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Historians tell us there are a lot of myths concerning the Old West. The forces of big business and big government were far more powerful than we've been taught. A lot of local law enforcement was based on gun control. Romantic solutions like the Pony Express and the great cattle drives were just quick fixes. Technology and capital tamed the West. In believing the myths, we've missed some lessons that might be applied to today's troubles with cyberspace.

Historians tell us there are a lot of myths concerning the Old West, assumptions that just aren’t true.

The forces of big business and big government were far more powerful than you may have been taught. A lot of local law enforcement was based on gun control. Romantic solutions like the Pony Express and the great cattle drives were just quick fixes. Technology and capital tamed the West.

In believing the myths, from Buffalo Bill to the early Western movies, we’ve missed some lessons that might be applied to today’s troubles with cyberspace.

The biggest problem is one of jurisdiction. All governments try to exert jurisdiction on issues of “sin” such as liquor, gambling, and spam. Many cyber-libertarians respond by claiming there is no jurisdiction. I may be sitting here in Georgia but I bought that wine in California, I made that bet in Antigua, and I sent that spam from Uzbekistan.

Any system of worldwide law, however, can eliminate freedom you may have become accustomed to. A universal rating system would censor writers – I have no idea when I might let out with a %*@)#!. Define “illegal content” please. Taxes are traditionally imposed where the transaction occurs, not where the buyer lives. When businesses build dossiers on your life and sell them, where will you seek redress? When governments seize your encryption key, where will you turn?

The answers to these questions fall under the heading of law. The process of setting laws is called politics.

The questions are important because freedom and capitalism can’t exist without the rule of law. Russia’s tried it – it doesn’t work. The questions must be dealt with by all of us because capitalism without democracy isn’t liberty. China has proven that.

Every nation has its own balance between liberty and order. The English assumption of innocence isn’t part of the Napoleonic Code. The American First Amendment doesn’t cover neo-Nazis in Germany. Yet when you’re online, it’s easy to flit among all these places, in just a few heartbeats. Since joining ClickZ I’ve gotten email from readers on every Continent, in every region of the world.

Everyone knows we’re at an important time in the Internet’s legal development, because right now most traffic is in English, and most of those who make their living online respect (even if they don’t live under) the American Bill of Rights and its First Amendment. Rules can be written now that put the highest possible premium on freedom, and on the protection of the individual against state power.

That’s why I think it’s so important we make cyberspace a key subject for debate in this election cycle. By 2004 the friends of liberty may be in the minority online, and a universal Internet law passed then may proscribe many verbal and private acts Americans take for granted – like this column.

At www.voxcap.com, I’ll be launching such a discussion starting next week. The stories you’ll see will be simply guides to resources. I won’t be answering the questions. You’ll be answering them, and in next year’s elections we’ll be answering them together. Let the campaign begin.

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