Lex Networkia: Understanding the Internet Community
First Monday
Lex Networkia: Understanding the Internet Community


Much of the legal effort regarding the Internet and cyberspace occurs with little regard for the communities that will be most affected by new regulations and treaties. The Internet communities have evolved, over time, to create their own processes for self-regulation and tolerance. Legislative experiments that fail to take into account the nature of the Internet communities and the Internet itself are fundamentally counter-productive.

Virtual rules of conduct
Social evolution
A Social protocol

It's difficult to talk about the Internet community and its own codes of conduct and behavior without first trying to understand the community itself. As Erasmus noted, definitions are dangerous. Certainly definitions about something this complex and diverse are especially dangerous.

Too often when we read about the Internet, we are overwhelmed by its scale. Trillions of words, billion of documents and files, tens of millions of computers, and millions of actual users scattered across the world from the Antarctic to Chisinau to Ulan Bator to many other places in between. It's hard to think of this all representing a community, when faced with those sorts of dimensions. For most of us, a community operates at a different scale. A community really means a group of individuals, say a population, with special kinds of common interests and problems. In a community, these individuals interact with each other in a given setting. With the Internet there is no place or setting, because we all come to the Internet from different locations at different times.

For the sake of the moment, let's work with a simple definition of an Internet community. Let's call it a collection of individuals who use computers, software, and other means to discuss common interests transcendentally, outside of time and space. On the Internet, you don't escape the physical realities of space and time, it's just that latitude and longitude, the exact time according to a watch have less meaning [1].

With that definition, we might return to the question of scale. With the Internet, it is absolutely a matter of scale, because on the Internet there are many diverse communities working in their own self-paced ways with their own common interests, plans, histories, questions, and goals. The scale of the Internet for all of us - and I assume that many of us in this room are connected in one way or another to the Internet in one of its many forms - is not measured in trillions, billions, or millions. Instead we understand the Internet as individuals, and our role as members of a digital community, in terms of a handful of fellow network travelers. As one of the fathers of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, pointed out at the recent Web Conference in Paris, the really important work on the Internet happens at the scale where small groups interact to solve specific problems, to explore new issues, and organize ideas together [2].

In your Internet community, with a few colleagues, you share thoughts, opinions, feelings. With members of this community, you may be more open and direct than with your brothers or sisters or parents. Many of your fellow network colleagues will be complete and utter strangers, known only to you by their addresses and signature files. On the Internet and in your electronic community, it's OK to talk to strangers. On the Internet, it's even OK to talk to yourself, because you never know who's listening. On the Internet, you feel more strongly about your virtual community - whether it's dedicated to Klingon verb forms, Smalltalk programming, Silurian trilobites, or brownie recipes - than you do about your own town or city. Why?

The very nature of the Internet makes its participants incredibly loyal to it and defensive about it. The Internet is an engine for creativity, a catalyst for the imagination, and a potion to alter yourself completely. It is the best and most original American contribution to the world since jazz. Like really, really good jazz, the Internet is individualistic, inventive, thoughtful, rebellious, stunning, and even humorous. Like jazz, it appeals to the anarchist in us all. What do I mean by anarchy? If the Internet really turns us into anarchists, shouldn't we really have government-appointed guardians controlling us?

By anarchy, I return to the often forgotten meaning of anarchy, that is a utopian society of individuals, individuals who enjoy complete and utter freedom of government. We all know that the Internet knows no single authority, no super international inter-governmental agency operates it. The Internet is the closest approximation of perfect anarchy, a construction with no central office, no ultimate operating system. Instead, a force of thousands of volunteers from the around the world maintain it every second of every day.

Like jazz, the Internet is frowned upon as decadent and even evil by governments that demand conformity, obedience, and blind stupidity. This artistic anarchy, that's fundamental to jazz and also to the Internet, is very much a part of the American character, this outlaw, rebel, pioneer, private John and Jane Doe seeking life and happiness in spite of government [3].Indeed if the Internet were alive and well in the 18th century British colonies, Benjamin Franklin would not have been working a printing press but instead would have been the moderator of the alt.dump-king-George newsgroup with Thomas Jefferson and others using to anonymous remailers as daily contributors to the newsgroup. Of course, the newsgroup would have been banned in England, increasing its popularity on the continent, especially in France. I would guess that Thomas Jefferson would be proud that there are places on the Internet right now where you can ask him questions on politics, religion, human nature or society [4] or where you could follow him around, virtually, at Monticello [5].

Let's return to anarchy. Anarchy is not chaos. As in jazz, dissonance does not equal noise. Anarchy is not loss of control. Anarchy does not mean apathy . The media, in countless examples, paints the Internet communities as chaotic, hectic, random. Nothing is further from the truth, nothing is more unrealistic than calling those involved in the Internet as uncaring misanthropes, violent and even psychopathic monsters bent on destroying everything within the grasp of their networked computer. I would argue that the Internet is one of the most self-regulated and most self-protected places in the world, where many gladly take individual responsibility for their actions to maintain and advance their own virtual communities and the environment that allows their communities to flourish.

Virtual rules of conduct
Within each Internet community, there are rules of conduct, standards, and boundaries. Some of these are carefully spelled out in documents called Frequently Asked Questions. Others are provided electronically when you join a specific group or list. In some cases, these rules and conditions are not formally documented. You instead depend on a moderator to tell you informally of the boundaries and conditions to the community. Sometimes your colleagues within a community will keep you informed about proper or improper behavior, in part based on mistakes that others make accidentally or intentionally. In any case, these rules vary from group to group, listserv to listserv. But there are some basic commonalties that all of these instructions share.

What are these common characteristics? First of all, every member of every Internet community works to preserve the Internet, to do nothing that in any way would harm the Internet functionally. Second, all of these rules recognize that on the Internet, there are no non-verbal or verbal cues. Text is everything and text is nothing if it is devoid of content. Consciously or subconsciously, nearly every bit of Internet advice instructs you to take real care in communicating with others in this environment. Here are some examples of this codification of commonsense:

"Read both mailing lists and newsgroups for one to two months before you post anything. This helps you to get an understanding of the culture of the group."
"Do not blame the system administrator for the behavior of the system users."
"Consider that a large audience will see your posts. That may include your present or your next boss. Take care in what you write [6]."
Think about the last recommendation. I know that there are several memorable individuals whose Internet postings have already condemned them from ever working with me in any way. In what other community, in reality outside of the Internet, can you influence your future so quickly, all with the impulsive push of the Send button?

Finally, nearly every Internet community advises its members to respect bandwidth. The Internet is not infinite. Technically, there is only so much traffic, only so many files and messages that it and its users can handle.

Social evolution
How did these universal laws for social behavior come about? In part, these rules evolved over time, the products of experience and work. In part, these conditions appeared in response to threats to the Internet and the Internet communities. Let me give you a couple examples of what I call Internet singularities that crystallized some of these rules of conduct from an ephemeral state into formal documents and standardized behavior.

On November 2, 1988, Robert Morris, then a student at Cornell University, released a computer program, better known as a worm, that infected Sun workstations and certain other kinds of computers operating a flavor of UNIX. Although Mr. Morris' program was well-written, taking advantage of certain features of UNIX, it was defeated within 72 hours of its release, thanks to the hard work of many members of many Internet communities. The worm received more than its share of publicity in the media, often from journalists and media personalities without a clue. In fact, television crews that were dispatched to MIT and Berkeley to record the efforts of some of the workers on the Morris worm were disappointed not to find VAXes in flames or real worms digesting keyboards.

There were several important responses to Morris' worm. Many organizations which once took the Internet for granted, and assumed that everyone would care for it, now realized that the Internet was more fragile, and needed protection from its own users. Organizations like the National Science Foundation, MIT, and many others formally constructed codes of ethics for the use of computing resources and the Internet as a response [7]. These rules emphasized the preservation of the Internet, emphasized commonsense, and emphasized tolerance.

In turn, these formal codes of ethics have permeated the Internet and have taken many forms, such as the documents called Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs). AUPs for example are among the first practical documents that address questions of ethics and computers for students in grade and high schools in many places in this country and elsewhere. Indeed, Robert Morris' worm in its extinction has provided significant educational benefits.

I must also point out that the Internet community is incredibly forgiving as well as protective. Take the case of Robert Morris. Convicted of computer crime, Morris was fined in 1990 $10,000 and 400 hours of community service for his programming adventures. Morris, thanks to these and other qualifications, is now a graduate student in computer science at Harvard. A few months ago, Morris, Julian Weber - you might better remember him as the former president of the National Lampoon - and four others formed a company called Viaweb [8]. Viaweb publishes online catalogs, no not for bibliographic records, but catalogs to sell merchandise like their paper versions that might fill your mailbox from L. L. Bean, Land's End, and others. One of the associates of the inventor of the 1988 Worm pronounced for the media that and I quote, "Robert Morris is the way you'd want your kids to turn out." In any case, Morris' program in the long run had its positive effects on Internet communities, communities where memories run long and feelings deep when threatened.

Take another example, another Internet singularity, the case of Martha Siegel and Laurence Canter [9]. They have been called the most hated husband-and-wife team on the Internet. Why? On April 12, 1994, Siegel and Canter unleashed on almost 6,000 Usenet newsgroups an advertisement for their legal services. This posting, or megaspam, spread in less than 90 minutes through Siegel and Canter's Internet Direct account, Internet Direct being an Arizona Internet provider.

How did the Internet community react? Tens of thousands of Internet users protested by electronic mail. No one went to a government agency or a court to protest. Everyone affected by Siegel and Canter's act reacted in their own small or not so small way. For example, Internet Direct killed Siegel and Canter's account, after Siegel and Canter's behavior crashed the provider's computers at least 15 times. An Internet user in Scandinavia painfully by hand cleaned up each and every occurrence of the spam on several newsgroups. Other users invented programs to automatically clean up the mess, and block further spamming events. Some took matters into their own hands and filled Siegel and Canter's voice mail and fax machines with rubbish. Siegel and Canter threatened and screamed about their treatment by Internet communities, claiming on CNN and in newspapers that their rights were violated. Siegel and Canter in turn also boasted that their spam made them at least $100,000 in new business, which I hope the Internal Revenue Service checked. In turn, Siegel and Canter codified their Internet tricks in a book - the book is entitled "How To Make A Fortune On The Information Superhighway" and it was published by HarperCollins - and a company called Cybersell. Martha Siegel occasionally formalizes her fumings over the Internet communities in guest editorials, which appear in newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Internet community protests in its own fashion by its own rules, by unleashing its most powerful tools against Siegel and Canter. Parodies abound on the Internet of Martha Siegel's Chronicle editorial. There are also point-by-point dissections of her whinings. Robots watch the Internet for any postings from Cybersell or Canter and Siegel's law firm. These programs eradicate automatically these messages before they see the cathode ray tube of any monitor. Many on the Internet simply ignore Siegel and Canter, and write them off eternally for what has been called the single most infamous breach of netiquette in Usenet history. Finally, what is most delicious is that Siegel and Canter are very irritated by anonymous messages, posted by a variety of Internet users through remailers . Remailers protect the identities of the original authors of messages and are one own way of preventing censorship.

A Social protocol
Siegel and Canter's megaspam proved that Internet communities have their own imaginative means, devices, and ways to protect and defend itself. In some ways, these mechanisms, invoked by senseless threatening Internet singularities, prove to me that the Internet community as a whole has created in its own way yet another layer or protocol that keeps the Internet alive and well. Call this uppermost layer a social protocol, a cyber-etiquette protocol, whatever it may be named, it occurs on top of all of the technical standards and protocols that keep the Internet humming. This protocol represents the social interaction of thousands of Internet communities to keep the Internet functioning, and to allow it to operate for the benefit of the largest number of Internet citizens, as possible, at the lowest possible human cost.

What does this protocol mean, this Internet social protocol? David Johnson and David Post of the Cyberspace Law Institute and Georgetown University see in the Internet community and its own laws, rules, and regulations the necessary framework for self-governance. Johnson and Post [10], wrote and I quote

"The law of any given place must take into account the special characteristics of the space it regulates and the type of persons, places, and things found there. Just as a country's jurisprudence reflects its unique historical experience and culture, the law of Cyberspace will reflect its special character, which differs markedly from anything found in the physical world. For example, the law of the Net must deal with persons who "exist" in Cyberspace only in the form of an e-mail address and whose purported identity may or may not accurately correspond to physical characteristics in the real world. ... If Cyberspace law is to recognize the nature of its "subjects," it cannot rest on the same doctrines that give geographically based sovereigns jurisdiction over "whole," locatable, physical persons. The law of the Net must be prepared to deal with persons who manifest themselves only by means of a particular ID, user account, or domain name."

Johnson and Post see the development from the Internet community of a new separate law of Cyberspace, a distinct set of rules that have their closest analogy to the laws governing the trade merchants in the Middle Ages. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a new group emerged in Europe, a group of professional merchants. These merchants traveled from commercial fair to commercial fair, crossing political boundaries of different states, crossing linguistic borders of an enormous variety to carry out their business. A new legal system emerged to deal with these merchants, who transcended time and space to carry out their business. Called Lex Mercatoria, uniform commercial laws were invented to govern business transactions, so at any one place - be it medieval Paris, Vienna, Milan, or Berlin - at any time the rules governing the merchants, the local city state, suppliers, and customers were always the same. The rules were maintained and supported by the merchants themselves, who knew that their status, and the status of the mercantile community as a whole, in any locale was dependent on an adherence to these conditions.

For local medieval governments, Lex Mercatoria meant that there was no need for an abundance of new regulations and restrictions on this community, which moved from fair to fair across Europe to sell its wares. For those who attended the fairs, no matter which city you happened to be, you always knew the rules, and that members of the mercantile community would deal with any violations of the rules in their own ways.

For the Internet and its diverse communities, the formalization of its many regulations and rules into a Lex Networkia might be its best hope for survival in the next century. Certainly, Internet experiences and education will slow politicians, legislators, and bureaucrats in their attempts at control. The Internet community already in a fashion has invented an informal Lex Networkia. What is needed is a certain flexible formalization to slow the controlling lunatic fringes in certain traditional governmental agencies around the world. I would hope that we would not need another Martha Siegel or Robert Morris or the United States Congress to force the Internet community to work towards self-governance and self-preservation. Indeed, a unified effort by Internet experienced lawyers, librarians, and programmers can formalize this environment of self-governance in such a way that will please even the most Internet paranoiac and network ignorant and encourage the educational and social activities of thousands of Internet communities. It will be the hardest work of all, but the threats to the Internet will not go away with a carefully programmed robot or smartly worded electronic message.

Edward J. Valauskas is the principal, Internet Mechanics, and member of the Board of Directors of the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA). E-mail: ejv@uic.edu

This paper was part of the LITA President's Program, "Access Denied? Effects of Censorship, Copyright, and the Network Culture on Electronic Access to Information," moderated by LITA President Michele Newberry at Annual Conference of the American Library Association in New York on July 8, 1996.

1. For a comparative definition of "virtual communities" see Timothy C. May, 1995. "Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities," at http://thumper.vmeng.com/pub/rah/anarchy.html

2. Tim Berners-Lee, 1996. Unpublished presentation at the Fifth International World Wide Web Conference, May 7.

3. Bruce Sterling, 1992. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York, Bantam, pp. 54-55.

4. http://www.mit.edu:8001/activities/libertarians/ask-thomas-jefferson/jefferson.html

5. http://www.monticello.org/

6. S. Hambridge, 1995. "Netiquette guidelines. 3.1 User guidelines," Network Working Group, Request for Comments (RFC) no. 1855, p. 6, at http://www.es.net/pub/rfcs/rfc1855.txt

7. J. Reynolds, 1989. "The Helminthiasis of the Internet," Network Working Group, Request for Comments (RFC) no. 1135, pp. 4-7, at http://sunsite.auc.dk/RFC/rfc/rfc1135.html and many other localities.

8. Mitch Wagner, 1996. "Start-up pitches on-line catalogs for dummies," Computerworld, vol. 30, no. 8 (Feb. 19), p.20.

9. See for example, Raph Levien, 1995. " Final draft of editorial to SF Chronicle," at http://www.clas.ufl.edu:80/~avi/NII/siegel_raph-response.txt and K. K. Campbell, 1994. "A net.conspiracy so immense ... : Chatting With Martha Siegel of the Internet's infamous Canter & Siegel, " at http://lcs.www.media.mit.edu/people/foner/Essays/Civil-Liberties/Project/green-card-lawyers.html

10. David R. Johnson and David G. Post, 1996. "Law and Borders: The Rise of Law in Cyberspace," First Monday, vol. 1, no. 1 (May), http://journals.uic.edu/fm/article/view/468/389 http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v1i1.468

Copyright © 1996, First Monday

Lex Networkia by Edward Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 4 - 7 October 1996

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

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.