The American Frontier – the ideal metaphor for the Internet

Freedom has always been a central topic of discourses – personal, social, political, ethical, economic, artistic, etc. Don’t we all want to casually pursue our interests without being prevented by laws, regulations, guidelines or the like. The new possibilities of the Internet to get in touch with anyone, anywhere and at any time have led overnight the meaning of publication, the possessions of creative people and the established media ad absurdum. Let’s look at the responsibility and ask yourself, why the platform providers, i.e. the operators of websites, who provide users with nothing more than public storage space for data and navigation, are held liable for the stored content. In fact, it is as if a telephone company is responsible for the phone calls that criminals use to commit fraud, or as if they are accused of having terrorists coordinate their assaults by phone. The new EU Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market has highlighted a wealth of problems and interests. The whole thing recalls strongly the days of the American Frontier, when, during the settlement, a legal vacuum created the situation that the stronger simply did whatever they wanted.

In the end, it has always been about access to valuable assets – fertile land in the American Frontier and precious data nowadays, such as texts, images, videos, formulas, etc. The difficulties arise from similar hopes of the protagonists in the American Frontier and on the Internet.

  • Economic interests
    The run to the west was driven by the prospect of a new life – initially the hunters and gatherers, the so-called trappers, then the settlers in their covered wagons, the squatters and ranchers, and finally the farmers who acquired documented property. The money was practically growing on the prairie.
    The Internet also began in 1989 with a simple idea – peer-to-peer networking on the World Wide Web, hyperlinks and standardized protocols. Parallel to the computers in each household, many software vendors conquered for the markets of browsers, email and application programs. Who remembers the time before FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google)?
    Common to the American Frontier and the Internet is the prospect of a lucrative business. The economic intentions exploit unregulated conditions of the new economic sector.
  • Assumed boundlessness
    The hope of the American settlers was fueled by the sheer boundlessness of the country. With three kilometers per hour, the treks were heading west. In the absence of deeds of ownership, the settlers occupied the land that supposedly belonged to nobody, putted up their fences and thus postulated a claim of ownership. The actual inhabitants, the Native Americans, for whom the term land tenure was unknown, were de facto expropriated and penned in reservations.
    At the beginning, the Internet was also boundless. With the possibility to store and retrieve multimedia content, new business ideas slowly evolved. The first file-sharing platforms putted the fear of God into the content providers of the film and music industry. With the viable B2C approaches (e.g. Freemium, Long Tail, Pay per Use), the corporations recaptured the market. Today, users commit themselves to providers such as Netflix and Spotify with regular, monthly payments.
    In over twenty years of the World Wide Web, the authors were completely forgotten. The creators come away empty-handed, although they create the content that the platform providers turn into money through advertising and the like.
  • Missing rules
    Our image of the American Frontier is coined by armed outlaws, who raid banks and stagecoaches and terrorize peaceful citizens. At the same time, judges speak local law and sheriffs ensure compliance as they think best. The latent lawlessness rose from the distance to the official jurisdiction. The law of the fittest was applied.
    A similar lack of rules formed in the beginning of the Internet, which is due to the new medium and greenness. This goes from free access and reuse of content to anonymous bullying on social networks. But the Internet would not have globally spread so quickly without the openness, even though with good and bad consequences for certain persons.
    Different cultures and legal systems have hindered the introduction of binding rights and obligations. Especially for the generations Y and Z, the need of rewarding content creators is hard to understand, as they obviously access content for free.
  • Ruthless exploitation
    Before the colonization of the West, millions of buffalos roamed the prairie. The bison provided the American Natives with food, clothing and the basis for making tools and tents. The hunters of that time only killed as many bison’s, as they needed per day. The buffalos were eventually almost completely exterminated for the mass production of boots and for the supply of the railway workers.
    In the dawn of the Internet, computer nerds were everywhere romping around and trying out possible applications. With networking, the geographical distances dissolve and each connected region of the world is part of the whole with just a mouse click. The digitization of books, music and films makes it possible to copy products protected by copyright without the opportunity that the authors control the use. Beneficiaries are not only the usual distributors, but also platforms that benefit from the use of data and broker commissions.
    Today, Internet providers bypass the requirements of the cultural, logistics and tourism industries – Amazon is replacing local book and record stores not as a book store but as a logistics company; Uber offers passenger transport outside the legal regulations; Airbnb arranges private overnight stays without the liability of the hotel industry.

Bottom line: The economic interests, the assumed boundlessness, the lack of rules and the ruthless exploitation of resources are similar in the development of the American Frontier and the World Wide Web. This makes the American Frontier the ideal metaphor for the Internet.

P.S.: It is important for content providers to receive their economic share and at the same time for users to retain access to information – without over-bureaucratization, i.e. without the regulatory mania that hampers actual work. The remuneration of intellectual property must be ensured, otherwise there will be no new content.