Governing the Internet

Regulating suspect activity on the Internet is certainly a noble cause but there are difficulties that inherent to the medium itself that make this a difficult task.

Two Basic Problems

How will we be able to:

  1. "establish and enforce baseline rules of conduct that facilitate reliable communications and trustworthy commerce.
  2. define, punish and prevent wrongful actions that trash the electronic commons or impose harm on others."

Four Models For Regulation

  1. Existing territorial sovereigns can simply seek to extend their jurisdiction, and to amend their laws as necessary, to attempt to govern all actions on the net that have substantial impacts on their own citizenry.
  2. Sovereigns can enter into multi-lateral international agreements to establish new and uniform rules specifically applicable to conduct on the net.
  3. A new international organization can attempt to establish new rules - - and new means of enforcing those rules and of holding those who make the rules accountable to appropriate constituencies.
  4. De facto rules may emerge as a result of the complex interplay of individual decisions by domain name and IP address registries (regarding what conditions to impose on possession of an online address), by sysops (regarding what local rules to adopt, what filters to install, what users to allow to sign on, and with which other systems to connect) and by users (regarding which personal filters to install and which systems to patronize).

One of the major problems is the issue of centralized enforcement of the rules. Of the four models mentioned above only the fourth uses a decentralized method of regulation, which may prove to be more effective in this new medium. "Consider what makes the net work. The net itself solves an immensely difficult collective action problem: how to get large numbers of individual computer networks, running diverse operating systems, to communicate with one another for the common good. And, yet, the net is really nothing more than a set of voluntary standards regarding message transmission, routing, and reception."

So what will work?

The law of the net has emerged, and can continue to emerge, from the voluntary adherence of large numbers of network administrators to basic rules of law (and dispute resolution systems to adjudicate the inevitable inter- network disputes), with individual users voting to join the particular systems they find most congenial. Or perhaps we should think of this as the law of the nets, for one possible (or even likely) consequence of this evolutionary development is the emergence of multiple network confederations, each with their own constitutional principles -- some permitting and some prohibiting, say, anonymous communications, some imposing strict rules regarding redistribution of information and others allowing freer movement -- enforced by means of electronic fences prohibiting the movement of information across confederation boundaries.


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