Virtual Inequality: Challenges for the Net’s Lost Founding Value

Penney, Jonathon W. | January 5, 2012

Freedom, liberty, and autonomy were the initial ideals heralded by cyberspace’s first generation of thinkers, writers and citizens, by those who helped forge the Internet and the early technological and intellectual foundations of “cyberspace.” These ideas were, says Lawrence Lessig, the “founding values of the Net” and inspired an entire generation of scholarship focused on preserving the free and libertarian nature of the Internet’s culture and architecture. But what has anyone to say about equality? Few, if any, scholars today focus on equality as a similar Internet “founding value” that ought to be preserved—if it indeed ever existed—or promote it as something to strive for online, or in virtual worlds and communities. This Article aims to change this. Returning to some of the foundational texts of cyberspace, this Article argues that equality ought to be understood as a “founding value of the Net” as much as liberty and freedom, and thus should be promoted and, where it exists, preserved. It then offers an in-depth account of the different forms of inequality in cyberspace, drawing, in particular, on challenges of online communities and virtual worlds and then considers measures to fight these inequities. It also argues that many challenges should be left to autonomous online communities to deal with themselves.