John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace was published 20 years ago. While it is something that tends to concern mostly Internet regulation theorists, it is surprising just how relevant it continues to be. The text usually deserves a mention in some of the most cited works on Internet regulation, even if it is to criticise it. Why is the text so enduring? Why is cyber-libertarianism still a powerful idea that continues to inspire new generations?
It is fun to read the Declaration again, and it would be fair to say that it has not dated well. Perhaps it is the grandiose tone, or the Random Capitalizations. Perhaps it is the assumption that governments are evil entities of the past. Perhaps it is the presumption that Barlow dared to speak on behalf of everyone who was online in 1996, or the claim that the Internet is not concerned with ‘matter’. Or perhaps it is the fact that it declares its inhabitants immune from governmental sovereignty as long as they are online.
Many people have made well-informed criticism of the Declaration over the years, and of these my favourite remains ‘Foucault in Cyberspace‘ by James Boyle. He recognised that there was a very libertarian slant in the discussion of Internet regulation, fuelled by resentment of governments, but also caused by erroneous assumptions that the State was powerless with regards to Cyberspace. He then goes to cite the various avenues that could be used to regulate online behaviour, including the fact that cyber-libertarians tend to misunderstand law. Boyle also correctly predicted that technology would be used to regulate, and he also admonished that the view that regulation was only a matter of governments versus individuals was wrong, as private entities also regulate.
There are many other problems with the Declaration. Firstly, it portrays a very small, Western-centric Internet. It is no coincidence that a white male could assume to talk on behalf of the Internet, as back then it was still a relatively small community consisting mostly of other white males. When Barlow talks about an Internet that can make decisions on its own, he is really talking about the small technocratic elites he had access to. For him, and many other cyber-libertarians that have come after him, the Internet seems to be a small playground, and they resent anyone messing with it. This Western-centric reality remains, and it is the reason why many US commentators seem baffled by India’s refusal to allow Facebook to plant its colonial flag on the country. The reality of course is that the Internet is richer, more diverse, and even more tribal than cyber-libertarians expect. Social Justice Warriors, gamer-gaters, “Black Twitter“, Beliebers, missionals, Arabs, K-pop fans, foodies, furries, 4channers, academics… does Barlow really pretend to speak on behalf of all? There are plenty of Internet users who appreciate regulation, and even call for government intervention, they would beg not to be included in sweeping generalisations.
Secondly, the Declaration serves to propel the myth that the Internet is some sort of ethereal realm with little contact with the real world. The reality is that the Internet has a real, tangible presence in the world. Servers, people, cables, antennas, routers, all of these are real. Servers can be shut down, computers can be confiscated, drives can be seized, people can be arrested, communications can be intercepted. While enforcement can be difficult, it does not mean that the regulations do not exist.
Thirdly, when the reality of regulation hits, the Declaration is often presented as an ideal to strive for. While I am as critical of stupid regulation as the next person, it is undeniable that at least at present there are good reasons to call for some sort of regulation. Cyber-libertarians like to imagine an Independent Republic of Cyberspace, ruled by self-moderation, benign venture capitalists, and Bitcoin. The reality is one of fraud, hacking, and abuse that should not go unregulated.
Because of all of the above, for years I have agreed with Boyle’s criticism of the Declaration, and yet its allure continues to attract attention, even after all of these years. Every year I teach Barlow’s text as an introduction to regulation theories, and every year I see nodding heads whenever I read the text. The 20th anniversary has been met with a lengthy reflection in Boing Boing by Barlow himself, and he answered questions in a Reddit AMA, where new generations of cyber-libertarians congratulated him, and praised his ideals.
The reason for this endurance may be easy to explain. We are undergoing an unprecedented erosion of trust for traditional political institutions. For those priced out of the property ladder, with growing unemployment and shackled with student debt, the Declaration reads like an adequate representation of the contempt with which many hold their own governments. Cyberspace becomes a promised land free of regulatory control where everyone has a start-up idea that will disrupt the status-quo. Similarly, cyber-libertarianism plays to those who think of the Internet as a reflection of their own small digital tribe: “governments, keep your hands off my Facebook!”
Then again, Barlow himself has an answer to his critics:
“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. […] I do not believe that the Nation State, for all its efforts to bring the Net to heel, has really succeeded.”
I can assure you that I am not a representative of the Old Order, but that is besides the point. I think that Barlow here is moving the goalposts. I do not think we can claim that the Internet has been completely brought to heel, this is not what the Declaration said. The Declaration is clear, governments have no role in Cyberspace, their laws and rules do not apply to the realm of the Mind. Here Barlow is saying that the Declaration is still relevant because governments have not been completely successful and there are still some spaces of resistance to the rule of the State. Just because the Internet in China is not absolutely 100% controlled, it doesn’t mean that regulation is not possible. Regulation does not mean total control all the time.
Having said that, I have to agree with Barlow’s general sentiment that openness is good. It’s too bad that he continues to think of this in terms of government vs individual, when more often than not we are presented with an issue of a type of control and regulation by private parties that is more invasive than anything a government could ever think of. By focusing on the government, cyber-libertarians continue to ignore and even condone private abuse.
In my view, history has proved that Boyle was correct, and I am looking forward to the 20th anniversary of Foucault in Cyberspace.