Web isn’t the “Wild West” – it’s already too regulated

The web isn’t a lawless Wild West – it’s already too regulated, according to a leading academic.

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The director of the Oxford Internet Institute, Professor William Dutton, will release a wide-ranging report in June on the subject, showing the positive and negative affects of the web on freedom of expression.

“Often the internet is viewed as the Wild West, where there’s no regulation. One of the themes of our research project was to point out how regulated the internet is in all sorts of ways,” Dutton said at a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) conference in Oxford.

We cannot assume freedom of expression is an inevetiable outcome of technology advances

He noted that such laws aren’t necessarily negative; users are often regulated for good reasons, to prevent fraud, defamation or child abuse.

However, Dutton argued that much legislation is based on old-fashioned ideas. “More and more politicians are applying legislation that is coming from dated models – from broadcasting, from the telephone era,” he argued.

“We need a model that is appropriate and fitting to the internet and the web, and not something that comes from an earlier era. The internet is not broadcasting, but people wish it were so they could just regulate the ISPs and have them decide what’s fit for broadcasting.”

Web surveillance

He highlighted the disconnection plans of the Digital Economy Act, and slammed plans to force ISPs into “surveillance and watching what others are downloading”.

Dutton’s research found a global trend in increased web filtering, be it for political, moral or commercial reasons. “That’s a worrisome trend that counters some of the really dramatic improvements made by the web itself.”

Because governments are increasingly using the web for surveillance, the ability to stay anonymous is increasingly important, he said.

“It’s so obvious in Middle East and North Africa that the most obvious strategy for some countries is to identify those using the internet for protests,” he said, noting the number of bloggers arrested has never been higher, and has a “chilling effect” by discouraging others from speaking out.

“We cannot assume freedom of expression is an inevitable outcome of technology advances,” he added.

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