Order supported by law: the enforcement of norms in virtual communities

The published version of my article on the enforcement of norms in virtual communities is now available here.

As online social spaces continue to grow in importance, the complex relationship between users and the private providers of the platforms continues to raise increasingly difficult questions about legitimacy in online governance. This article examines two issues that go to the core of egitimate governance in online communities: how are rules enforced and punishments imposed, and how should the law support legitimate governance and protect participants from the illegitimate exercise of power? Because the rules of online communities are generally ultimately backed by contractual terms of service, the imposition of punishment for the breach of internal rules exists in a difficult conceptual gap between criminal law and the predominantly compensatory remedies of contractual doctrine. When theorists have addressed the need for the rules of virtual communities to be enforced, a dichotomy has generally emerged between the appropriate role of criminal law for ‘real’ crimes, and the private, internal resolution of ‘virtual’ or ‘fantasy’ crimes. In this structure, the punitive effect of internal measures is downplayed and the harm that can be caused to participants by internal sanctions is systemically undervalued.