The Internet is still a frontier: a continuing discussion

July 3rd, 2010

We’ve received an overwhelming response to the book, which is now an official bestseller and in its second printing.  Many people have brought us their own “Wild West” online stories, and helped to expand the metaphor of the Internet-as-frontier into their personal experiences.

But some people have questioned whether the Internet is really a lawless frontier.  For example, in her skillful review, Wendy Grossman of ZDNet UK suggested that the Internet is far more regulated than Wild West 2.0 suggests.  We thank Ms. Grossman for her review and her feedback, and would like to continue the discussion about some of her ideas.

Our point is not that the Internet is completely lawless; instead, our point is that frontiers (like the Internet and the Old West of American history) present great opportunities for social and personal change, but also require self-reliance, self-defense, and constant vigilance.  Our goal is to teach readers how to understand the Internet and why they need to stand up for themselves if they hope to be successful in online life.

As for the frontier metaphor, our key point is that frontiers eventually close.  Just like the Old West, the Internet frontier opened with a gold rush.  But the Old West frontier closed when hundreds of thousands of people moved west and brought their own ideas of “civilization” and “society” with them–at the expense of a culture clash with the original gold-rush occupants.  Today–at the close of the Internet frontier—we are seeing a similar culture clash between old and new users; part of that clash has played out in the variety of responses to the book.

We fully agree that the most lawless days of the Internet are over: Every U.S. citizen that can’t place an online wager is well aware that governments can and do regulate conduct online; as are the virus-writers and hackers who are periodically arrested by Interpol and other international efforts.

But some people argue that the frontier days of the Internet are long gone.  For example, Ms. Grossman, in her recent ZDNet review, suggests that the idea of a “Wild West” for reputation is “quaintly old-fashioned.”  We politely disagree.

In the U.S., the legal system makes clear that victims of online attacks have little or no recourse against their attackers: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act makes it difficult to cooperate with web hosts, and online attackers often disappear into the night without leaving any virtual fingerprints.  Outside the U.S., the legal regime is different, but the technical regime is just the same: it is easy to track users for the wrong reasons (privacy invasions, stalking, spyware, and more) but hard to track users for the right reasons (redress for legal wrongs).

The result has been a continued explosion of online attacks, powered by anonymity and boosted by the power of Google to find and distribute tabloid material.

There are many well-known stories of online abuse, bust just as common are the everyday incidents that don’t get the same media attention as the woman in China falsely accused of affecting a class-ist attitude and forced to resign from her job; or the grandmother in Florida who received death threats because of an allegation made on YouTube; or the woman in Korea whose breach of subway ettiquite became a national discussion and led to a nervous breakdown; or the family in California taunted by images of their deceased daughter through email and Google searches… the list goes on.

Some people, including Ms. Grossman, have pointed to laws the fact that countries other than the U.S. have different laws that have regulated the Internet.  Ms. Grossman and the others are exactly right: the U.S. is the outlier and to our (largely U.S.-based) audience, the failures of U.S. law are very meaningful.  Some countries, like the U.K., have legal regimes that are closer to a notice-and-takedown system. To a large extent, that’s part of our point.

We have blogged elsewhere how Section 230 has shaped the online experience of U.S. users.  Many U.S. scholars claim that CDA 230 is necessary for a successful Internet.  But we noted that other countries like Brazil have very successful commercial and non-commercial Internet services without needing CDA 230.

The U.S. should learn from the examples of other nations that have tried different Internet regulatory regimes and discovered that it is possible to at least somewhat blunt the risk of online attack without compromising other key Internet values.

We want cyber-abuse to stop.  We actively support reforms for U.S. law, improved cyber culture worldwide, and training for students and others as to how to actively protect their own reputation and privacy.

Keep up the great feedback, and thank you to everyone who has contributed to the discussion about online reputation and privacy.