Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Lawsuits and public outrage drag Craigslist into the real world

Responding to lawsuits and public outrage following the murder of a Boston-area masseuse, Craigslist has agreed to drop “erotic services” ads and have staff members screen ads posted to its “adult” category.

Part of me is sad to read this, even though I think Craigslist is doing the right thing. Craigslist’s capitulation represents the latest intrusion of “real world” values into unfettered libertarian cyberspace. It represents an unfortunate coming of age for a medium that used to operate beyond the reach of speech codes and vice law.

For years, the Internet has been a kind of libertarian reservation, existing in a parallel universe where taxes, copyright laws, speech codes and community standards did not apply. Government was content to ignore the Internet for a decade or two, but I’m afraid this was more a function of ignorance than tolerance. Regulators stayed away from the Internet because they didn’t understand it and because it wasn’t big enough to bother with.

Generally these things don’t become legislative priorities until somebody makes money or until somebody gets hurt.

The Internet is on our legislative radar now, and the real world is slowly invading utopia. The party’s not over yet, but people are starting to fidget and look for their coats.

The Internet may have started as a government program, but it gave birth to a uniquely libertarian culture, inspired by the hacker ethic of the early ’80s. These early adopters were dedicated to free speech, free software and the unrestrained flow of information.

Not a big deal when the network was restricted to a few thousand computer geeks, but now the Net is starting to disrupt the lives of “respectable” people.

Craigslist started as a pure expression of hacker values, a free service facilitating free trade and free expression. But now Craigslist is making money. Once you start making money off a community, you enter into an unspoken agreement to protect and support that community.

This obligation isn’t always stated explicitly, but that’s the assumption under these laws. That assumption of community responsibility is at odds with the freewheeling spirit of the Internet where anything goes and every user is expected to be responsible for himself.

Americans like to talk about freedom, individuality and personal responsibility, but these values assume a fundamental respect for community and shared values. The Republicans advocating free markets and the Democrats advocating free speech assume that those freedoms will be restrained by an unspoken sense of decency and respect for the community.

We assume that people will honor social conventions of their own free will, and when they don’t, somebody has to make a law.

You can’t have freedom without responsibility, and the Internet makes it very easy for people to avoid responsibility for their words and actions.

The clerk at the corner store is expected to run off children who come to look at adult magazines, even when there’s not a law on the books to forbid it. But on the Internet there is no clerk. There is no sure mechanism for enforcing community standards and no social cost for breaking them.

The fundamental problem here is a lack of social feedback. In the real world, a person who tried to crash a funeral and say rude things about the deceased would be thrown out of the building and ostracized by his peers. But on the Internet, a commenter can be anonymous and post anything he or she wants without suffering a social cost.

This lack of accountability puts the Internet in a unique category. In the real world, social conventions can be enforced by peer pressure. On the Internet, we have to take a brute force approach.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need laws to make people take responsibility for themselves, but we’re living in a world where government is expected to care for us and social conventions must be spelled out in 20 pages of legalese.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

May 15, 2009 at 18:19

Posted in Columns

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