Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Gated Communities In Cyberspace

The creation of defensible space holds the key to commerce on the Internet.

By Ellen F. Harshman, James E. Fisher, William B. Gilliespie, James F. Gilsinan, and Fred C. Yeager

Imagine a neighborhood: It has a park with an ornamental gate letting visitors into a garden. The windows of the houses shine, and the yards are carefully manicured.

Now picture a different space: The buildings are splashed with graffiti, their windows covered in many places by plywood. Trash blows through the streets.

Which place is more likely to be the site of a crime? The obvious answer is the second space, but why? Social scientists might argue that the reason is contained in a concept called "defensible space."

[Fence Posts]

Defensible Space Defensible space identifies important ways in which physical design can inhibit crime. Perceptions of danger are reduced by the arrangement of such elements as gates, and well-maintained windows and buildings. The message such physical arrangements convey is: This space is watched and cared for.

The absence of such defensible space in cyberspace is one factor that inhibits commerce on the Internet. Net surfers are given few cues that the virtual space they want to visit is safe. On the contrary, warnings flash that the data they are transmitting is not secure or that information on their buying habits may be collected and sold. As a result, many potential buyers and sellers are reluctant to enter into transactions—or even to display their "wares"—as this museum spokesperson explained to researchers Debora Spar and Jeffrey Bussgang: "For now...cyberspace is a chaotic wild west frontier full of highway bandits and subject to only the roughest kind of vigilante justice."

The evolution of this lawless environment in cyberspace has many parallels to the development of a crime-ridden urban area. In real space, the central business core of a city exerts pressure on the next immediate zone to change from residential to manufacturing land use. The invasion of manufacturing into a residential area creates a zone of transition, one where both land use and the social fabric supported by it become unstable. Because housing in this zone is now under constant threat of demolition to make room for expanded manufacturing, it is allowed to deteriorate.

Residents with the ability to escape this zone do so, moving into a third or even fourth zone. They are replaced by those less well-off for whom the devalued, and therefore cheaper, housing is attractive. As soon as these people are able, however, they also move. Thus a social vacuum is created because stable norms of conduct cannot develop in the face of this constant movement.

Internet Sprawl

The history of the Internet parallels this development dynamic. In the early 1950s, the Cold War spurred the Pentagon, defense contractors, and research universities to experiment with both computers and modes of information exchange that would be invulnerable to nuclear attack. By 1968, the central core of what was to become the Internet was in place, connecting, in addition to the military, an elite group of prestigious research institutions.

Such networking remained confined to an elite during much of the 1970s, and by 1981, there were only 200 host sites. However, that changed when, in mid-1985, the National Science Foundation concluded that it needed to link its five supercomputer data centers. This began a period of explosive growth of Internet networks, as more and more universities, businesses, government entities, and individuals sought linkages.

[Bear with Cubs]

The rapid outward growth pattern created a zone of transition with virtually unregulated and, by design, unregulatable networks of information exchange. From a tightly controlled, hierarchical zone, a disorganized, un-regulated zone emerged. Those seeking order moved to a third zone- regulated chat rooms on the Net; or to even a fourth zone-intranets, which once again tightly controlled access.

The open architecture and easy access that drove the explosive growth of the Internet have created a space with uncertain boundaries. The absence of clear demarcation between public space-allowing access and use by anyone—and private space-identified for particular use by particular people—physically signals a no-man's land where crime will be tolerated.

The Problem With Government Regulation

Often, we think of crime as a problem for government to solve, but several factors peculiar to the Internet make it a bad candidate for government control. First, it is an international medium. Writing in The New York Times, Vinton Cerf argues that individual governments struggling with regulation could be as problematic as no regulation whatever:

Of greatest concern...are the many legal quagmires and incoherent policy patchworks that hinder Internet commerce. Achieving full seamlessness of Internet networks will be impossible if the networks' builders must maneuver through inconsistent laws and policies. Not only are the policies of many nations in conflict, but so are policies within nations-and to such an extreme that some seem mutually exclusive.

Also, attempts to regulate Internet abuses such as pornography can conflict with rights protected in the U.S. Constitution. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which contained provisions designed to protect children from what has been described as "cybersleaze." The constitutionality of the CDA was immediately challenged. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that these provisions were so broad and vague that they conflicted with the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

If government intervention is inappropriate to create safety on the Net, we are left to look for other means to bring order and structure to the medium.

Signals of Safety

One answer may be through the creation of defensible cyberspace. That means attention to the physical aspects that clearly identify safe places on the Net. Business may need to be transacted within the electronic equivalent of gated communities.

This implies the application of protective devices similar in concept to the controls real estate developers use in physical communities. On the Internet, defensible spaces could be identified by the use of encryption and the institution of strict rules. Another device would be fire walls—security technology that serves as a buffer between an internal network and the Internet. Commercial activities could also be protected by tracked activities, monitoring the use and users of Internet postings.

Although the establishment of defensible cyberspace may seem antithetical to democratic views of open markets and universal access, virtual businesses need to create electronic signposts demarcating space that is both cared for and guarded.

Essentially, the development of defensible space signifies what others have called the creation of community. Political scientist Derek Foster defines community as a set of voluntary, social, and reciprocal relations bound together by an immutable "we feeling." Communitarians see these communities as offering "moral starting points" for each individual. Thus, the traditions, practices and conventions of communities have at least some claim on members.

Out of these shared values, communities can often develop rules without recourse to government and law. Indeed, communitarian philosopher Michael Sandel has noted the linkages between a sense of community and self-governance.

Self-governance and Rules

What is true in the real world also applies to cyberspace. As the Internet community develops, the members will find certain kinds of rules are required. For example, if business is to stake a successful claim in this electronic frontier—a defensible market space, if you will—then property rights must have substance within this new dimension. Economic exchange depends on clear understanding of ownership, as well as on mechanisms for protecting an owner's rights, transferring property rights, and punishing those who violate such rights.

Currently, "on-line property rights are imprecisely defined; the Net remains a virtual free-for-all where information is seen as a public good and ownership is up for grabs," Spar and Bussgang, point out. The cyberspace community must attend to this issue.

Successful commerce also depends on sound and secure systems of payment. Parties to an exchange must have confidence that "buyers and sellers are really who they claim to be, that the information being exchanged cannot be stolen or altered en route, and that the payment being offered is real. These levels of security do not yet exist broadly on the Internet," Spar and Bussgang continue, challenging the members of the commercial community to design and implement the necessary economic systems.

We can already see some examples of self-regulation at work. Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken the lead in policing online commerce in this country, fraud continues to be a major concern. A recent report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned consumers about risks associated with online auctions for various goods. While the FTC will warn consumers and prosecute any offenders the agency can identify, the most effective sanction may be the one applied by the online auction houses themselves: They ban offenders from the site.

Spar and Bussgang envision more such self-governance by businesses:

They can establish rule-bound areas of the Internet-virtual communities in which rules are enforced. In those areas, companies can perform the functions that governments are not yet capable of fulfilling.... Just as merchants in medieval times developed customs and practices that eventually became commercial law in Europe, so can contemporary companies and entrepreneurs create the rules of electronic commerce.

So, businesspeople may be the tamers of the Internet frontier, but only if they nurture a sense of community in cyberspace. In fact, John Hagel, author of Net Gain and head of McKinsey & Co.'s Worldwide Interactive Multimedia Practice, has summarized online business development with the mantra, "Community precedes commerce." Kevin Kelly, who interviewed Hagel for Wired magazine, has given his insight a certain Clintonesque twist, suggesting, "It takes a village to make a mall."

The authors are members of a research group at Saint Louis University in Missouri. All are faculty of the School of Business and Administration except James F. Gilsinan, whose academic areas are in public policy and criminal justice. William B. Gillespie is in the Finance Department, which is chaired by Fred C. Yeager. James E. Fisher is a member of the Marketing Department and director of the Emerson Center for Business Ethics. Ellen Harshman is associate dean and a member of the Management Department. Harshman and Gillespie are also lawyers.

This article is drawn from a paper presented by the authors at the June conference "Ethics and Technology: Access, Accountability, and Regulation," sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, Boston College, and Loyola University Chicago.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Arthur and Hagel, John III. "The Real Value of On-Line Communities." Harvard Business Review (May-June 1996).

Cerf, Vinton G. "Building an Internet Free of Barriers." The New York Times (July 27, 1997).

Economist. "Hands off the Internet." (July 5, 1997).

Spar, Debora and Bussgang, Jeffrey, J. "Ruling the Net," Harvard Business Review (May-June 1996).