There is a growing need for social and economic regulation in virtual environments. In order to address this need, corporations are defining and enforcing rules of user conduct. In this way, the Rule of Law is being replaced by “Terms of Use” and “User Code of Conduct” in online environments. This is unacceptable. In the future, it will be necessary to extend the Rule of Law to Virtual Space.

Bullying and other forms of unacceptable behavior are becoming increasingly common on the internet today. In order to discourage these types of unwanted behavior, social networking and online game companies are requiring users to follow sets of rules, standards of acceptable behavior.

For example, if you sign up for Facebook or SecondLife, you are required to agree to the “Terms of Use” and a “User Code of Conduct.” Terms of Use and User Conduct prohibit unwanted behavior; they specify what you are allowed to do, and what will happen if you break the rules. They are, in a sense, the law of the land.

If you are interested in networking, and want to join an online social networking site, there are not a whole lot of options. MySpace and Facebook control roughly 90% market, and you are going to have to abide by their rules.

While we should no doubt applaud the development and enforcement of standards of appropriate behavior, rules of acceptable behavior are being assigned by contract, not by law. The law regulating virtual environments is, in essence, being written by corporations, not being developed through democratic processes. And citizenship – virtual citizenship – is being granted by the corporation.

If the purpose of democratic government is to regulate social and economic interaction, at behest of the people, then it should regulate social and economic interaction in virtual space, as well. And this applies to social networking sites, whether owned by a corporation or not.

Online social networking sites are the new “public forum.” Individuals should have the right to participate in the public form, to network and self-promote, to express their views. These are basic civil liberties and they should be protected through law. Or to put it a different way, virtual citizenship is not something which is granted; it is a birthright.

This is not to suggest that various online communities should not be able to dictate the terms of membership or standards of behavior, yet some exceptions must apply. Major online public networking sites, which constitute the new “public forum,” should be subject directly to U.S. Law. You do not wave your basic rights every time you go online.

As we spend more and more time in virtual environments, we are faced with a simple question, “Does the rule of law apply to virtual environments or not?” If the rule of law does not apply to social networking sites, it is not clear that the law applies in virtual space at all. All virtual environments and internet sites are, at least arguably, social networking sites. That is, if “privately owned online clubs” are, to an extent, outside the law, the virtual world is, to an extent, outside the law.

Yet, there has been a growing need for regulation of virtual space: pirating, identity theft, pedophilia, espionage, slander, fraud . . . and the list will continue to grow, as online interaction grows in importance. Clearly, there is a need for the development of laws governing virtual space. Jason Lee (a former philosophy student of mine) articulates the point this way: All places – relevant places – in which existing legal and moral standards are ineffective are in need of new legal and moral standards. And clearly, online environments are places in with existing legal and moral standards are ineffective; and are thus in need of new legal and moral standards.

There is no question that we are in need of legal standards to help regulate virtual space. And we have a democracy to help us with this: a legislative branch to craft law, an executive branch to enforce it, and a court system for dispute resolution. The alternative is unacceptable: the replacement of the legislative branch of the government by the corporate executive and lawyers, the executive branch by administrative assistants, and the judicial branch by the same administrative assistants.

Upon review, Terms of Use and User Conduct do not make for good law. Gmail, for instance, prohibits content which may be objectionable or that interferes with user enjoyment. In a similar manner, it prohibits content which may be harmful to minors – a matter of some debate. These prohibitions are open to interpretation, limit individual liberty, and simply cannot be the basis of law.

While we should applaud the corporate world for establishing standards of appropriate behavior (in an attempt to protect individuals from harm), this simply cannot be allowed. Standards of appropriate behavior, which govern online interaction, should be developed through the democratic process.

msc July, 08
(jl March, 08)