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Managing the delicate balance between commerce and the rights of the Internet community as a whole is an ongoing challenge facing the digital enterprise. The rapid growth and predominance of commerce on the Internet makes it easy to overlook its many other facets -- educational, social, creative, and artistic, to name a few. Indeed, to view the Web solely in commercial terms and to ignore its larger role in society is an oversight that can have unwelcome consequences.

So much of what we have discussed about the Internet has focused on its enormous commercial potential and the benefits that flow to consumers and businesses alike. We must also recognize how the power of the Internet can be abused. The early proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail -- commonly known as "spam" -- is just one example. The ease by which someone can send a message to millions of individuals is more of a curse than a blessing when used to send unwanted commercial solicitations. From clogging the network to clogging our mailboxes, spam when left uncontrolled has the potential of making the Internet a less hospitable environment in which to communicate.

As the Internet evolves technically, it evolves culturally. It is the culture of the web community that sets the boundary on what is viewed acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In the case of the latter, the ability for consumers to protest, to organize boycotts, or to simply take their business elsewhere has never been greater.

The Internet empowers individuals. Those who see injustice can act quickly and with great effect to shed light on it, and to register their disapproval. Such was the case of eToys, at one time the web's largest retailer of children's toys, now defunct. In its desire to reduce the confusion consumers might have had with an avant-garde art site named etoy, the management of eToys resorted to legal tactics to gain control over the domain name (which etoy had registered long before eToys). The toy company went so far as to sue the artist group and to gain a court injunction that closed down the etoy site under the threat of a huge financial penalty.

In hindsight, eToys' use of heavy-handed legal maneuvers, which may have succeeded in the days before the Internet, proved to be a public relations fiasco. A protest was launched on the artists' behalf. Web sites with names like EvilToy, ToyWar, and ViolentNation pilloried eToys and exposed the company's tactics. Server "sit-ins" were organized in which large numbers of protesters continuously surfed the eToy web site without any intention to do business, just simply to use up the company's server bandwidth. The protests, and the subsequent battering of eToys in the press, took its toll and the company dropped the lawsuit. But not before badly discrediting itself in many corners of the world, including in financial markets, where its stock price plummeted by 50 percent over the three months it pursued litigation.

The eToys debacle serves as a warning to digital managers who ignore or underestimate the power of social protest in a networked world. The power that a business now has to reach millions of consumers must be matched by a professional and ethical commitment to act responsibly.

Learning Objectives:

Things to read:

In defense of evil
Michael Kanellos | 04.13.2006

Sony's Rootkit Fiasco
News.com Special Report | 11.14.2005

US-CERT | 08.12.2005

Pew Internet Report: Spyware
Susannah Fox | 07.06.2005

Ghosts in Our Machines
Ari Schwartz, Alan Davidson and Michael Steffen | 11.18.2003

Code of Online Business Practices: Principles for Ethical Business to Customer Conduct
BBBOnLine | 10.17.2000

Classics Archive:

Guidelines for Conduct on and Use of the Internet
Vint Cerf

Netiquette Guidelines
Sally Hambridge

Ethics and the Internet
Internet Advisory Board

Hungry minds:

False Claims in Spam
U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Clueless Mailers
Bob West

Ethics in Computing
Edward F. Gehringer

The Extent of Systematic Monitoring of Employee E-mail and Internet Use
Andrew Schulman

The Future of Online Advertising and Ad-Blocking
Douglas J. Wood

Framework For Ethical Decision Making
Markkula Center

How the Etoy Campaign Was Won
Reinhold Grether

Defamation Havens
Brian Martin

Places to visit:

ISOC Internet Code of Conduct

Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE)

Network Abuse Clearinghouse

Spamdemic Map

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Course information:

© 2010 Michael Rappa
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