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The Net Strikes Back

By Howard Rheingold

How should Internet citizens respond when ambitious entrepreneurs violate the Net's unwritten rules of conduct? The question arose recently when two Arizona lawyers indiscriminately posted advertisements to thousands of inappropriate online forums -- a gross breach of Netiquette known as "spamming." Can the Net defend itself against practices such as spamming without endangering the freedom of expression that has made this global electronic forum valuable?

Some netheads responded to the lawyers' ad barrage with guerilla tactics, "flaming" the spammers -- jamming their electronic mailboxes with impolite notes. Netizens were urged to e-mail the two lawyers and ask for information about their business by paper mail. If enough polite but bogus requests were blasted back at the spammers, these Net users reasoned, then perhaps the price of finding one paying client would be raised too high.

But in the end, the most effective way of safeguarding the Net's democratic code is neither guerilla war not the tyranny of rules. Under the banner of "tools, not rules," some Usenet enthusiasts have created computer programs to deal with online boors. A "kill-file" can cause anything written by specified person to be discarded without viewing; the messages will arrive at the general delivery electronic mailbox for your computer community, and others can choose to read them, but they won't be shown to you as an option when you check different conversations (known as newsgroups) for new postings.

If a pushy salesman wants to crash a communal conversation about health care reform or molecular biology, the 16,000 people involved in that mass conversation can put the offender's electronic address in their kill files, and postings from the offending electronic address will no longer be displayed on their computers.

On Usenet, nobody can stop you from spouting any kind of nonsense, but anybody can make you disappear from his or her own screen. Using the available tools to bar unwelcome solicitors is far easier than limiting freedom of expression on the Net -- it's also morally preferable.

Attention is the currency of cyberspace. If spammers learn that the Net will turn off its attention in an organized manner, maybe they'll go away before they damage the cybernetic commons. If too many opportunists ignore the social agreements that make the net useful as an online thinktank, the marvelous knowledge-sharing culture that had scaled up so well from the one thousand person ARPAnet in 1970 to the twenty million person Internet of 1994 will be extinct by the time hundreds of millions come online by 1999.

The attack of the spammers is probably just the first of many coming collisions between human greed and common courtesy on the Net. We need to get better at building computer tools and social contracts that deal with such problems without entangling ourselves in rules and regulations. When regulations are necessary, they should be carefully designed, with clearly thought out goals. People want to cooperate, and benefit from cooperating, but only if freeloaders are prevented from spoiling the game.

Copyright 1994, Howard Rheingold
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