Social Protocols and Web Policy:
Forget the Infrastructure.
What About the Data Structures and User Interface?


Joseph M. Reagle Jr.
Policy Analyst, World Wide Web Consortium
Research Engineer, Laboratory for Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

On the foundations of basic network, meta-data, and negotiation protocols, a "new" set of protocols, "social protocols," are being built. They are in fact applications of meta-data and negotiation that mimic the social capabilities people have in the real world: to create rich content, make verifiable assertions, create agreements, and to develop and manage trust relationships. Furthermore, governments realize that a significant portion of their constituencies and markets are moving online. Consequently, as the sophistication of one's interactions on the Web increase, so does the regulators' interest in extending their "real world" mandates on commerce and culture to the Web.

Traditionally -- 3 years worth of history! -- governments attempted to regulate the Net by controlling "choke points." This regulation associates liability with entities that are easily targeted by law (ISPs, telcos, and large content producers) rather than the mass of nearly anonymous individuals. We argue that in the future as social protocols become common, governments could promulgate more effective controls by regulating relationships. With the rise of extensible and user configurable technologies (based on things such as the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the Resource Description Framework (RDF), and digital signatures) relationships and behavior will be most effectively controlled through the structure of the data and the user interface, not the network infrastructure.

In this paper we will introduce the concept of meta-data (RDF), discuss policy based design of meta-data schemas (found in P3P), discuss the impact of meta-data on technology regulation, and examine the question as to whether the ability of social protocols to create and maintain spontaneous and emergent online social structures will be co-opted by their ability to propagate "real world" norms on the Web.