The Wild West Web fallacy

I tweeted last week about the fallacy of the “Wild West Web” analogy, which is trotted out with depressing regularity. My tweets auto-delete, so this short blogpost reflects the key themes. It is not the detailed piece which has been sitting in my research/drafts folder for months now. Oh well.

Plenty has been written about the western frontier of what was to become the United States of America.

A couple of my favourite books on this topic are:

Sadly, I suspect that those who talk of the “Wild West Web” have read relatively little of the literature in this area.

Indeed, I’ve a nasty feeling that their narrative is informed - if that is quite the right word - by Spaghetti Westerns and other cowboy films, rather than by history.

Why do I say this? Three reasons.

1) In their analogy, who are the pre-existing communities, and who are the invaders?

The story of the West (as we know it today) is an often romanticised story of the expansion of the frontier of settlement of America by people fleeing Europe. Landing on the east coast - the coast closest to Europe - the story traces the attempts to settle more and more of this “unclaimed” land, until they reached the Pacific ocean in the west.

The story has many facets which make romanticisation easy. It is a story of strength in the face of adversity. A story of hardship. A story of determination. A story of adventure, and of a pioneering spirit.

Those facets are justified, but they are a small part of a bigger story.

The bigger story is a story of invasion.

It is a story of invasion because the land on which the European settlers arrived was not empty. It was home to myriad people and communities. The gradual shifting of the settlers’ western frontier is a story of violence, of death, of destroying and dispossessing the indigenous populations.

It is also a story of diseases brought by the settlers, to which the indigenous people had no natural immunity.

A story of alcohol, and of firearms.

A story of people something between desperation and greed. Of people rushing to the Klondike, and indeed any other place where gold might be found, in an attempt to make their fortune.

It is a story of the towns which settlers set up to support - or take advantage of - those quests.

It is a story of the lawlessness of those European settlers, and of the attempts to control - to police - that lawlessness.

Who made the west “wild”? Those settlers, whose invasion pushed aside the indigenous people if they could not use them to their own advantage.

Who brought the alcohol and the guns? Those settlers.

So when you next hear someone invoke the “Wild West Web”, take a moment to ask yourself:

2) The web is already regulated

I’m not going to dwell on this: a plethora of laws already covers the web.

What is illegal offline is already illegal online.

The only situation of which I am aware - Internet law guru Graham Smith reminded me - is of a very niche issue to do with election materials.

At least, if you can give me another example of a behaviour, which can be committed both online and offline, but which is only illegal offline, I am all ears.

If you can give me five examples, I’d be gobsmacked.

Yet the trope that the online world is without laws is pervasive.

And nonsense.

At worst, a lie. Misinformation. Propaganda to push a purpose.

Are there conversations to be had about enforcement of laws? Yes. Just are there are offline. (Says Neil trying not to think about offline, in-person, parties, and enforcement of laws to safeguard people’s lives.)

But when it comes to regulation of the web, it seems that a lot of people want to don a badge and become a sheriff. Or the sheriff.

As Heather Burns wrote:

The wild west internet/hero sheriff fantasy trope is a clever one, because it automatically sets up a good guy/bad guy dichotomy.

Personally, I’d have thought that someone who wants to be the sheriff of the web is, pretty much by definition, the wrong person for the job.

The western frontier is a place. The web is not.

In Internet regulatory discourse, the language of physicality is commonplace.

We hear about the “public square”.

We hear about a “place” in which people meet.

We hear the language of “space”.

The western coast of the USA is, of course, a space. A place.

The web is not. The web relies on physical infrastructure, sure - many computers attached to many network connections - but the web is not a place. The web is a protocol, and software. The web is a means of handling, and responding to, specific requests for data.

No-one is gathered in a public square.

Web servers are, in response to your request, sending you the output of myriad users’ data, with instructions to be interpreted by your browser to display that data in a particular way.

You are still sitting at home. Or on the train. Or on a toilet somewhere.

I don’t think that the language of physicality is helpful. But then I am usually wary of regulation-by-analogy wherever it arises, since it is usually a sign of lossy compression, of disregarding information to make something more digestable, rather than taking into account the true detail and complexity.

But perhaps that too is an analogy.

Whether it is as bad as analogies to the duties of pub landlords, or operators of children’s playgrounds, I’m not sure.

In essence, I think we should be tackling things for what they are, not based on probably-not-very-credible offline analogue.