I know lots of people who have written about how “wild” the cyber realm is today, and the lack of “rules” makes it a Hobbesian State of Nature. Frankly, I always thought that was more hyperbole than I cared for, even in the very exaggerated world of cyber thought leadership. Maybe it ‘s not.

In the last two or three days, I have heard several connected phases used that are all at least thought provoking. I have heard about “Digital Hit Men” – bad guys who do the bidding of those who hire them (for way less than you would think) to take down websites, trash digital reputations or steal/corrupt data.

In another instance, a well-known former Intel official suggested that maybe the United States should hire cyber mercenaries with whom we could conduct cyber operations. I think he called them a “Cyber Blackwater.” I guess these would be good guys who did our bidding.

Lastly, there are cyber vigilantes, who do whatever they darned well please, going after anyone with whom they disagree, regardless of their status as establishment or counter-establishment (after all, many feel good and bad is in the eye of the beholder, or maybe the FBI).

The bottom line is that in cyber, there is an incredible freedom to digitally take matters into ones own hands. The white hat/black hat thing could easily get out of control. The concept of nation states having a monopoly on the instruments of power is simply not true in cyber, and it does not matter how big ones biceps are if you can “work” a keyboard.

Are we comfortable with this state of affairs? Do we want “order” or the Wild West? Chances are, this situation will actually get worse before it gets better. (I guess my phrasing of that sort of gives away my predilections.) Do we want independent “gun slingers” dealing with the digital bank robbers? You might say yes to that, but how about that “mean” owner of a huge digital ranch. Should the same gunslinger be given leave to gather his buddies and deal with that guy too?

At a certain point, we need to develop ways to address this issue, or at least have the conversation. The problem with rules folks is that everyone is expected to abide by them or face sanction. I think most of us want order, but no one seems to want to give up any of his or her “flexibility” to get it.

This is not the first time we’ve faced this sort of dilemma, and if my movie-based historical memory of the physical Wild West is accurate, it was a bit of a bloody affair to sort it out.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More