When we think of the Old West, we remember how wild and dangerous it was and the opportunities it provided. The internet really isn’t much different. Let’s analyze the similarities and consider how we can tame the wild, wild web.

Growth and Development

(Image Credit: Map of the Internet, XKCD)

The Wild West in America represented the attempt by people to move out and find opportunity, to tame the wild areas of the frontier, and to find and utilize natural resources. The internet was once a frontier unknown to most computer users, let alone your average person. Now, even with the web being so prominent in our hearts and minds, it’s still largely untamed territory. There’s still so much growth and development as yet unseen, so many internet “resources” untapped, so much potential unrealized. Over time, just as the American West developed into what it is today, the internet will become a much more mature and advanced hub. To do that, it’ll need to get even more tame than it is now.

The earliest denizens of the West were the “Native Americans,” indigenous peoples who’d been living there for quite some time. Spanish settlements came in very early on, so by the time Americans pushed out to develop essentially free land granted to them by the government, they had to learn and interact with people who were already there. Just like the big dot com boom in the 90s, the people who really started taking advantage of the internet and endeavored to strike it rich had to learn the ways of the geeks who already ran and influenced change. Over time, as more and more people pushed West in ever-increasing numbers, the original populace took a dive in numbers and gave way to a broader mix of people. Sound familiar? How many of you geeks remember the earlier days of the internet? I started relatively late in the game, with the majority of my learning taking place on the web of 1996-97. It was a much different place back then, with very different people. Once, you had to know how to really work with a computer to dial up and connect, and now everyone and their grandmother is connected without even being conscious of it. It no longer takes the hardy to risk their lives in pursuit of opportunity; now, the web is accessible to normal, everyday people. With larger and wider populations comes more urgent problems.

Localized Law

Both in the Wild West and on the internet, law is localized. If you’ve ever spent anytime commenting or posting a one specific forum or blog, then you’ll immediately recognize what I’m talking about. Each hub is structured, being run by those who spend the money to front the site. Users who are trusted and have a good standing status are promoted to mods, the equivalent of a sheriff or “lawman.” Rules and regulations vary widely between these internet towns, but many are common. You’re expected to read, agree to, and uphold the rules of each forum. You’re expected to be helpful and not troll others. You’re expected to be respectful of others, support your opinions with facts, and otherwise engage in socially acceptable ways.

Step outside of that sphere, and there’s no longer any consistent law. Sometimes this even happens between categories on the same forum. There’s a certain “toughness” that’s required in these frontier territories, and if you don’t have it, you’re better off not coming back instead of getting burned (we’ll get to some of the dangers in a short bit). And, ultimately, that’s favors the individuals who rule in these areas, not the vast majority of people.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mob Rule Elsewhere

Where mods are few and far between, you’ll find tales of mobs taking over. Individuals acting together can help mods do their jobs, but they can also help take matters into their own hands. Reddit users often works together to help each other with advice and info. And, love them or hate them, 4chan users acting together anonymously have often gotten what they consider retribution against insults and the like. There’s no real internet-wide police to force peaceful protests, so the web-equivalent of riots can sometimes occur. Once again, this usually serves the individual group, not the majority of people. There are notable exceptions to this, however; posses that strike out again the outlaws to honorably protect the innocents. Either way, you can really blame it all on a lack of consistent and wide-spread regulation, partially fostered by the idea of anonymity (whether or not it actually exists). If things were regulated, then you wouldn’t see people misbehaving, and you wouldn’t see people needing to band together and perform questionable acts to protect themselves.

Lawless and Unregulated for Most People

(Image Credit: The Magnificent Seven (1960))

In the Wild West, people worried about two main things: property rights and survival. The internet’s not really different. Property rights are what allow people to work productively for their livelihood. Intellectual property is notoriously hard to protect. You also worry about people stealing your credit card and bank account information, and whether or not something you ordered online will ever actually get to you. Some of these problems have been mitigated by things like the App Store and Marketplace, and by the protective clauses in Paypal and eBay terms, and of course by common sense. Overall, however, there’s still a lot of danger.

There’s worse out there, too. Aside from malware, viruses, and phishing attempts, you have to worry about more serious “real life” problems. Child molesters in chat rooms are a constant terror for parents. The Craigslist Killer made a lot of waves in that community as well. The internet allows people of like minds to meet and interact, whether they’re good people or bad. This makes the danger more real.

Just like many broke out into the western frontier of the United States in search of new lives and opportunities, many people bored with their real lives strike out on the internet. The danger is there, and it’s real, but the optimism and hope of opportunity really can make the experience worthwhile. That is, as long as you stay smart.

Changing Policies and Legislation

(Image Credit: Online Communities, XKCD)

Things are slowly changing. The U.S. government has been cracking down on piracy websites via Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security. Not everyone knows this, but the National Intellectual Property Right Coordination Center is run by the DHS. In the past, they’ve shut down websites who stream sports illegally, as well as number torrent hubs and other websites that they determine to have no other purpose except piracy. There’s no real formal appeals process, and as of right now, they have a lot of power to do what they want, but it can be argued that they haven’t done much yet that isn’t directly related to piracy or illegal streaming.

The trade-off for security is freedom, and that seems somewhat reasonable. The issue is much more complicated than that, however. Why does a U.S. agency have the right to shut down a website? Well, the old and technically legal answer is that it’s because the server is based in the U.S. But what about those that aren’t? It’s not hard to take piracy and malicious websites elsewhere, where local laws don’t interfere in such disputes. And let’s consider the topic of net neutrality. Tiered internet makes sense for companies, sure. They want to mitigate complaints of rising costs by their customers and since a good deal of bandwidth goes towards piracy, why not filter? The answer most people give is that it’s infringing on privacy; unless they KNOW you’re using your bandwidth illegitimately, they can’t treat your transfers as second-class or filter them out. To preemptively filter out bandwidth can interfere with customers’ legitimate uses of their product.

(Image Credit: Online Communities 2, XKCD)

It’s a problem, and there seems to be little room for compromise. Legally speaking, the laws are based on technology that is essentially obsolete for our purposes: telephone communications. There isn’t such a thing as absolutely limited bandwidth, and since networks are connected world-wide in very intrinsic way now, the older laws don’t apply. Economics is also in new territory in this area; it is fundamentally the study of how scarce goods and services are produced, distributed, and consumed. Bandwidth isn’t a scarce good, at least not in the conventional way. Like water, it requires a system to divert and lead it, but there’s little worry of the bandwidth river drying up. Software isn’t really, either. If you give someone a book, you no longer have it, but it’s simple to make copies of files. This lack of scarcity makes piracy more widespread, especially when you think of how intangible it is for most people.

It wasn’t until the population rose sufficiently in the western frontiers and networks grew and spread more substantially that security was maintained without extensive curbing of rights. But, while the Wild West had the benefit of state divisions and laws to help keep things organized, the internet is considered to be a fundamentally world-wide thing, making the decisions involved more far-reaching and controversial. At the same time, criminals could be safe across state lines due to jurisdiction disputes by authorities, and this wouldn’t be a problem on the internet if the authority does, indeed, have a jurisdiction. This results in a more widespread security, benefitting a much wider base. If regulation is a must, then there needs to be a world-wide agency or committee that sets rules, similar to the World Trade Organization, to prevent the loopholes from working to the advantage of policy violators and to prevent the big companies from gaining a strangle-hold on legitimate users.

Ultimately, the legislation needs to become modernized and needs to be enforced with a world-wide representation, all while preserving everyone’s individual rights. That’s the only way to protect everyone. Easy right? Maybe we can take some lessons from the American West and mix them with some global wisdoms to build a solution. Together. The way it should be.

Know how to solve this easily? Have some examples that prove me wrong? Share your insights in the comments, but please, no trolling. ;-)