biodiversity conservation, population and reproductive health, international peace and security, and migration and human mobility. The Foundation works in 65 countries and has offices in India, Russia, Nigeria, and Mexico. The Foundation also funds public radio and television and the making of independent documentaries. The Foundation is well known for its support of exceptionally creative individuals through the MacArthur Fellows Program.

At Yale University, Mr. Fanton earned a baccalaureate degree in 1965, a master’s in philosophy in 1977, and a doctorate in American History in 1978. At Yale, he taught American history, was special assistant to president Kingman Brewster from 1970 to 1973 and associate provost from 1976 to 1978. From 1978 to 1982, he was vice president for planning at the University of Chicago, where he also taught American history.

As president of the New School for Social Research from 1982 to 1999, he led the integration and enhancement of the seven divisions of the University, expansion of the Greenwich Village campus, and development campaigns that increased the University’s endowment ten–fold. During his tenure, the New School merged with the Mannes College of Music, established a drama school in partnership with the Actor’s Studio, merged with the World Policy Institute, added a jazz and contemporary music program, a teacher education program, a creative writing program, and an architecture department at Parsons School of Design.

Mr. Fanton is a board member of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the largest U.S.–based human rights organization, which operates in 70 countries. He served as Chair of HRW’s board for six years, stepping down at the end of 2003. He is also an advisory trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the founding Board Chair of Security Council Report. He is Co–Chair of Chicago’s Partnership for New Communities. He served as Chair of the New York Committee on Independent Colleges and Universities and as Co–Chair of the 14th Street/Union Square Local Development Corporation.

Mr. Fanton is the author of The University and Civil Society, Volumes I and II (New York: New School for Social Research, 1995) and co–editor of John Brown: Great Lives Observed (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice–Hall, 1973) and The Manhattan Project: A Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

Mr. Fanton’s wife, Cynthia Greenleaf Fanton, is Director of Partnerships for the Chicago Public Schools, and prior to their move to Chicago, was assistant provost at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Mrs. Greenleaf Fanton was born in Chicago and educated at Smith, Harvard, and Georgetown Law School.



1. I am indebted to a thoughtful paper by Christopher Calabrese of the ACLU on the topic.

2. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint Exupéry.


Editorial history

Paper received 25 June 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Jonathan F. Fanton.

Rights and Responsibilities Online: A Paradox for Our Times
by Jonathan F. Fanton
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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