The Internet teems with virtual communities whose vitality is all the more intriguing because it is hidden from view. Stitched together by the electronic network, people from Boston to Beijing engage in the timeless themes of human experience. They pray together, face birth and death together, discuss their most personal of problems, and pursue their inner fantasies. Reputedly prizing independence and eschewing taboo, ‘Net citizens portray the Internet as a lawless frontier. Yet law is as prevalent in cyberspace as in real space. It takes many forms, including social custom, formally enforced rules of conduct, and federal statute, notably Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 and the Communications Decency Act of 1996. These rules and laws not only place limits on electronic speech and association, but in so doing they have a profound impact on how community identity forms and the extent to which a community can or cannot explore its identity. This article examines the different functional roles that law plays on the Internet—whether as an instrument of behavior modification, as a constituent element of the individual, or as a mechanism for community self-modification—and discusses the implications for the interrelationship between law and identity.
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