The #WildWestWeb fallacy isn’t about ending online harms. It’s about enabling populism.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
UK policy

I‘ve spoken with you in the past, dear readers, about the “wild west web” fallacy: the trope which holds that the Internet is the land of the lawless where anything goes and no-one is safe. The trope implies that we are all helpless villagers at the mercy of the bad guys, if we’re not the bad guys ourselves. And the trope implies that we helpless villagers need a swashbuckling sheriff to ride into town and save the day.

We’ve also spoken about how that’s all a load of shite.

For example, we’ve covered how the “unregulated wild west” trope is, quite simply, factually and legally incorrect. There are already laws, frameworks, and regulations which cover the overwhelming majority of online harms. That’s true here, and it’s true in most jurisdictions. That’s not to say that those laws are perfect, or cover all the issues at hand. And that’s not to say that new regulations aren’t occasionally needed as the open web evolves. But that’s a long way from saying it’s an “unregulated wild west”, which implies there are no laws at all.

Likewise, we’ve also spoken before about the fact that when a policymaker says the Internet is the unregulated wild west, what they’re really saying is that they have a personal fantasy about being the sheriff. They wanna be the big man, ridin’ into town, layin’ down the law, wavin’ their gun/dick around, shootin’ a few baddies, and winnin’ the heart of a virtuous virgin. (Sometimes policymakers even take that gun/dick fantasy into real life, to eye-rolling ridicule.)

And while I’ve never blogged about it, we could also talk about how the “wild west web” fallacy takes the entire field of Internet law, all the professionals who work in it, all the academics who teach it, all the students studying it, and all the businesses who are regulated by it, and pretends that it doesn’t exist. Entire bookshelves evaporate. Framed university degrees vanish into thin air. Grizzled professors retire early. Heads of Policy and Governance find themselves very bored. It would almost be funny. And yet it’s not.

Because somehow, despite being factually incorrect, emotionally delusional, and openly laughable, the “wild west web” trope persists.

It remains as active, and as ridiculous, and as hackneyed, and trite, and as persistently invoked, as it has for decades.

So we need to dig into that, and ask a different set of questions.

Why does the “wild west web” trope persist as it does? Why does it remain the rhetorical weapon of choice for policymakers who know full well that it’s a lie?

What is it really about?

To answer that, you have to look again at your hero. The big man you’ve dreamed of, the hero you crave. The one who’s going to ride in and save you by laying down the law.

I hate to break it to you, but your wild west sheriff hero does not ride into your town to save the day by following the rules. He rides into your town to break them. He does not lay down the law. He is it.

Your wild west sheriff hero doesn’t fight injustice. He creates it. He doesn’t bring the peace by bringing people together. He brings the peace by shooting whoever he wants to shoot.

Your wild west sheriff hero cares not a jot for the law, or the rule of law, or of ridding the land of its “lawnessness”. He cares about being your wild west sheriff hero.

Your wild west sheriff hero is every bit as lawless, and as malicious, and as destructive, as the evil he would claim to fight.

So when a politician – of any party, or stance, or nationality – looks the public in the eye and declares that “the Internet is an unregulated wild west”, I feel my blood run cold.

I feel that way because what they are saying is that they do not recognise the law, they do not acknowledge it, and they do not respect it.

What they are saying is that they are it. They are the law. They are the solution. They are the one who will tame the land of the lawless and restore order. They will be the one to ride in with the gun.

“The internet is an unregulated wild west” is as populist a statement as they come.

It is not something that any elected lawmaker, anywhere, should ever say.

And as a raft of authoritarian legislation, drafted in the name of “taming the wild west web”, stands ready to make your world smaller and weaker than you ever thought possible, you need to decide whether you are so emotionally vulnerable to hearing what you want to hear, from a smooth-talking sheriff who somehow knows what to say to you, that you are willing to accept the violence he’s going to bring to your town.

The “wild west web” fallacy – the trope which shamelessly declares “the Internet is an unregulated wild west” – is a lever to enable populism.

It gaslights you by telling you that you live in a lawless land, when the plan is to send in the actual lawnessness.

It promises you the rule of law and gives you authoritarianism.

It speaks of due process and fair recourse, and delivers a man with a loaded gun, pointed straight at you.

Everyone – politicians, advocacy groups, and the media – needs to stop plying the trope, everyone needs to stop humouring it, and everyone needs to start seeing it for what it is.

Why, you could even call it a subjective online harm.

For what it’s worth, we also need to start viewing those who deliberately choose to ply the “wild west web” fallacy – knowing full well how much of a lie it is, and what brazen liars that they are – as open enablers of populism. They’re not the strongmen they crave, no; but they’ll whisper in his ear that he’s got a chance to play the hero, and they’ll hand him any weapon he wants.

As if they wouldn’t be the first people he would blast into bits.

We are in a very dangerous time now, here in the UK – far more dangerous than any of us want to acknowledge – where the anointed hero sheriff of the land, a man who has spent his life rejecting rules and norms and the law, did not hesitate to turn to camera and say “I didn’t know there were laws to follow”. We all shook our heads in disbelief at that.

We should shake our heads just as much at any lawmaker who plys the “wild west web” trope. A sheriff who says “I didn’t know there were laws to follow” is no different from a man who says “the Internet is an unregulated wild west.”

Fact is, Sheriff, there are laws – there always were – which you chose not to see.

You chose not to see them, Sheriff, because the bad guy who didn’t respect the law was you.

An afterword: why stop at enabling populism when you can also enable colonialism?

As long as we’re on an elocution safari, there is also food for thought – food in the sense that it should give you indigestion – about the ways that the “wild west sheriff” mythology was a means of gaslighting the victims of white western colonial violence into believing that they were, in fact, its perpetrators. Neil Brown has covered that here.

He’s not wrong. In wild west mythology, the sheriff is always a swaggering, maverick, macho white man (and we all know what happens when he isn’t) who rides into town to impose his worldview onto the people who were already there: people who other men, far away, have declared to be “lawless”, or savages, or both. The sheriff is tasked with imposing racial and economic brutality, not the rule of law.

So diving into the racist and colonial connotations of the “wild west” mythology, as Neil has done, raises the question of why Internet regulation may be the only space left where it is acceptable for governments, campaigners, and surveillance profiteers to openly embrace the language of white colonial violence as a means to a political end.

And that, in turn, raises the question of why an all-white Parliamentary committee didn’t hesitate to use it.

When lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the law, it is time to be very afraid.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.