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A social contract for the internet?

November 8, 2010

The Internet.

It’s the phenomenon that has taken control of our daily lives: the virtual haven where we access to get entertained, socialize and learn; the powerful gateway through which almost everyone around the world can interact with one another and a digital world of anonymity and freedom.

It’s the place where one can access without having to feel governed, controlled or scrutinized as everyone who accesses the internet are anonymous. Perhaps it is this anonymity, or the seemingly unrestrained freedom provided that there are often cases cyber bullying and other offensive, or intrusive material like viruses and spam.

In many ways the internet is like the state of nature. As Locke described,

The state of nature involves men living together according to reason without a common superior with authority to judge among them. In the state of nature there is an absence of a common judge and the absence of any law except the law of nature.

On the internet, everyone is a man for himself. Each internet user must be aware of the problems present and protect himself. You have to purchase anti-virus software, install anti-spam features and download numerous other programs just to stay safe. Every time you log on to the internet, you are like a warrior entering an unknown territory, constantly watching out for possible enemies that could harm you.

In order to make the internet a safer place, perhaps its is necessary to join together in a social contract.

As Locke puts it:

To avoid these inconveniences, which disorder men’s propperties in the state of nature, men unite into societies, that they may have the united strength of the whole society to secure and defend their properties

There may be numerous problems arising, however, from this social contract. One difference between the internet and the state of nature is the scope of the internet. The internet is comprised of many geographical locations, cultural identities and ages. What makes this issue even more complicated is that the ‘purpose’ of the internet is very ambiguous. For a social contract to come together, there has to be a clear direction, a clear understanding of the purpose of the internet.

So although a social contract sounds like it may help with the problems caused by the internet, I am still at a lost.

Perhaps this is why despite all the problems that have risen, the best all of us can do is to do the best we can to protect ourselves: purchase the anti-virus program, download the anti-spam features, and always be cautious of what harms may come our way.

  1. adamkornbluh permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:38 PM

    I’m a little bit confused by your question of whether or not a social contract for the internet should be created. A social contract is not something that humans actively seek to create. It is formed by a mutual understanding and a creation of a government which gives us certain benefits in return for us giving up some of our personal liberty. Despite this, I do think you pose an interesting question.

    On the internet, there is very little oversight and because of this we are free to say and do as we want to a certain extent. Should there ever be a vote of some sort in which we were to decide if we wanted to regulate all of the internet as a whole, I don’t think it would succeed. There are so many multiple applications and uses of the internet that I do not think people who use the internet for trading stocks would agree with those who use it for blogging or videogames.

    The open, “state of nature”-esque environment of the internet is what makes it so appealing and allows it to grow at an exponential rate every year. Because of this, I do not think creating a social contract for its users would be beneficial.

  2. arimark91 permalink
    November 9, 2010 6:48 PM

    Many internet sites do have social contracts, especially ones that involve interacting with other internet users. There are certain terms and conditions that everyone must follow, and while there are internet trolls, they can be reported and blocked from using the site. The internet is not exactly the state of nature, because while there is a lot of freedom, it is still controlled, and people can get into a lot of trouble for what they post online.

  3. Andrew Berman permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:16 PM

    Arimark91 makes a great point saying that certain sites have social contracts. Overall, I feel that the internet should not have a social contract because of some of the points you made. Anonymity is what makes the internet the internet. If people constantly have to give away their personal information or do other stuff to follow the social contract. People should be able to surf the internet freely. If a certain cite requires a contract the user chooses whether or not to sign that contract. By forcing people to sign a contract to use the internet, the internet becomes a private entity. One of the reasons for why the internet works is the fact that it is public.

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