The Closing of the Internet Frontier?

A gold rush.  A wide-open anything-goes frontier.  Prostitution.  Gambling.  Drugs.  Lax law enforcement. Vigilantism and mob justice.  Petty scammers at every turn.

The subject?  Not the dusty Wild West of American history, but instead the Internet of just 10 years ago.

In the last decade, the Internet has gone from open frontier populated by a select few, to a regular part of life for a majority of Americans and Europeans.   Predictably, the change from sparse frontier to societal integration has caused rather significant cultural clashes between early adopters and latecomers.  Disputes rage about whether we should view and regulate the Internet like an open frontier or like the rest of “offline” society.

This week, I will try to answer that question by exploring the similarities between the Internet and the original Wild West frontier.  I’ll examine what the close of the Wild West frontier teaches us about the next 10 years of the Internet.  As an example, I’ll focus on what the frontier experience tells us about online privacy and laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  On Friday, I also hope to take a quick look at the broad impact of the Internet on the future of privac.

I look forward to discussing these issues with readers; this site has managed to consistently attract some of the brightest and most civilized commenters online.  I’m happy to take questions, comments, and suggestions.  And thank you, Eugene, for the kind introduction; I’m proud to be able to contribute to such an important community.

The Internet as Frontier Experience

The history of the Internet echoes the history of the American West.  We go into much greater detail in the book (Amazon), but even at a glance the parallels between Wild West 1.0 (1800s America) and Wild West 2.0 (the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s) are clear:

  • In the case of the original Wild West, a few early pioneers cleared the way for the (literal) gold rush of the 1840s.  Online, the pioneers of ARPANET cleared the way for the NASDAQ gold rush of the late 1990s.  Millions of dollars were made (and lost) in just a few years.
  • The early Internet and Wild West were both populated only by a small, self-selected group of pioneers who sought out adventure and fortune.
  • Both started with dramatically gender-skewed populations, with more than five men for every woman at times–and as the frontier closed the gender ratio drifted back toward 50/50.
  • Both the Internet and the original Wild West developed their own culture and manners.  A sense of self-reliance and libertarian beliefs dominated in both places—a sense that any group could make their own fortune if they simply pulled hard enough on their bootstraps.  In both places, the freedom to experiment was considered important enough to justify discarding many old laws and morals.
  • Even the forms of vice on both frontiers are similar: sex, drugs, and gambling.  In the Old West, prostitution was readily available, despite some nominal prohibitions.  Online it was possible to find prostitution openly advertised on relatively mainstream sites like Craigslist.  Gambling halls are rightfully a western movie cliché, and the early 2000s boom in Texas Hold ‘Em poker was largely attributed to online gambling.  Even the drug of choice has not changed in 150 years—the old west was notorious for the availability of opium, and in the early days of eBay it was easy to buy opium for recreational use.

The Moment of Transition from Open Frontier to Integrated Part of Society

In the Old West, the lawless days of the “Wild” West frontier eventually came to an end.  As eastern society caught up to the original Old West pioneers, a culture clash ensued.  The gambling halls were shut down, prostitution was gradually regulated away in all but one state, and vigilantism was slowly replaced by formal law enforcement.  Old-timers bemoaned the loss of the wild frontier; newcomers welcomed the stability of formal laws and familiar law enforcement.

Online, we are in the midst of the same transition from lawless frontier to integration with society.  It has become routine to talk about government regulation of the Internet—ranging from “net neutrality” to Facebook privacy.

Looking again at vice, the government has started to shut down the most serious sex, drugs, and gambling.  To take just a handful of examples, online gambling in the United States was curtailed in 2006 when the CEO of online gambling site BetOnSports was arrested as he changed planes in Texas, and the SAFE Port Act effectively banned online gambling by U.S. residents.   The online sale of narcotics was deterred in 2003 when the DOJ cracked down on eBay opium sales.  And online prostitution went at least somewhat underground in 2008 when 40 state attorneys general demanded that Craigslist remove its “erotic services” section (the practical effect of this move has been limited, but there are already renewed calls for further regulation).

This transition in the way the Internet is viewed and regulated–from a place frequented only by self-selected pioneers to part of everyday life for almost all of the West–creates a natural time to reexamine existing laws and consider whether they still fit the new reality of the Internet.  Different countries have had the chance to experiment with different legal regimes online, and we’ve been able to watch how law shaped the growth of the Internet.

In particular, it’s a time to consider the difference between the legal regimes of open and closed frontiers.   Open frontiers are often characterized by self-reliance, self-defense, exploration of new norms, and informal law enforcement.  But the lax regulation of the Internet often comes at a great price: spam, scams, fraudsters, online lynch mobs, and more.  Closed frontiers are often characterized by increasing similarity to the “old” society (often formed by combining elements of old and new), increasing formality, and active law enforcement.

We’re at a tipping point for the Internet.  It started as a classic open frontier, with no almost no law and complete freedom to experiment. But society has caught up, and is demanding changes to make the Internet more like the rest of the world.  For scholars and activists, the question is simple: how to keep the best parts of the Internet while while successfully integrating with offline society?

Ultimately, the lesson from the original Wild West is clear: in the end, the Internet will not stay wild forever.  Instead, “offline” society and the Internet will meet somewhere in the middle, each taking something from the other.  Now is the time to consider how we can best shape the future of the Internet using what we’ve learned by watching the close of other frontiers.

Tomorrow: Why Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 doesn’t work in 2010.

David Thompson is co-author of the leading Internet policy book of 2010, Wild West 2.0 (Amazon) and general counsel of ReputationDefender, Inc.. The standard disclaimer applies: the views represented here are his alone and not those of any current or former employer.

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