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June 22, 2009

Has the Wild West Web Reached the End of the Line?

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vintage cowboys and a train
Photo from freeparking via Creative Commons

In any society there are rules that govern the citizens. Many of the rules we follow in our communities today are explicit, spelled out in the form of laws or regulations. Others are implicit, coming out of necessity and an understanding of social norms, such as etiquette. Explicit rules are often formed as a reaction to events that have already taken place. For instance, a new law may prohibit acts that, through the hindsight of past events, are recognized as potentially harmful or damaging.

It’s long been believed that the Web is a land of lawlessness, notoriously hard to police, and comprised of communities inclined to do what they want without concern for rules. Over the last 20 years the Web has evolved from a small, undeveloped infant to a rebellious youth testing his limits. In many cases, the Web is governed by implicit rules, such as netiquette, while explicit rules are slowly finding their way onto the books. A parallel has been drawn between the Web and the American Wild West of the 1800s — a time when citizens knew better than to rely on those in uniform to protect them from the corrupt and the codeless. I’ve heard the Web referred to as the realm of cowboys and bandits on blogs, in articles and at search conferences, and it’s been a pretty reliable analogy in that time. Even the common “white hat”, “black hat” terminology has its roots in the Hollywood heyday of Western films. But is it possible that the Web has reached a new era of liability and law?

four cowboys
Photo from anyjazz65 via Creative Commons

At Search Engine Watch, online marketing expert Frank Watson wrote a thought-provoking piece last week called The Web’s Wild West Days Are Gone. Frank points to evidence that the Internet is moving toward a more explicit model of governance. Close to home, we’ve seen legislation on behaviorally targeted ads, appointment of the U.S.’s first tech czar, and antitrust filings against search engine monopolies, to name a few examples. Abroad, we’ve watched the U.K. publish an Internet action plan, South Korea pass legislation regulating comments on YouTube, and the Iranian and Chinese governments control content via state-run ISPs.

Certainly there have been many earnest attempts to regulate what is made available online and what is accessible online, but I’m not convinced we’ve reached a time of law, enforcement and personal responsibility. Despite the best efforts of lawmakers at home and abroad, I see at least a few more obstacles that will need to be overcome before the Web transcends the Wild West. One significant challenge is that the Web is a global phenomenon, hard to subject to local or even national laws. This was pointed out by commenter ProfJonathan on Frank’s article:

The challenges have been figuring out which law(s) apply, and how to enforce them. […] the biggest challenge remains the borderless nature of the Internet and the conflicting legal regimes it crosses; a true international “Law of the Net” is clearly needed.

Additionally, lawmakers face a challenge in their lack of understanding. Remember when the National Association of Realtors (NAR) tried to convince their members that Google was a scraper site? Due to a technical misunderstanding and some convoluted assumptions, the NAR almost took their members’ sites out of the search game entirely. If the organization had followed through and established the guideline, real estate professionals would likely be hurting more than they already are.

In the end, we find that laws which aren’t grounded in understanding end up to be poorly written and ineffectively enforced. Any judgments that come out of such rules or legislation can hold no weight. Furthermore, laws that reach beyond their jurisdiction can hold no sway, and it’s a global Web we’re working in today. Until understanding and global enforcement are attained, I expect to see a familiar and untamed Web in the immediate future.

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One response to “Has the Wild West Web Reached the End of the Line?”

  1. Lydia writes:

    And that is why you are here (or there at BCI!) to help those to become better informed. Nice post. Thanks Virginia!



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