BOSTON — Everywhere you look on the Web, the settlers have arrived.
Only three years ago, if you wanted to start a good dustup in a news-group discussion thread, you needed only mention the possibility of commerce on the Web. Longtime Net-heads vigorously opposed it, declaring that if you allowed the Web to be used for business purposes, it would destroy what the Net was all about (although if you asked what it was all about, you would probably start another argument).
In many ways, the debate was similar to the one that took place on the American frontier 100 years ago, when settlers began to construct roads and fences across what was once open country. The pioneers, who had arrived first and loved the openness, also decried the invasion of outsiders into their previously pristine domain.
But that Web debate was three years ago.
Today, it seems that the only reason the Web exists is to make money. E-commerce dominates the agenda of almost every Web discussion, certainly in the mainstream media. But again, like the old West, an element of anarchy remains in the new settlements that have sprung up on the frontier. And like the old West, more than a few people believe we need a sheriff - or at least a deputy - to maintain law and order and make sure the settlers are protected.
It's an idea that works most of the time in the physical world. But who will patrol the Web - a space that both does and doesn't exist?
The government would seem to be the natural answer. While there are varying degrees of faith in the government's ability to protect the citizenry - depending on where you live in the world, or even where you live in the US - most people are content to cede the need to provide this protection in the physical world to the various representatives of law and order.
But hold on there, partner - that's not as easy as it looks in the virtual world.
Lots of people don't want the government anywhere near the Web for all kinds of reasons, most related to privacy. To paraphrase a current, too-often-seen ad on TV, most people don't want the government snooping around their e-mail boxes.
But there is an even bigger problem that prevents the government from acting decisively online - the actual size of the Internet.
As Ron Moritz, the president of Finjan Software points out, 125 years ago it was easy for the Texas Rangers to keep an eye on the Lone-Star State because "the Texas Rangers simply had jurisdiction over a huge chunk of geography.
"But the geography had boundaries, and beyond those boundaries were other entities and other patrolling organizations," Mr. Moritz says. "The US marshall would oversee the Rangers when they got out of line. Same thing today - the FBI has jurisdiction on crimes that cross state lines. But the Net has no lines, so where do you patrol?"
"The reality of the Web is that it's not policeable," says Jon Katz, columnist for the Web magazine Slashdot and the Freedom Forum Online.
"Unfortunately, the rest of society is really struggling with that. You see, the Web is a wall-buster, and we live in a society of walls. It just exploded when no one in the culture was really paying attention to it, and it's so big now that you won't be able to rule it with regulations," Mr. Katz says. "There are just not enough police officers to police the Net."
Another problem is that many rules and regulations written for the physical world (for the regulation of commerce, for instance), don't work when applied to the virtual world. Or can't work.
"There are certain situations where the government does already have jurisdiction under existing commerce statutes," Moritz says. "Two examples are truth in advertising and failure to deliver merchandise. But what happens when you are outside the jurisdiction or if the criminal amount is too small?
"For example," Moritz says, "I set up a bogus company [Web site] on a server in California and attempt to sell toilet paper for 10 cents per roll over the Net. You live in Boston and order 100 rolls, sending your $10 to my PO box in Bermuda. I'm a boiler shop and disappear; you're stuck without toilet paper. First, who will you call? Who can patrol on $10 losses?"
So if Katz and Moritz both agree that it's impossible to police or effectively regulate the Net, how are we supposed to protect ourselves?
Basically, they say, it's up to individuals to protect themselves. But as in the old West, there will be guides that will help you stay off bad trails and out of trouble (see story above on ConsumersReports Online site).
"I will never find someone to track the $10 fraud guy," Moritz says. "However, what may happen is that the Internet may provide communities where people who've been defrauded can help spread the word faster - a digital immunization system of sorts - so that the perpetrator won't be able to hit as many folks. This is the Net as a communication portal."
Katz also sees portals playing a role, but in his scenario it's portals like Yahoo and others that will help provide guidance to people.
"The Web always sorts itself out. People gravitate to what they trust. To remain with the commerce idea, almost everybody selling off line is selling online these days. For instance, I buy almost all my clothes from the L.L. Bean Web site. And that's what portals are doing. They help point people to the people they trust and keep them out of bad places."
New kinds of software will help as well. Some, like software that blocks pornography or other questionable sites for children, are already moving into their second or third generations and are getting stronger and more focused on excluding only the correct sites, and not everything in sight.
Also, security software like the new personal firewalls will allow people to provide strong security on their personal machines that will prevent them from either being hacked or used by hackers to pursue some other goal.
"In the end, I believe that the Net will self-police," says Moritz. URL filtering services, such as Mobile and AAA Travel Guides, "help keep you away from bad neighborhoods. If you go there, be prepared. If you stay away, why do you need to be patrolled in the first place?"
So for all those settlers, or newbies as they are called online, who are making their first forays into this exciting new world, chances are that they won't find a virtual marshall around when they need one.
But if you use the same common sense you use off line in unfamiliar situations, you'll probably be fine. And you might even find a friendly guide or two to help you learn the layout of the new territory.
Only one problem with all this: If there are no marshals or other such authority figures online, who is going to ride off into the virtual sunset?
*Tom Regan is associate editor of the Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at Tom@csmonitor.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society