The internet – in the form of the latest kerfuffle over craigslist – is exposing an anachronism of law in society.
I’ve seen reference lately to attorneys general and law-enforcement officials saying that the craigslist community policing itself isn’t enough. Said the Wall Street Journal: “Some large Internet communities are coming to a controversial conclusion: the Web can’t always police itself.” That’s why, they argue, they need to swoop in to save us from sex.
But the truth is that this episode only shows the gap between the law and the community. Craigslist’s community does police itself against the things that matter to it: fraud, spam, trolls. That’s how craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark, spends his days, in customer service: policing against the things that bother and matter to his community. But sex? Who gives a damn? Clearly, the community doesn’t think it needs to be protected from that. So who are these cops protecting and from what?
That’s a fascinating aspect of the culture of the internet: It shows what really matters to a community and what does not matter and that, in turn, reveals how out of touch laws and those who make and enforce them can be. Craigslist is a society and it has its own laws and means of enforcement.
Can the law, like media, still be one-size-fits-all? Well, of course, to some extent, it must be. We need consistent laws across society that define everything from fraud to murder; tat is the foundation of society. But within a society there are other societies. And so, in the U.K., there have long been religious courts that deal with disputes in the Jewish and Muslim communities. The laws of society still stand over them (thank God) and members of the community retain the right to call on those laws. Online, we also have communities that cut across borders and have their own rules of behavior. Indeed, even games become societies with laws and consequences. As Lawerence Lessig famously said, code is law, for it prescribes behavior exactly. Laws come into conflict with laws.
And so, once again, the internet becomes a threat to the control and power of an elite and they are exploiting craiglist – and the murderer who used it – to reassert their control. But it has the marks of a witchhunt. Craigslist’s blog this weekend writes about the attorney general of South Carolina going after it even though craigslist promotes these supposed sins less than others. The blog says: “And FWIW, telephone yellow pages and other local print media have both companies beat hands down as adult service ad venues for South Carolina. Any interest in targeting them for criminal prosecution? Didn’t think so.” This weekend, I was also glad to hear craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster go on the offensive against the offended on On the Media.
I’ll be writing more about the law after the internet soon. I have lawyers on the brain.
(Disclosure: Craig Newmark is a friend and an investor in Daylife, where I’m a partner.)