Rights and Responsibilities of Digital Citizenship

In response to a previous post, Seth Finkelstein asked me to develop the implications of a conception of digital citizenship, and rightly so.  This post begins by explaining which intermediaries Helen Norton and I address and then develops our conception of digital citizenship in a bit more detail.  A follow-up post will provide preliminary suggestions about how intermediaries could, and should, educate users about their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens.

As Jack Balkin highlights, the “informational filter, not information, is king” in our digital age.  Internet intermediaries wield significant influence over our information landscape in much the same way that mass media does.  Search engines, such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, determine “what we read” and “who gets heard” by producing links to content in response to user requests.  Popular social media sites, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Digg, structure online environments that enable large groups of individuals to connect with each other.  While highlighting certain content and voices, Internet intermediaries downplay, block, and delete others.  Christopher Yoo has extolled intermediaries’ exercise of editorial discretion as “promot[ing] important free speech values by helping shield audiences from unwanted speech and by helping them identify and access desired content.”  As he observes, “the image of the Internet as an unintermediated experience, in which speakers speak directly to audiences without passing through any gatekeepers, is more myth than reality.  The real question is not whether some actor, but rather which actor, will serve as the intermediary.”

Commentators have expressed concern about governmental efforts to enlist intermediaries as “proxy censors to control the flow of information.”  In Intermediaries and Hate Speech: Fostering Digital Citizenship for the Information Age (forthcoming Boston University Law Review 2011), Helen Norton and I focus exclusively on intermediaries’ purely voluntary decisions to address hate speech.  As private entities, intermediaries can, and do, refuse to address cyber hate.  Twitter has taken this position.   Rather than taking a neutral position vis-a-vis online hatred, other intermediaries encourage it.  Consider the social network site Hate Book whose motto is “Post something you hate!” and thousands of websites, blogs, social network sites, and the like designed to spread hate.  Our conception of digital citizenship addresses intermediaries that choose to prohibit hateful content (and those might do so in the future) rather than intermediaries that ignore or support it.  Pursuant to terms of service agreements and community guidelines, intermediaries remove, denounce, or ignore instances of cyber hate.  Yet beyond vaguely-worded prohibitions of “hateful or offensive” speech, intermediaries often provide little explanation or consistency for their actions.  They leave unstated and perhaps unexplored how their decisions regarding cyber hate impact citizens whose capability to participate meaningfully offline and online depends upon their inclusion in networked spaces.  Intermediaries ought to teach users how to be responsible and respected digital citizens.

In our view, responsible digital citizenship entails a commitment to liberal values—“individual freedom, diversity, and a pluralistic rather than monistic version of the good life.”  We borrow from Richard Dagger’s liberal republican vision of citizenship, which contends that citizens have an obligation to respect individual rights and to help others exercise their right of autonomy.  Valuing autonomy requires tolerance for those whose beliefs differ as long as they do not violate others’ right to autonomy.  To respect other’s rights also involves acknowledging that “all persons are equally worthy of consideration; thus it is wrong to treat others as mere objects to be used for one’s own purposes.”  As Jeremy Waldron contends, citizens are required in their public dealings to treat others as equally human and deserving of the dignity of humanity.  As Kenneth Karst’s principle of equal citizenship suggests, people have a “right to be treated” as “respected, responsible participating members.”  Digital citizens bear the responsibility not to establish “rival public goods,” such as denying other’s basic standing in society.

Digital citizenship embodies the notion that all citizens are worthy of respect.  It protects individuals’ ability to partake freely in political, social, economic, and cultural opportunities online and offline.  It hopes to secure the assurance of people’s basic dignity and social standing.  As Anupam Chander has noted, cyberspace can help “give members of minority groups a fuller sense of citizenship—a right to a practice of citizenship that better reflects who they are.”  This is only possible when members of such groups find cyberspace a safe environment where their views are not silenced.  Digital citizenship entails shared responsibilities as well.  As Robin West elegantly notes in Taking Freedom Seriously, “[o]nly by refocusing society towards shared responsibilities of each individual member of the collective whole and ‘taking responsibility seriously’ can the freedoms of a liberal society be best secured.”  Digital citizenship means taking responsibility for treating others with respect.  In short, it aims to secure respected and responsible participation in online life.

Intermediaries can foster digital citizenship by inculcating norms of respect.  Just as law can be an “omnipresent teacher,” intermediaries’ actions can educate users about acceptable behavior.  Their inaction in the face of online hate plays a similar role:  Through silence, intermediaries send a powerful message about the scope of permissible behavior and suggests that group members are second-class citizens.  With actions and words, intermediaries can teach users that online discourse should embrace traditions of non-discrimination and dignity as well as free expression.  Intermediaries can address cyber hate in ways that reinforce users’ obligation to treat others with respect and discourage conduct that demeans others.  In other words, intermediaries can engage in activities designed to foster a culture of respect, rather than overlook the culture of subordination and fear that online hate generates.  In short, intermediaries can guide public norms towards an understanding that digital discourse should include attention to safety and respect for the dignity of other users.   Intermediaries can and should play a similar role with regard to online hatred.

A follow-up post today will tackle the ways in which intermediaries could, and should, foster digital citizenship often without suppressing speech.

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4 Responses

  1. Paul Horwitz says:

    Danielle, according to your view, which is a more responsible digital citizen: a religious discussion board that strongly believes and communicates the view that homosexuality is a grave sin and a disorder, but does so respectfully and in eloquent dialogue–or, say, a poster on Daily Kos who lambastes his or her adversaries, including online commenters, in harsh and personal terms and with deliberately insulting ad hominem language?

  2. Thanks so much, Paul, for your excellent question. Forgive me for not posting before now and for failing to write my follow up post with further details of our thinking. Here are some preliminary thoughts and I will be writing more soon. Respectfully aired views of illiberal positions are indeed much more in keeping with our conception of citizenship norms than disrespectful targeting of individual social conservatives designed to silence individuals. One important note is that, in the first example, homosexuals are arguably attacked as people (not their beliefs or policy positions), communicating the view that they are unworthy of respect and suggesting that they are second class citizens.

  3. Paul Horwitz says:

    I appreciate your response, and posted a comment yesterday, but it didn’t take. Let me say two things. First, in fairness, I should say my comment went a little further afield, since it talked about online speech in general and your post was specifically about what intermediaries ought to do. Second, I agree with your third sentence (without signing on to any stronger position about what is to be done about either kinds of speech). I would say about the last sentence, however, that it seems more complicated to me: it is at least possible to argue that homosexuality is wrong without excluding gays and lesbians from dialogue or arguing that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens. I could fully appreciate gays or lesbians (or others) viewing such a position as insufficient, but I don’t think such a view should be treated as being “bad citizenship,” as opposed to simply being a “wrong” opinion.

  4. Kaitlyn says:

    my teacher is making me make a power point but idk how???