The return of cyber-libertarianism

Cyberspace

For many of us interested in Internet Regulation, cyber-libertarianism is that wacky and archaic theory that is described at the start of a presentation, sort of like Geocities pages and Myspace profiles. “Look at what those naïve early Internet theorists believed, and isn’t that animated dancing baby hideous?” The cyber-libertarian manifesto remains Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

 

Fast forward a few years, add the collapse of confidence in current regulatory structures, add a bit of Snowden, and you have the perfect mix for a return of cyber-libertarian ideas. However, we may be witnessing a return to cyber-libertarianism. During his closing statement at the last IGF, Milton Mueller proposed that Barlow was worth a second look, and postulated the ideas of an Internet Nation:

“Barlow’s idea that the internet was immune from control by existing governments has been discredited. But remember, Barlow drafted a declaration of independence. Such a declaration does not necessarily mean that existing nations have no power; it means that the residents of cyberspace want a distinct nation of their own.

You might laugh at that assertion. An Internet nation? What does it mean? Surely, everyone knows that nations are territorial, that the physical facilities of Internet service providers are located in a jurisdiction ruled by a government. Jurisdictions and laws are attached to Internet users as well. But these arguments carry much less weight than one might think.

There is nothing terribly crazy or controversial about the concept of an Internet community. Clearly, the Internet provides the basis for a community with its own interests, an incipient identity, its own norms and modes of living together. And it is only a small step from community to nation. A nation is just a community that wants its own state. So it doesn’t really matter whether existing sovereigns currently have the power to impose their rules on them. What matters is whether that Internet community can be organized to assert, and gain, its political independence.”

The call has created some waves in Cyberspace (how meta), with EFF declaring that there may be something worth exploring here. They say:

“These are subversive ideas, to be sure—and we need to think about them carefully, whilst also thinking through the implications of their alternatives. EFF generally focus less of our time and attention on the evolution of institutional Internet governance, and more on fighting for substantive rights and freedoms through the structures that we already have. But this is not the same as to accept that existing governance structures are perfect, or that rights and freedoms on the global Internet might yet be best safeguarded by new models which did not directly proceed from the affairs and interests of nation states.”

It may still be too early to declare the return of cyber-libertarianism as a practical governance model, particularly because the current architecture does not allow for such a thing. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for those who think that the Internet is a separate jurisdictions is that the infrastructure clearly inhabits real space, and both people and businesses are subject to effective enforcement. It is easy to claim Internet Freedom and cyber-anarchy until the police knocks down your door.

But Mueller is right in the sense that maybe we should look at the ideals of a separate community once more. Whenever I go to large meetings such as the IGF I cannot shake the sense that many of the people who I meet at such events are much closer to me than my compatriots from Costa Rica and the UK, and we share in common more than a love for cats and geeky t-shirts. These shared ideals of freedom and openness go beyond national identity, perhaps it is time for the Internet Tribe to grow up and take greater responsibility over its own direction.