The role of the rule of law in virtual communities

This article comes from a core chapter of my PhD and will be published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. You can view the pre-print here: The Role of the Rule of Law in Virtual Communities (forthcoming BTLJ 2011) (PDF).

There is a severe tendency in cyberlaw theory to delegitimize state intervention in the governance of virtual communities. Much of the existing theory makes one of two fundamental flawed assumptions: that communities will always be best governed without the intervention of the state; or that the territorial state can best encourage the development of communities by creating enforceable property rights and allowing the market to resolve any disputes. These assumptions do not ascribe sufficient weight to the value-laden support that the territorial state always provides to private governance regimes, the inefficiencies that will tend to limit the development utopian communities, and the continued role of the territorial state in limiting autonomy in accordance with communal values.

In order to overcome these deterministic assumptions, this article provides a framework based upon the values of the rule of law through which to conceptualise the legitimacy of the private exercise of power in virtual communities. The rule of law provides a constitutional discourse that assists in considering appropriate limits on the exercise of private power. I argue that the private contractual framework that is used to govern relations in virtual communities ought to be informed by the values of the rule of law in order to more appropriately address the governance tensions that permeate these spaces. These values suggest three main limits to the exercise of private power: that governance is limited by community rules and that the scope of autonomy is limited by the substantive values of the territorial state; that private contractual rules should be general, equal, and certain; and that, most importantly, internal norms be predicated upon the consent of participants.

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