from the still-a-work-in-progress dept
Earlier today, we wrote about how 20 years ago today, the Communications Decency Act became law (most importantly, Section 230, rather than the rest of it, which was dropped as unconstitutional). Of course, at the time, everyone was mostly focused on the unconstitutional parts trying to outlaw lots of smut online. It was partly that signing (which itself was a part of the larger Telecommunications Reform Act that inspired an apparently fairly drunk John Perry Barlow to pen his now quite famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace — which is now regularly quoted. A snippet:
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.
Of course, many have attacked its words, and these days, it — like Stewart Brand’s famed “information wants to be free” quote (which is much longer and more nuanced than most people think) — is more often referenced by people who hold it up for the sake of mockery, and to talk about how times have changed, or need to change.
And yet, there are (and remain) some very important concepts in that “dashed off” statement, and Barlow still stands by them today, even as
think tanks laugh factories like ITIF (who brought you brilliant ideas like “SOPA”) pretend he no longer supports it.
The Declaration was not a statement of inevitability, but rather a notice that things are different online. And they are. We’ve seen this over and over again — from back then and continuously up through today. So many of the disputes that we run into are about this very different nature of the internet from the physical world. Borders are not easily marked online, though people have tried. Artificial property restrictions are make much less sense when there is no physical scarcity, but digital abundance allows for anyone to simply make their own copy. Questions about jurisdiction and power remain. Self-organizing communities continue to show up. Some work better than others. Some work for a time and fail. Other experiments show up to replace it.
And, yes, of course, there have been many attempts to either move existing laws into the internet world, or to craft new ones for that purpose. At the same time, many big corporations have stepped in as well, where their own terms of service often act as a type of constitution. Some of these work better than others. The little tiny good law tucked deep into the horrible law of the CDA, has actually been a key element in protecting much of what Barlow spoke about.
But, as Barlow notes today, it takes a lot of work to keep the system moving in the right direction, and it’s something we cannot and should not take for granted:
Barlow admits that what he describes as the “immune system” of the Internet isn’t exactly automatic. It requires effort on the part of activists like himself. “It wasn’t a slam dunk and it isn’t now. I wouldn’t have started the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation” if it were, he says. But he nonetheless believes that there is a kind of inexorable direction of the Internet’s political influence toward individual liberty.
The technology and innovation continues to make things possible, but what happens next, depends on what people do with it.