25 Years Later: A Celebration Of The Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace
from the a-look-back dept
As we’ve been noting in posts throughout the day, today is the day that, 25 years ago, then President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That large telco bill included, among many other things, the Communications Decency Act, a dangerous censorial bill written by Senator James Exon. However, buried in the CDA was a separate bill, written by now Senator Ron Wyden and then Representative Chris Cox, the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, which today is generally known as Section 230 of the CDA. A legal challenge later tossed out all of Exon’s bill as blatantly unconstitutional.
However, on the day of the signing, most of the internet activist space wasn’t even thinking about Section 230. They were greatly concerned by Exon’s parts of the CDA and some other provisions in the Telecommunications Act that they feared could cause more harm than good. This inspired John Perry Barlow to write his now famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which was also released 25 years ago today. It’s worth reading and reflecting on it 25 years later:
A Declaration of the 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.
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.
You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.
Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.
In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.
Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.
These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.
We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
February 8, 1996
Barlow later admitted that he wrote it in a somewhat rushed fashion while attending a party at the World Economic Forum, saying that he would write parts of it, go dance, and then go back to writing. He said that “less distraction might have yielded a more thoughtful document, but things were as they were.”
And yet, the document lives on — celebrated by some, denigrated by some. It’s used by some to highlight the special place the internet holds in our lives, while used by others as the quintessential example of techno-exceptionalism run amok.
I still think of it as more of a vision — a goal for what an internet could be, rather than a declaration of what it was. It was a shining star for what the internet might be possible to achieve, with an underlying recognition that policymakers and regulators who never truly understood the internet and its usefulness, would seek to undermine or destroy. People can see in it whatever they wish to see — good or bad — and that too is part of the promise and wonder of today’s modern internet.
At the very least, it’s worthwhile to read again on its 25th anniversary and to remember that possibility. The internet was and is something different than we’ve seen before in society. That has enabled so many wonderful things — and some less pleasant things. But let’s not forget the good just because we’ve now recognized the bad abuses of the internet as well.