The New 'Civic Virtue' of the Internet


  • David R. Johnson
  • David Post



Who should the law-makers of cyberspace be? Who should be setting the rules that apply to conduct in the new global medium of 'cyberspace'? What polity or polities should we look to as a source of legitimate and welfare-enhancing rules for conduct on the net? We believe that the most obvious answer to this question - existing territorial sovereigns - may well be wrong. We question whether a governance system divided into territories demarcated by physical boundaries can simultaneously serve the two key governmental goals of legitimacy and efficiency in a world in which the effects of conduct has been decoupled from the physical location in which the conduct occurs. The new science of complex systems gives us reason to hope that an overall system of governance of the net that reconnects rule-making for online spaces with those most affected by those rules - but that also allows online groups to make decentralized decisions that have some impact on others, and that therefore elicit disparate responsive strategies - will create a new form of "civic virtue". The ideal of rational debate among "wise" elected representatives regarding the overall "public good" may be replaced, online at least, by a new architecture of governance that allows dispersed and complex interactions among groups of individuals taking unilateral actions and seeking more "local" goals and solutions. Instead of attempting to rely even upon the best of our democratic traditions to create a single set of laws imposed on the net "from the top down," we may all be better off if we allow the emergence of diverse and contending rule sets, in distinct areas of the net, which pull and tug against each other (and that help to recruit or drive off potential participants) - with the result that an optimal overall combination of rules arises. Rather than relying on good citizens of the global electronic polity to debate thoughtfully about a single shared vision of the common good, we might do better to look for a form of "civic virtue" that can reside in the very architecture of a decentralized, diverse complex system, like the net.




How to Cite

Johnson, D. R., & Post, D. (1998). The New ’Civic Virtue’ of the Internet. First Monday, 3(1).