At regular intervals—too short for it to even be amusing anymore—we now hear that debates over Internet regulation would be more productive if only people would get it through their thick skulls that the Internet is not some special free-for-all zone. There’s no reason it can or should remain magically exempt from the rules that apply everywhere else (we are reminded) and it is absurd and mysterious that some people (we are assured) believe otherwise.
This is a fair point. But what about all these hippy-dippy Real World anarchists who think meatspace can remain immune to the rules any well-managed virtual community understands to be essential? How is it, for instance, that citizens are physically capable of injuring each other, regardless of whether they’ve opted in to player-versus-player? And what fool designed it so that my image is visible to all other users in the same city, even if we aren’t friends? You’ve even apparently got to jump through a bunch of hoops to get something called a “restraining order” just to implement a simple user block!
What will actually make debates over Internet regulation more productive is universal recognition that the first paragraph is exactly as dumb as the second. (Possibly more so, since the second at least hints at some interesting possibilities.) You cannot implement an analogy. The rules that you’d want to apply if you could make it so just by wishing are not always the rules it is wise or feasible to attempt to actually put in place, once you’ve factored in the probable efficacy of that attempt and its unintended side-effects. Both of these, alas, are determined by annoyingly stubborn “facts” about the nature of the technological context in which you want to enforce the rules.
Not everyone understands the intricate technical details of how packet-switched digital networks function, and not everyone needs to. But if you truly don’t comprehend that “closing down an illegal shop” is not actually the same as—and in every possible way a pretty awful metaphor for—”getting thousands of ISPs to implement DNS filtering at the domain level,” you should quietly recuse yourself from Internet policy debates until you do understand the difference. And if you find yourself suggesting that Google “helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend,” and therefore must simply lack willpower when they say they can’t automatically screen out trademark and copyright violations, perhaps you should think twice about sitting on committees that vote on Internet legislation. I say this, incidentally, as a pure policy wonk who hasn’t done anything remotely resembling “network administration” since I was a teenager running a dial-up BBS out of my bedroom. You can pick up enough to follow along at home without going to MIT.
Most World of Warcraft players at least understands that it’s only the code of the game that enables adolescent fantasies of magical omnipotence to be played out without consequence—and that the laws of physics are unlikely to be so obliging. They understand that their problems can’t be banished just by reading a few words from an enchanted parchment—even if we feel that’s how the world ought to work. I live in perpetual hope that legislators will someday grasp this point as well, and realize that not all resistance to regulation is born of a mean-spirited hatred of magic.