Cyberlaw and the Norms of Science

Posted by Anton Hughes on Thursday, September 08, 2005 with No comments
Dan Burk starts from the assumption that "technologies embody the values of their creator, and the values thus embodied may include social values otherwise unassociated with the artifact itself". He claims that this assumption is often the starting point in the humanities - that a created object can tell us much about the thought process that went into it - architecture and art being obvious examples. He notes that this will not always be the case, as sometimes choices will be determined by such things as manufacturing and marketing constraints.
This approach can be applied to the Internet, which despite any "cold war legacy of its predecessor, ARPAnet ... embodies the distinctly non-hierarchical attitudes of the researchers employed by the military. ... Subsequent to ints incarnation as ARPAnet, the network and its development were for a much longer and more critical period in the custody of the National Science foundation. ... Thus the early history of the network was dominated by academic research usage and academic users, both in computer science and other areas of basic research."
Thus Burk posits that the norms of science (namely the universalism, disinterestedness, communalism and organised skepticism of Merton, plus the individualism of Barber) have imprinted themselves on the design of the Internet. He finds early support for this in:
  • the customs of netiquette;
  • the "marked hostility toward commercial usage of the Internet that was not necessary simply to manage the commons" which dominated until times;
  • the "hacker ethic" which emphasises sharing of resources and unrestricted informational flows;
  • the structure of the network, which enables remote access and resources sharing (communalism);
  • an assumption of "open access to publicly available files";
  • a lack of support for user identification in favour of anonymity.

Now that the Internet has "passed from the exclusive provenance of the scientific community to that ofbroader society", the result is a culture clash. Burk cites spam as an example of an abuse of the open architecture of the Internet for commercial purposes. Similarly, the ability to hide ones identity is also prone to abuse.
To be continued....