1.4.2. Norms

One way in which norms can be distinguished from rules is that norms are “standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations,” whereas rules are “specific prescriptions for action.”[1] Many of the norms of behaviour on the Internet are those that fall into the category of “netiquette.” The principles of netiquette are the subject of RFC 1855,[2] which explains that it is considered rude in online communications to TYPE IN ALL CAPITALS (as this is equivalent to shouting), that one should not send chain letters by email, and that messages posted to a newsgroup or mailing list should be restricted to the topic of that forum.[3]

When Internet norms are disregarded, the consequences can extend offline. The first large-scale commercial senders of spam, a law firm, Canter and Siegel, found their telephone and fax numbers being tied up day and night by automated junk messages from disgruntled Internet users.[4] More recently, one unfortunate spammer is even alleged to have been murdered by by angry spam recipients.[5] Whether or not this is true, it illustrates a danger with reliance on norms as a mechanism of governance: that there is no rule of law to guide their enforcement, with the result that unrestrained vigilantism can take over.[6]

Another problem is that the norms of Internet culture do not always coincide with public policy norms, as for example in the case of intellectual property protection, and that reliance on norms as a mechanism of governance of such issues will therefore be palpably ineffective. Even in cases where the two sets of norms do coincide, the social mechanisms by which norms tend to be enforced may be too weak to make it an effective mechanism of governance of antisocial conduct.[7]



Krasner, Stephen D, Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables (1982)


IETF, Netiquette Guidelines (1995). This is an informational rather than a standards-track RFC, and is now somewhat technologically dated.


Interestingly, this particular codification of the principles of netiquette also specifies that copyright should be respected, which is a principle inherited from the wider norms of international society rather than from those of Internet culture. See also Barquin, Ramon, The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics (1992).


What is commonly regarded as the first ever Usenet (Internet newsgroup) spam was sent in 1993 by an immigration law firm; see Campbell, K, A Net Conspiracy So Immense (1994).


Utter, David A, Did Anti-Spam Gang Kill Russian Spammer? (2005)


See McAdams, Richard H, The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms (1997), 412; Lemley, Mark, The Law and Economics of Internet Norms (1998) ; Froomkin, A M, Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace (2003), 825–830


For other problems with the reliance on Internet norms as a mechanism of governance, including the potential volatility and the heterogeneity of such norms, see Lemley, Mark, The Law and Economics of Internet Norms (1998).