The Web’s Wild West Days Are Gone

Just a few years ago, the Web was an open playing field where few things were taboo. Those days are gone, and if we’re not careful, there could be dire consequences for online marketers.

A 19-year-old, Shawn Fanning, created Napster 10 years ago, and that battle is still being fought. Craigslist started 14 years ago and — while the classified ads for apartments, dating, and items for sale are as popular as ever — it seems the adult listings are fast becoming a major legal battleground. Add the censorship by China, the legal battles throughout Europe, and the constant threat of U.S. government intervention into behavioral targeting, and we can see that the Web is now far from its Wild West days.

The increase in cyberpolice isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many Web activities need policing. More publicity about the presence may lower the number of online predators and other serious criminals.

The Internet has created the “global village.” Perhaps the power of sites like Twitter may help overthrow totalitarian regimes. Why has China jumped in to ban its use?

People who get caught using online prostitution services obviously haven’t read about the push by 40 state Attorneys General to get Craigslist to hand over their information — not just the advertisers. But some of the most ignorant Web users have to be the people who criticized the tax trial of a Las Vegas resident who thought he could pay in gold coins but for tax purposes report the money as the face value of the coins.

The newspaper was served a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. attorney’s office demanding they turn over all records pertaining to those postings, including full name, date of birth, physical address, gender, ZIP code, password prompts, security questions, telephone numbers, and IP address.

Among the comments was an entry from a person bragging they hadn’t paid taxes in more than 30 years — we really think the Web is anonymous!

The Web isn’t some autonomous body that operates beyond the law — though for years people have looked at it that way. With privacy problems, there is a growing possibility that the U.S. government will step in to regulate what can be gathered in the way of user information.

The U.K. Culture Minister Barbara Follett “wants an ‘age identification card’ for online access and pre-screening of user-generated content uploads. Don’t expect things to stop there. Once the mode of delivery is regulated in a way to facilitate official oversight, expect direct regulation of content next,” a libertarian blog pointed out recently.

Yahoo was fined in Belgium for not sharing e-mails of people using a Yahoo address to perpetrate fraud, reported.

The Australian government has already started a censorship trial, with one of their national ISPs signing up.

“Senator Conroy — despite his promises before Labor was elected that people would be able to opt out of any internet filters — has said the first tier of the Government’s censorship policy will be compulsory for all. This would block all ‘illegal’ and ‘inappropriate’ material, as determined in part by a secret blacklist administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. A second tier would filter out content deemed harmful for children, such as pornography, but this would be optional for Internet users,” the online Australian newspaper reported.

This type of regulation should have a major impact on the Web. In the U.S., the Interactive Advertising Bureau has encouraged self-regulation to ensure consumer privacy protection, but it seems the industry is dragging its feet and may soon fall under the rules of the government.

“Lawmakers, including Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, are pushing for greater regulation and the implementation of more aggressive opt-in policies. The goal is better consumer privacy protection, and the target: online behavioral targeting practices. It’s pretty clear the IAB and other online marketers need to get serious about educating consumers about targeting and its parameters, or there will be further regulation,” digiday has reported.

The antitrust discussions about Google’s monopolistic hold on the search industry are another way we could see the government enter our industry in a very direct and pervasive way.

We all gripe about Google being the Borg of our industry, but a government intervention may not be a pretty thing. Will it be like the Ma Bell breakup back in the ’80s? Could it see even more jobs lost in our space?

Government involvement in our daily lives isn’t always a bad thing — but this could be a scary one. It isn’t hard to see how little our leaders know about the Web. Putting its future in their hands could be a mistake.

Maybe it’s time for us to become a little more proactive and get in there and do something. Sitting around doing nothing rarely leads to success.

Chris Boggs Fires Back

Frank, great insight! This all almost makes buying links seem a little benign, doesn’t it?

You’d think that the Internet is becoming a safer place as a result of the predatory laws going into effect. Hopefully, this kind of thing has completely dissipated by the time my daughter gets older, but full safety will need legislation along the lines of what Barbara Follett is suggesting.

I’m glad to see that my motherland Belgium is taking a tough stance here too (I was born in Liege). Frankly, I’d be very happy to regulate my children’s online neighborhood more assuredly than the current systems, which obviously have exploitable loopholes.

Speaking of loopholes, what about SEO as related to advertising laws? “Truth in advertising” and “full disclosure” are two looming concepts.

Indexed pages with outdated offerings and the continuance of pay-for-post and other unmarked advertising links will only grow as Webmasters further realize their earning potential.

These are a couple potential future discussions that have simmered in the past, and could definitely lead to government intervention. Of course, we’ve also discussed setting up standards for SEO in the past, which probably should still be done in order to preempt further government “nosiness.”

SES San Jose this year has a few great “future” panels and the buzz around these topics will all continue to grow.

Submissions are now open for the 2009 Search Engine Watch Awards. Enter your company or campaign before July 17, 2009. Winners will be announced at SES San Jose.

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