In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” At the time, it was exciting and liberating for those of us who were paying attention. In retrospect, it was naive and premature.
Barlow has been an important figure in the development of the online world — both as a coder and as a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — but some people know him best as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. (You might also remember a story I wrote last year about his “love at first sight” relationship with a psychiatrist.)
Barlow’s declaration of independence for the online world is pretty libertarian in nature. (He’s frequently described as a “cyberlibertarian.”) It’s about the efforts of governments to control people and about how they’ve failed, so those in cyberspace were moving on to a world without elected governments. It’s about how those of us in the online world are building a new world beyond the control of governments.
The problem is that it’s turned out to be far easier for governments to control cyberspace than Barlow and Co. imagined 17 years ago. In fact, governments are encroaching more and more on what used to be a wide open frontier — and they’re imposing the rules and control of their world on cyberspace.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading about the U.S. National Security Agency’s vast ability to snoop on what we’re doing online. Over the past few years, we’ve repeatedly seen the U.S. government seize websites and domains in the name of stopping online digital piracy and other alleged crimes.
We’ve seen governments around the world controlling the Internet to a greater and greater degree, sometimes in the name of outright censorship and other times in the name of stopping digital piracy or child porn. Some countries even ban entire service categories. For instance, Saudi Arabia is about to ban the chat app called Whatsapp, not only because it makes it impossible for the government to listen in on what people are saying, but because it deprives the state telephone monopoly of revenue from international communication.
In the mid ’90s, it appeared that the Internet was going to be impossible for governments to control, but in two decades, those governments have learned more and more ways to enforce their will in more and more places online.
And now a prominent Russian politician is reviving an idea that’s been popular with many governments outside the United States for years. He and politicians in many countries want a new international agency to regulate the Internet. The excuse — which makes sense from his point of view — is that the United States and its allies are using the online world to spy on people, so governments everywhere ought to have the same access to controlling and spying.
He’s right that something needs to change, but the change needs to come in the opposite direction. Instead of giving more power to other governments, we need to take the power away from the ones who have control today.
Governments are never going to voluntarily relinquish this power, of course. The only way it’s going to change is if we can invent new technology that’s beyond their reach.
I know that there are things such as the Tor Project — which allow a degree of anonymity online — but using those tools seems to be complicated, especially for people of limited technical skills. I haven’t used Tor, but just reading the website is kind of mind-numbing. I can’t imagine what average people would think reading it.
I think we’re going to have to invent something that goes beyond the existing Internet, maybe in ways that we can’t even imagine. Can we develop new ways of getting signals around the world that won’t require them to go through communications equipment which governments can control? Probably, but I have no idea how, certainly not right now.
If we do reach the point that we develop something completely beyond the reach of governments, it’s going to be vilified. Politicians are going to say that it’s a tool of criminals and child pornographers. They’re going to do everything in their power to stop whatever we develop. Will some people do bad things with the technology? Without a doubt. But that’s the price we’re going to have to pay to get away from governments controlling the rest of us.
I appreciate Barlow’s idealistic sentiments in his declaration in 1996. But governments have caught up and learned too much about how to control us. It’s time to leapfrog them in some way that can put the bits and bytes we produce beyond their control.
If we can invent a way to have a completely free telecommunications grid — completely out of reach of the state’s snooping and control — we’ll have the real hope of moving our assets to places beyond governments’ ability to seize. And even more than the loss of ability to snoop on us, the loss of ability to take our assets is something governments fear.
It’s time to invent that future — so we can develop the ability to make John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence something more than just a naive and idealistic statement of principles.