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

32 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2012 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020

See all articles by Jon Penney

Jon Penney

Osgoode Hall Law School; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Date Written: February 28, 2011


Freedom, liberty, and autonomy are the ideals mainly associated with Internet's first generation of thinkers, writers and "netizens," those who helped forge the Internet and the early technological and intellectual foundations of the idea 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 open nature of the Internet’s culture and architecture. But what has anyone to say about equality? Few, if any, Internet scholars today focus on equality as a similar value to be promoted or achieved. Returning to some of the early influential Internet texts, this Article argues that equality was also heralded as another important value that the Internet could promote, but has since been largely neglected, including the ways that the Internet can actually promote or entrench inequality. It then offers reasons for this neglect -- such as the predominance and influence of libertarian oriented "cyber-utopian" works -- and provides an account of the different challenges for equality and distributive justice in relation to the Internet, including inequalities of ICT access, connectivity, security, and experience in online communities. It concludes with a discussion of measures to help address these digital divides.

Keywords: Internet, law, equality, property, virtual equality, virtual law, virtual worlds, virtual economies, digital divide

JEL Classification: H11, K1, K3, L51, O17

Suggested Citation

Penney, Jonathon, Virtual Inequality: Challenges for the Net's Lost Founding Value (February 28, 2011). Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Vol. 10, No. 3, January 2012, Available at SSRN:

Jonathon Penney (Contact Author)

Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Citizen Lab, University of Toronto ( email )

Munk School of Global Affairs
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3K7

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