Standards have two major functionalities: for one, they coordinate and – depending on their stickiness due to network effects – regulate human behavior. For another, they function as signaling devices. Which of the two functionalities is dominant and how these two are interrelated are of course empirical questions. In the case of certain private labelling standards, for example,  a broad bundle of rules and minimum standards are condensed into one label or brand, whose premium value in turn shall attract both (additional) producers and consumers to adhere to the standard (see also “FCE goes Fair Trade“).

In the case of Creative Commons‘s alternative copyright licensing standards, James Boyle explicitly referred to this important (albeit unintended) signaling role of licensing standards on a discussion panel at Harvard’s Berkman Center (after 42:50):

“What we didn`t understand was the most important thing about the licence was not that they were licences, it was that they created space, a focal point around which people would make communities.”

Markus Lang, research student in our research group not only pointed me to this quotation of James Boyle but also put it in the broader context of Julia Black’s (2002, jstor) notion of “regulatory conversations”. In applying a discourse theoretical perspective on both public and private regulation, she delineates how coordination of practices is achieved via communicative interactions.

One important communicative tool in private regulation not mentioned by Black are logos or icons. In both examples mentioned so far, private labelling and Creative Commons licenses (icons of the latter see above), signaling via easily recognizable logos seems to be of utmost importance for license diffusion and, thus, success.

In the recent “Mozilla Privacy Icons Project” icons even seem to predate regulatory standards. The project’s initiator Aza Raskin explicitly referenced Creative Commons’s licenses as a role model (see “Making Privacy Policies Not Suck“) and the project description refers to both, Fair Trade and Creative Commons:

Design a simple set of icons that can educate users of the privacy policies of websites. (Think of something as simple as the Fair Trade Coffee label on food or creative commons logos for copyright)

Whether starting with the  development of a set of icons can be a viable way of standardizing online privacy practices still remains to be seen. Aza Raskin himselfs asks in a blog post “Is a Creative Commons for Privacy Possible?“, discussing issues such as why anybody should use negative icons to describe his service. Maybe in combination with the “naming & shaming” approach of, a privacy rating website developed in the realm of the “consumer privacy project” at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society (see also “Talk @ Stanford’s CIS“), this could work.