Cyberspace's juries need no judges
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #58

Governments, law enforcement agencies, legislators and scholars all over the world are puzzling over the strange border-less nature of the vast octopus we call cyberspace. How, they wonder, to prevent the world from collapsing in a wave of money-launderers, human-rights activists, drug- runners and freedom fighters who can't be pinned down to any particular geographical location? The two-fold answer is frustratingly simple - the peaceful anarchy of the infosphere will not spell universal doom; and in practice, it will fall outside the jurisdiction of any formal legal authority, though within that of its own, distributed, informal and quasi-legal.

The inhabitants of the on-line world are a very independent lot, and don't like being told what to do unless they see, and agree with, the reason. This has the effect of applying Occam's Razor to every possible rule or regulation, which is why cyberspace has long had so few of them. For much of its history, the only important thing was the conservation of bandwidth, which translated to an abhorrence of the irrelevant. Hence the preponderance of separate forums for difference topics, each with collected answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to avoid repetition. Now, and in the future, cyberspace rules will have to deal with rather more, as more aspects of society migrate on-line. But the ways these rules are implemented will change little, if at all.

Cyberspace doesn't have judges or policemen (the closest to both rolled into one would be the system administrator of a machine, except that one can easily escape to another system). Instead, cyberspace has an abundance of juries. Everyone belongs to juries, where the word is taken to mean a collection of ordinary people judging the actions of others. Everyone is free to pass a verdict, and everyone is free not to follow it, or to attempt to implement stronger verdicts of their own. So far, this ad hoc distributed courtroom has been quite effective, because whoever participates in this quasi-legal process believes in and accepts it.

This haphazard system does not actually bind the infosphere into a single jurisdiction. Rather, there exist overlapping jurisdictions in great numbers, to which individuals belong voluntarily. True to the notion of the social contract, people choose to submit to certain rules in exchange for benefits (principally of being allowed interaction with others of the same group). If they dissent, they can always move on elsewhere - not something feasible in the physical world of national boundaries. In keeping with this flexibility of citizenship, the commonest form of punishment is, after rude messages and similar public or private humiliation, to ostracize. This is, communication being the whole purpose of getting wired, a potent equivalent of exile.

Above all else, cyberspatial justice will depend on technology. Technology that, ever neutral to its uses, allows anonymous, untraceable international communications between political dissenters as well as terrorists, also helps any move towards some sort of order. Cryptography and its inverse, digital signatures, go a long way in eliminating information theft and fraud. Reputation systems, which implicitly reward or punish based on people's actions, will diminish tort, the final leg of the tripod of info-crime.

All other 'real' crimes of the sort that bother legislators don't happen in the infosphere itself, but in the 'real' world outside. Everything said, cyberspace is just a collection of words and dreams. It would do those who wish to rule it well to remember that.

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