Reflections, 20 years Later, on A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Does Cyberspace Exist? Is It Free?
Twenty years ago tonight, I was at a staff party for the closing of the World Economic Forum, lured there by a coven of the contemporary geishas that staffed the Forum in those days, composed largely of doctoral students in Foreign Affairs at the University of Geneva. But I had also agreed to write something about that moment for a book called 24 Hours in Cyberspace. This was a slightly silly proposition, given that it was largely a book of photographs, and a photograph has yet to be taken of anything in Cyberspace.
But one of the photographs destined for the book was taken on a primitive digital camera by Tipper Gore as Bill Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act, a wholly futile piece of legislation that proposed at $250,000 fine on anyone uttering online any of seven words I have never failed to hear every time I was a guest in the Senate Members Dining Room.
The bill was a sweeping assertion of powers that were unconstitutional in the U.S. and utterly without legal basis anywhere else in the world.
So, facing a deadline, and filled with a gathering sense of indignation not only at the Communications Decency Act, but at the many bland assertions I’d heard at the WEF about regulating and controlling the Internet, I decided to write a manifesto declaring the natural anti- sovereignty of the global social space I had started calling Cyberspace seven years earlier.
Like the people in Congress who had passed the Communications Decency Act, few of the powerful men at the WEF had ever been online or had much interest in getting there. They had secretaries who typed. It wasn’t just that they were clueless about the Internet. They were dynamically anti-clueful and took it as a badge of honor. 1996 was the first year the Internet became a topic of interest at the WEF and they’d brought in a few wired types like myself, mostly as curiosities and certainly as part of the entertainment. Dancing bears would have been cheaper and probably more entertaining.
So I had few illusions about how many representatives of the Powers that Had Been were going to quake at any broadside I might write at that moment. But that wasn’t why I wanted to write it. I wanted to write it because it needed to be said, whether anyone from the “weary giants” ever read or understood it.
So I decided, in the middle of this fabulous, glittering party, that I would use the opportunity to declare – on my own authority, representing no one but myself – my conviction that Cyberspace, the fast-blooming organism of all connected thought, was already free and already independent. It was not a freedom we had to wrest from some King. It was a freedom we’d had all along, based on the simple lack of enforceable jurisdiction and the inherently open architectural design of the Internet.
What I felt compelled to declare was pretty simple really.
First, I wanted to declare that no government, neither ours nor Saudi Arabia’s, had the authority, much less the ability to tell the “people of Cyberspace,” that global constituency who already identified with the design, creation, and defense of the still larval Internet, what they might express online. Even in those many parts of the world that didn’t share America’s purported values regarding freedom of expression, privacy, prior restraint, unreasonable search and seizure, etc. there were still not many who were ready to cede to the United States such moral authority without legal standing.
Second, I wanted to make clear my belief that Authority, heretofore God-given down a long white column with the Almighty on top and you on the bottom, was about become something that could only be derived from a horizontally networked consensus, since in most cases there’d be no practical way to impose it hierarchically.
I admit that, coming from Wyoming, where unwritten social contracts seem to work pretty well, I was susceptible to the view that in the absence of credible law, such “organic” methods of self-regulation of might develop in the online world. To some degree, they have. In most ways, they have not. As the entire Human Race came online, including the very worst of us, it was naïve of me to think that the Russian Mob (or the Russian Government, for that matter) was going to have much truck with consensus systems aimed at the commonweal.
But it was late, I was in a hurry, and there always seemed to be a pretty girl next to me pouring another glass of champagne. So I wrote a number of things I might not have written in a cold, gray dawn. This probably also accounts for my decision to imitate the grandiloquent literary style of a notorious slave-holder like Thomas Jefferson. (For which I took endless grief from Post-Modernists all over Europe.)
Third, I felt a need to make clear that the whole notion one could own free speech was going to be very hard to perpetuate in any environment where anybody could perfectly reproduce anything humans make with their minds and distribute it infinitely at zero cost. Since the desire to share cool stuff is a human impulse just this side of sex, it didn’t seem likely to me that harsh laws, all of them local, were going to keep people from sharing everything from songs to mathematical theorems across Cyberspace. And I could see that the primary tool of censorship was going to be copyright law and not such stalking horses as kiddy porn and terrorism.
As I wrote the piece between dances, I received substantive help from Mike Nelson, which was ironic in that Mike was at the time the Clinton Administration’s Main Man on Internet matters. Finally, he was getting a chance to support me rather than debate me over positions with which he secretly agreed.
Eventually, I just hit “send” and dispatched the piece to the editors of 24 Hours in Cyberspace (who found it too controversial to include in their coffee table book). In addition, I sent it out the next day to the 600 or so friends I had with e-mail addresses.
And then I had my first experience with online virality. With a couple of days I was receiving supportive e-mails by the megabyte from all over the planet. At the end of a month, it appeared, using the primitive tools of the day, to be on at least 10,000 Internet sites. I had apparently spoken for somebody.
And then my Declaration largely faded from general consciousness, though it has been perennially fashionable for representatives of the Old Order to trot it out as an example of the sort of wooly- headed hippie thinking we could entertain in more innocent times, but certainly not now with all these Boogie Men cavorting online, whether ISIL, Pirate Bay, Anonymous, and leakers of all sorts. Most of the excellent personages who hold it up for ridicule have either not read it or still failed to understand it when they did. And thus they might be forgiven for not knowing what it said.
Or checking it for accuracy. And while there were things I might have done differently had I thought I was going have to defend it to the end of my days, nonetheless, I will stand by it still.
I do not believe that the Nation State, for all its efforts to bring the Net to heel, has really succeeded.
It is still the case that if one is reasonably savvy technically, he or she can express whatever they wish without fear of reprisal. But what about China, you will sputter? Well, in my experience, the actual relationship between China and the Internet is much more nuanced and complex than appears through our media. The Chinese government isn’t stupid. They don’t want to deny their smartest people access to our smartest people, even as they attempt to insert enough “capacitance” into their version of the Internet to prevent the formation of another Great Cultural Revolution online.
What about NSA surveillance, you ask? Given that even the NSA is now calling for more powerful and generalized use of encryption to protect American systems from foreign mischief. And the State Department is one of the most effective proponents of distributing tools to assure anonymity to dissidents in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Actually, things have turned out rather as I expected they might 20 years ago. The War between the Control Freaks and the Forces of Open-ness, whether of code, government, or expression, remains the same dead heat it’s been stuck on all these years.
Which is enough to make me believe that my vision of an Internet that will one day convey to every human mind the Right to Know all that curiosity might propel them toward, a “world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
Please read A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, and judge for yourself. It holds up.
Image and video courtesy John Perry Barlow
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