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Societies are governed by codes of ethics. In developed societies, parts of these codes form a set of laws, enforceable by legal authorities, with or without assistance from the populace. At times, laws are crafted for the benefit of the powerful members of the society, ensuring preservation of their positions and property, while other constituents may ignore, actively disobey, or challenge laws they believe do not support their ethics. Developing and maintaining appropriate social norms is thus particularly critical for sustaining rapidly changing heterogeneous populaces.

The Internet, devised for the purpose of interconnecting diverse computer networks of research and educational communities, has become a global communication system that joins together widely disparate populaces with different ethical codes. The World Wide Web (WWW), hosted by the Internet, serves both to propagate existing ethos and to undermine them. Communities of the WWW, as well as their governments, are striving to establish fundamental guidelines. This Essay suggests that Jewish law contains principles that may be relevant to this endeavor.

Specifically, a comparative overview of elements of the ethics and regulation of speech in American law and Jewish law may help us understand ethical guidelines of online communities. We investigate the posting and retrieval of content containing libel (slander), gossip (scandal), unauthorized personal information (privacy violation), pornography, obscenity, and other objectionable material.

We first briefly review the history of the Internet in order to identify ways in which its development influenced and was influenced by pre-existing technologies. We then examine American and Jewish law in terms of speech (output and input of content) and privacy (in this Essay, restricted to output and input of personal content), and compare these to content guidelines on some prominent social networks. We claim that Jewish law and ethics, which place broader restrictions on speech than those in American law, have the potential to positively influence the norms of both traditional and social media.

Incorporating social norms can be particularly beneficial in the context of Internet-based ethics. First, to the extent that formal laws are unfair and/or ineffective, they can be supplemented by informal rules that better reflect the shared values of the community. Second, because they have not been decreed by the government, informal rules are generally not subject to constitutional protections. Therefore, ethical restrictions that are accepted by the community potentially provide a means for placing broader limits on speech than would be permissible under governmental laws. In both respects, social norms share characteristics of Jewish ethics, which often rely on a consensus of communal obligation as a primary motivation for adherence, and which include a range of obligations and prohibitions beyond those enacted in most legal systems.

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21 J. Tech. L. & Pol’y 37