Since the web began to spread in 1995, this exploding network of
networks has grown 7,500-fold. Over a billion users worldwide now
have access. That's more than 15 percent of the world's population.
The Web is the perfect index of purely human priorities and
affinities. It is a window into intensive social subcultures, from
the sublime to the truly sad. Anyone who wonders which is winning
may be heartened that, at least this week, the Web has 6.4 times as
many websites devoted to "art" as to "porn."
We are still sorting out the Web's social and ethical
implications. Its greatest virtue - and the source of its spam,
spyware, viruses, and vices - is as a distributed medium, resistant
to central control. This, in turn, creates an imperative of self-
governance that, so far and too often, isn't being met. To test that
proposition, consider whether the social and business ethics on
display online are equal to those that people would display in the
The Web is full of strange ironies and weird polarities. It
offers closeness and immediacy, from anywhere and at any distance.
It lofts transient ephemera such as e-mail and instant messaging,
but makes them all too permanent (as any clumsy sender or convicted
executive knows). It combines assumed anonymity and fractured
accountability with a spooky loss of privacy (such as stealthy viral
programs that track your keystrokes). Its tendency to disinhibit
people prompts extremes: of candor and vitriol, connection and
alienation, creation and destruction, generosity and piracy.
Technology reflects our ethics. It also shapes them. Purists say
the Web is value-free. But in practice, it reflects a distinct set
of values that includes an embrace of anonymity and romping dissent;
a willingness to compromise privacy; and that persistent resistance
to centralized control. A dozen or so years since arriving on the
scene, the Web is still an ethical adolescent.
Early denizens' devotion to anonymity on the Web, as positive as
it seemed at the time, has led to unexpected, unintended results. A
masked ball, where you need not be who you really are, can be great
fun - and anonymity does great good for people in troubled
situations seeking counsel. But it also means we traffic in facts
and opinions without identified owners (as any chat room and many
blogs do). We give eternal life to bad ideas, sanctifying rumor and
urban legend (Louisiana's governor is said to have rebuffed White
House pleas to declare an emergency before hurricane Katrina). We
let phishers assume fake identities to steal real ones, and contend
with unimaginable flavors of spam, fraud, exploitation, and sexual