Watching Cybernorms Get Made

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Butch Cassidy graphically demonstrated that there ain’t no rules in a knife fight.  Well, so far, there ain’t no rules in cyberspace or precious few at least.  Establishing those rules and practices may take years, as it did for nuclear weapons or cold war spying.  The U.S. response to the Russian hacking is the Obama administration’s third effort to lay down a new norm: you don’t steal information to play in the other side’s politics.

Why do you bring a gift to a dinner at a friend’s house?  Why do neighbors get mad when your dog does his business on their lawn?  Is the guy who speeds down the empty lane beside you a jerk or a mathematician optimizing the merge function?  Attitudes depend on norms of behavior.  Norms come about when there is general agreement in societies, when the dominant group can assert their view or when everyone finds mutual benefit even without mutual interests.   What you can and cannot do in cyberspace doesn’t meet these conditions yet.  While there are many legal discussions, negotiations, and assertions, we’re really making it up as we go along.  President Barack Obama has just tried to assert a new norm.

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