Blog Topic 3: Bill of Rights, Bill of Wrongs

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Should there be a Bill of Rights for the social web? In a word, no.

Upon early contemplation of the question, I was merely opposed to the idea for a few practical reasons. But after thinking further, browsing the justifications of other people, reading Clay Shirky’s book, and perusing the Open Social Web’s official forum, I now find the concept downright stupid.

First, a recap for the purpose of clarity. Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington of opensocialweb.org proposed the need for an online Bill of Rights. They outlined three primary goals of such a document: ownership of personal information, control over whether and how it’s used, and freedom to grant persistent access to personal information. This proposal was aptly first published in the form of a blog post in order to solicit discussion and debate amongst readers. And debate they did. Readers’ comments are as inspired, interesting, and impractical as the original idea itself.

Let me reemphasize that my first and primary reaction to such a declaration of rights is that it should not exist at all. That being said, like the Cluetrain Theses, I find the three proposals for the Open Social Web’s Bill to really be only one proposal (the right to exercise control over personal information) that is relatively limited in scope. Ownership and control of personal information is, of course, desirable and, at times, critical to our non-online lives (e.g. personal bank account information that is hack-able over the internet and the resulting depleted bank balance that is debilitating in real life). But endless other considerations of equal importance to online social activity exist: equality of opportunity for expression, a right to safely express one’s self without fear of dangerous retribution, etc. To attempt to identify all such “rights” and assemble them into a compendium is impracticality No. 1.

And now for impracticalities Nos. 2 through however many I end up ranting about…

How in the world could such a Bill of Rights be enforced? It couldn’t. And an unenforceable treatise is a useless treatise.  If online users wish to support the idea of an online Bill of Rights, fabulous. Even I agree with the tenets set forth on opensocialweb.org. But loose support does not equate to marked improvement in the morality and fairness of social web applications.

Most of the people who express support for the idea in all probability already follow the guidelines voluntarily, respecting the ownership of others’ personal information and safeguarding their own. As one Open Social commenter pointed out, the web doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the legal weight of any final wording decided upon for an online Bill of Rights. And I personally would rather the Supreme Court stay away from the whole issue. Isn’t it enough that corporations are now imbued with the glorified power of nearly unlimited campaign spending? If the issue of online rights were ever to enter the SCOTUS, I fear the outgoing result would be voting rights for websites.

For me, the biggest problem with proposing a Bill of Rights for the social web is the same problem I have with many of the sentiments expressed by Shirky and Scott Rosenberg (the latter of whom explicitly acknowledged the quandary). Both writers implicitly based many of their examples and arguments on a very black-and-white, right-versus-wrong structure when the web is the greyest of all grey worlds. Evan-versus-the-Sidekick-Thief. Flash mobbers-versus-flash crashers. Corporations-versus-consumers. Publishers-versus-subscribers. The problem with all of this, especially in the latter case, is that almost all of us play both rolls. The internet has turned us all into Janus, and the faces we reveal and masks we don online are dependent upon our own ever-changing situational needs and desires. Thus, in proposing a Bill of Rights for the social web, we may be protecting ourselves in one situation and incriminating ourselves in another. In the case of Evan, a legislated — or at least agreed-upon — right to control over personal information legitimates his mellow-dramatic crusade to recover his friend’s Sidekick (which was itself a piece of property and also contained a great amount of personal information). However, that same right to personal information might protect Sasha from having her personal photos uploaded to the internet and a video of revealing the location of her home from being posted.

Another problem I have with the concept of an online Bill of Rights, regardless of its content, is that it poses an ironic potential threat to the very concept of equality upon which the U.S. Bill of Rights was based. If a Bill of Rights for the social web were to be codified, solidified, and applied, it would, in theory, imbue users with heightened protection from those seeking to abuse their personal information, security, and privacy. What’s the problem with that, you ask? Nothing. The problem lies in the fact that even if everyone has an equal right to use the social web freely, many millions of people still have no access to the social web at all. And if social web users can converse and transact business more safely on the web because of a Bill of Rights, those who do not enjoy computer access are forced to socialize and engage in commerce in the hypothetically less-secure real world, thus creating…INEQUALITY! Oh, the irony. Now, I know I am taking this way too far and playing Devil’s advocate. But still. It’s something to think about…

Which leads to yet another dilemma: Unlike the U.S. Bill of Rights, a Bill of Rights for the social web would govern a multinational constituency. All of these constituents reside in nations whose governing documents vary radically and would inevitably, at least in some cases, fly in the face of any global web doctrine.  And in that case, a new problem arises: Which document would enjoy primacy? A government constitution and a codified set of laws hundreds of years old, or an online Bill of Rights? Who would decide? Will governments need to form online task forces? Will Hillary Clinton have yet another topic added to her global agenda? Will we have to call the UN? I am having visions of a V for Vendetta-esque global flashmob donning Guy Fawkes masks and gyrating to Run This Town (feat. Rihanna) just thinking about it.

The United States Bill of Rights was nothing more than a set of amendments to already-accepted standards of behavior (also know as the Constitution). And the only big amendment the web stands in need of is the same amendment that the physical world also often lacks – the need for common sense. If social web users exercised it more often, a Bill of Rights would be largely unnecessary. I think of logging onto the internet as an implied user agreement, kind of like the little box you have to check every other week when iTunes changes its download policies. Perhaps this agreement is too implicit. Perhaps web browsers need to automatically open to a page with a little box for us to check – “By using the internet, I agree to not make idiotic decisions.”

Clay Shirkey claims, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behavior.” In the case of the web, the new behavior has precipitated a new society, or at the very least an alternative one. While the online population can be no larger than the actual population, it is different. And like any emerging society feeling its way through its inception and civilizing itself along the way, we simply must hope that as the internet grows and becomes mainstream, a majority of its users will assume habits of propriety, respect, and common sense. The threat of being ostracized from the online community may seem ethereal but is, in fact, very real and very powerful. If people go online to connect and feel part of a greater force of humanity, ostracism from even this two-dimensional world can be devastating. And though it is never good to govern using fear tactics, a healthy dose of communal rebuke for those who abuse the tenets of online property, trust, and respect can go a long way. And firewalls can go even further.

I’ll close with a different kind of Common Sense, simply because I think the 1990’s were where it was at


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