Book review: Wild West 2.0

Book review: Wild West 2.0

Summary: In the early to mid 1990s it was fashionable to compare the unformed, open spaces of the internet to the 19th century American West: the 'electronic frontier'. Tabloid journalists liked to call the internet lawless and uncontrolled; pioneers preferred to call it uncontrollable.

TOPICS: Reviews

In the early to mid 1990s it was fashionable to compare the unformed, open spaces of the internet to the 19th century American West: the 'electronic frontier'. Tabloid journalists liked to call the internet lawless and uncontrolled; pioneers preferred to call it uncontrollable. Neither was entirely true. The internet has always had its central planners and those who try to circumvent them, and while it was, and is, unclear whether and how it could be completely controlled, it was always clear that governments had a legitimate interest in trying.

Since then, governments have rolled in and set up filters and communities with rules abound. Where the 'lawlessness' charge is perhaps most correct is in online crime: teenage joyriding hackers have been succeeded by a financially-motivated, highly organised underground that is largely out of the reach of law enforcement.

So to read in Wild West 2.0: How To Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Frontier about the internet as an uncontrolled wilderness where anyone can nail your reputation to a tree seems quaintly old-fashioned. If you spend a lot of time considering the difficulties posed to privacy by built-in online tracking, it's weird hear that anonymity is woven throughout its design.

At this point it's worth mentioning that the authors, Michael Fertik and David Thompson, who are the founding CEO and general counsel of the company ReputationDefender, have a business reason to promote the 'Wild West' point of view. Their start-up exists to sell products and services to enable customers to monitor their reputations, delete data about themselves from online services, control their online 'brand image' and monitor what's being said about their children. This book could be the part of their business plan that explains why there's an untapped market for their services.

To be fair, they're not entirely wrong. Lacking a court order it can be very difficult to get an ISP to do things like remove web sites or disclose users' real names and addresses. And they are also correct that someone setting out to defame someone else has a vast array of tools at their command. And only two weeks ago, at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, a panel outlined the problems Americans have with online information brokers, some of whom refuse to remove information such as a home address even when the person requesting the removal is a victim of domestic violence. Impersonation, identity fraud, hoaxes and urban legends: these are all online realities that can hurt both businesses and individuals.

It's arguable that the single biggest reputational problem most people have is the information they post voluntarily about themselves — something the book doesn't really cover in its complaints that search engines and ISPs are in general not held liable for the material they host or point to. And it's worth noting that the authors have apparently never ventured outside the US even as far as the UK, where Laurence Godfrey's libel suit against Demon Internet set a precedent for notice-and-takedown whose effects linger to this day.

Nonetheless, much of the authors' advice is sound — particularly the final chapter, which covers what to do when your reputation has been slimed.

Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier By Michael Fertik and David Thompson Amacom 264pp ISBN: 978-0814415092 £19.99

Wendy Grossman

Topic: Reviews

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  • The preservation of anonymous free discourse is vital for a just and open social order, and protection for anonymous whistle blowers encourages truth and equity in government and industry. Nonetheless like all noble things subject to ill-use. The expense is too high when it must be paid by somebody who has done no wrong.

    Notwithstanding, made-up rumors & defamatory onslaughts are many times published by masked low-lifes. They derive great pleasure from hurting people; they're essentially driven by other people's pain; a victim's torment is their sick prize, the clinical term is "narcissistic supply". Ordinary individuals such as most of the individuals reading this article cannot relate to what drives these people.

    This deplorable social drawback has taken on wildfire proportions within the preceding decade due to unchecked anonymous e-slander. In instances where courts issued orders insisting that anonymous and vindictive blog authors can be revealed in the full light of day, such directives are frequently a cause of protests by a small but rambunctious strain of zealous activists who deem that freedom of expression must be unconditional and a talker or author is not to be held responsible for their words, without consideration to the accuracy or deceptiveness of the statements. I assume that should these protesting people could witness the devastating effects of a concerted internet smear campaign and the vocational, emotional, physical, & social health of victims or their family; they wouldn't be as ardent in their protests.

    An underlying distinction of attacking anonymously is that credibility is reduced if critically considered by reasonable and objective observers. Notwithstanding, there is an interesting dynamic with the predicament of vicious and anonymous internet defamation. While the statements will appear suspect, when the target is to be assessed for a job, consulting awards, babysitting work (or courtship), the individual conducting the reference checks will probably factor in the potential public relations risks from attaching to the poor dupe. Although the potential employer is probably able to see past the vitriol, the decision maker will probably consider what their customers and partners will believe if less sophisticated & open-minded.

    Cheers, Michael Roberts.
  • Thanks for the review. We think the Internet is still a frontier, especially with respect to reputation:

    Check out our response.
  • Thank you for your thoughtful review, Wendy. As co-author of the book, I'd like to continue the discussion about your ideas.

    Let's be clear that our point is not that the Internet is completely lawless. Instead, it's that frontiers (like the Internet and the Old West of American history) present great opportunities for social and personal change, but also require self-reliance, self-defense, and constant vigilance. Our goal is to teach readers why they need to stand up for themselves.

    We must also all be mindful that frontiers eventually close. Just like the Old West, the Internet frontier opened with a gold rush. But the Old West frontier closed when hundreds of thousands of people moved west and brought their own ideas of “civilization” and “society” with them–at the expense of a culture clash with the original gold-rush occupants. Today–at the close of the Internet frontier—we are seeing a similar culture clash between old and new users.

    We fully agree that the most lawless days of the Internet are over: Every U.S. citizen that can’t place an online wager is well aware that governments can and do regulate conduct online; as are the virus-writers and hackers who are periodically arrested by Interpol and other international efforts.

    In the U.S., the legal system makes clear that victims of online attacks have little or no recourse against their attackers: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act makes it difficult to cooperate with web hosts, and online attackers often disappear into the night without leaving any virtual fingerprints. Outside the U.S., the legal regime is different, but the technical regime is just the same: it is easy to track users for the wrong reasons (privacy invasions, stalking, spyware, and more) but hard to track users for the right reasons (redress for legal wrongs).

    The result has been a continued explosion of online attacks, powered by anonymity and boosted by the power of Google to find and distribute tabloid material.

    As an internet user, internet privacy advocate and Chief Privacy Officer at Reputation Defender (a point that myself and co-author Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender founder and CEO, make clear in the book), I want cyber-abuse to stop. We actively support reforms for U.S. law, improved cyber culture worldwide, and training for students and others as to how to actively protect their own reputation and privacy.

    David Thompson, ReputationDefender
  • Given the books nature it sounds a very good read but pales somewhat given the nature of what the EU counsel have just recently perpetrated/done to the resident people of the European union, by way of handing over unrestricted access of their banking details to the US government, pending transactions into or out of the US.

    Talk about setting a precedence, sort of bursts the bubble right here for me.
  • CA: I think you mean "precedent", and the people you should engage with are Privacy International, who were the first to expose the banking data issue (google PI and SWIFT).

    David: I've been online since 1991, so I've actually lived through these particular battles before. (In fact, you can find my 1998 take on them at, which is why the book felt to me a bit like a throwback. I actually do think that anonymity is important, as there are certain kinds of information that will not come to light without it. The issue is, as always, balance.

    I also think it's way to soon to say that the frontier is closing; I agree with for example the Open Rights Group (in UK), the EFF (in US), and Jonathan Zittrain that it *could* be closing but that it's important to keep it from doing so.

    That said, there is a very big issue wrt crime online - I think you vastly overestimate the percentage of virus writers and other far more serious online criminals that gets caught and/or punished. See for example this piece of mine from last year in which law enforcement people explain how difficult it is to get funding or permission to chase someone who may be raiding dozens of bank accounts around the world for $1000 at a time where the threshold in each jurisdiction is small and local governments may even regard the robbers as heroes. *That* really is the Wild West, and compared to it reputational damage is, in most cases, going to be small beer. One of the interviewees makes the point that offline criminals are moving online simply because the environment is much safer (no being shot at!) and the risks of being caught much slimmer and the punishment if they are comparatively negligible. Of course, I've personally and professionally opposed a lot of the data surveillance that the UK (and US) governments have been putting in place over the last ten years - but note that none of that data gathering on ordinary citizens has in fact made the Internet - or real life - noticeably safer.

    Over the weekend, I found a web page that describes me as a "misguided New York hippy [sic]". I choose to believe it makes *them* look silly.

  • One of the URLs in that msg didn't come through:
    Let see if it does this time.