Shrinking the Internet

New York University Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2010

50 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2009 Last revised: 5 Aug 2014

See all articles by Philip A. Wells

Philip A. Wells

New York University School of Law; Ropes & Gray LLP - Boston

Date Written: January 1, 2009


The Internet presents unique social challenges, but these challenges share striking similarities with those in densely populated cities. Both the Internet and urban life have enormous scope and size, regularly exposing citizens to strangers, unconventional norms, and deviant behavior. And despite their frenetic environments, both foster feelings of remoteness and anonymity. This sentiment, in tandem with the scale of both the internet and large cities, restricts the ability for social norms to constrain violent and criminal behavior.

In these areas where social norms are structurally encumbered, there is a temptation to fill the enforcement vacuum with enhanced government intervention.This temptation, however, is misguided. Invasive law enforcement tactics, including Internet surveillance, are costly, oppressive, and foster a dangerous disrespect for the law.

Instead, this paper proposes harnessing an urban-analog perspective to establish more intimate social norms on websites. Through user registration, structural transparency, opt-in disclosures, and visitor-to-visitor communication, websites can effectively become Internet "villages," capable of fostering social norms that organically normalize online interaction and discourage antisocial behavior. In this context, law enforcement should pay heed to the self-policing within these "villages" and abandon a "one-size fits all" invasive approach to the Internet. Instead, law enforcement should focus its finite resources on amplifying these social norms wherever possible and avoid costly and intrusive measures. In doing so, the urban-analog perspective will efficiently enhance existing law enforcement priorities and avoid an undesirable trade-off between freedom and security on the Internet.

Keywords: internet, cybersecurity, social norms, policing, internet policing, loose-knit communities, law enforcement, broken windows

Suggested Citation

Wells, Philip A. and Wells, Philip A., Shrinking the Internet (January 1, 2009). New York University Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Philip A. Wells (Contact Author)

Ropes & Gray LLP - Boston ( email )

One International Place
Boston, MA 02110
United States

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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