Civilizing the Web's ethical wildness

A dozen or so years since arriving on the scene, the Web is still an ethical adolescent.

Since the web began to spread in 1995, this exploding network of networks has grown 7,500-fold. Over a billion users worldwide now have access. That's more than 15 percent of the world's population. The Web is the perfect index of purely human priorities and affinities. It is a window into intensive social subcultures, from the sublime to the truly sad. Anyone who wonders which is winning may be heartened that, at least this week, the Web has 6.4 times as many websites devoted to "art" as to "porn."

We are still sorting out the Web's social and ethical implications. Its greatest virtue – and the source of its spam, spyware, viruses, and vices – is as a distributed medium, resistant to central control. This, in turn, creates an imperative of self-governance that, so far and too often, isn't being met. To test that proposition, consider whether the social and business ethics on display online are equal to those that people would display in the same room.

The Web is full of strange ironies and weird polarities. It offers closeness and immediacy, from anywhere and at any distance. It lofts transient ephemera such as e-mail and instant messaging, but makes them all too permanent (as any clumsy sender or convicted executive knows). It combines assumed anonymity and fractured accountability with a spooky loss of privacy (such as stealthy viral programs that track your keystrokes). Its tendency to disinhibit people prompts extremes: of candor and vitriol, connection and alienation, creation and destruction, generosity and piracy.

Technology reflects our ethics. It also shapes them. Purists say the Web is value-free. But in practice, it reflects a distinct set of values that includes an embrace of anonymity and romping dissent; a willingness to compromise privacy; and that persistent resistance to centralized control. A dozen or so years since arriving on the scene, the Web is still an ethical adolescent.

Early denizens' devotion to anonymity on the Web, as positive as it seemed at the time, has led to unexpected, unintended results. A masked ball, where you need not be who you really are, can be great fun – and anonymity does great good for people in troubled situations seeking counsel. But it also means we traffic in facts and opinions without identified owners (as any chat room and many blogs do). We give eternal life to bad ideas, sanctifying rumor and urban legend (Louisiana's governor is said to have rebuffed White House pleas to declare an emergency before hurricane Katrina). We let phishers assume fake identities to steal real ones, and contend with unimaginable flavors of spam, fraud, exploitation, and sexual predation. Human nature is a constant – the Web just makes its worst aspects easier to indulge, on a wider scale.

Ironically, this acceptance of anonymity has brought with it inventive violations of privacy. Data anonymously acquired on corporate servers tell their owners – based on what you're doing, spending, and looking at – more about who you "really are" than you probably want them to know. This surrender of privacy has become a discomfort we accept.

Consider three radically different options for civilizing the Web: one, effective but culturally unlikely; a second, less effective but easy; and a third, ineffective but perhaps inevitable.

Option 1: Create a parallel Web and certificate system where, by consent, users gain and retain access by maintaining their real information in a secure central registry, which has the authority to set standards for privacy, adjudicate bad behavior, and suspend or revoke access. This would roughly coincide with the extinction of civil libertarians everywhere. But it would certainly cut spam.

Option 2: To address the worst of the Web, Internet service providers (ISPs) should own up to their role in hosting one-to-many content. They're not the same as telecom and post, which carry one-to-one, private messages. Once exploitive and illegal content is reported to them, they should drop websites and usenet newsgroups that traffic in it. Today, too often, they don't bother. As motivation, the sites that rate those ISPs could add a "responsibility index" – allowing users to rate responsiveness to requests to shut down illegal websites. ISPs have brands to protect. Even a modest number of subscribers who consider a social-responsibility rating when making renewal decisions will make a difference.

Option 3: Continue on as we have, inviting a patchwork of legal and legislative cures, as government tries to fix what's most broken. The ISPs will bear the brunt of it, and none of us will be happy with it.

There is a fourth option. That's for the third parties who carry and monetize the Web's content to attend more carefully to the social and business environment they create and profit from – before government does it for them. In time, they have to answer an important question: whether the ethics of civil society are integral, or immaterial, to the Web's future success.

Mark Lange is a former presidential speechwriter.

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