Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today we’re going to cover a paper by one of the more colorful characters in the history of computing.
John Perry Barlow wrote songs for the Grateful Dead, ran a cattle ranch, was a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was a founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, was a fellow emeritus at Harvard, and early Internet pioneer.
A bit more of the old-school libertarian, he believed the Internet should be free. And to this end, he published an incredibly influential paper in Davos, Switzerland in 1996. That paper did as much during the foundational years of the still-nascent Internet as anything else. And so here it is.
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.
Thank you to John Perry Barlow for helping keep the Internet as de-regulated as it can be. Today, as we are overwhelmed by incorrect tweets (no matter what side of the politically isle you fall on), disinformation, and political manipulation, we have to rethink this foundational concept. And I hope we keep coming back to the same realization - the government has no sovereignty where we gather.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so, so lucky to have you. Have a great day.
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis gave the Black Lives Matter movement a new level of prominence and protesting racial injustice jumped into the global spotlight with protests spreading first to Louisville and then to practically every major city in the world.
Protesting is nothing new but the impacts can be seen far and wide. From the civil rights protests and Vietnam War protests in the 60s they are a way for citizens to use their free speech to enact social change. After all, Amendment I states that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
The 90s was a weird time. In many ways desecularization was gaining momentum in the US and many of the things people feared have turned out to become reality. Many have turned their backs on religion in favor of technology. Neil Gaiman brought this concept to HBO by turning technology into a God. And whether they knew that was what they were worried about or not, the 90s saw a number of movements meant to impose the thought police into intruding into every day life. Battle lines were drawn by people like Tipper Gore, who wanted to slap a label on music and a long and steady backlash to those failures led to many of the culture battles we are fighting with today. These days we say “All Lives Matter” but we often really mean that life was simpler when we went to church.
And many go to church still. But not like we used to. Consider this. 70% of Americans went to church in 1976. Now it’s less than half. And less than a third have been to church in the past week. That shouldn’t take anything away from the impact religion has in the lives of many. But a societal shift has been occurring for sure. And the impact of a global, online, interconnected society is often under-represented.
Imagine this. We have a way of talking to other humans in practically every country in the world emerging. Before, we paid hefty long distance lines or had written communication that could take days or weeks to be delivered. And along comes this weird new medium that allowed us to talk to almost anyone, almost instantly. And for free. We could put images, sounds, and written words almost anonymously out there and access the same. And people did.
The rise of Internet porn wasn’t a thing yet. But we could come home from church and go online and find almost anything. And by anything, it could be porn. Today, we just assume we can find any old kind of porn anywhere but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, we don’t even consider sex education materials or some forms of nudity porn any more. We’ve become desensitized to it. But that wasn’t always the case. And that represented a pretty substantial change. And all societal changes, whether good or bad, deserve a good old fashioned backlash. Which is what the Telecommunications Decency Act title 5 was.
But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (or EFF) had been anticipating the backlash. The legislation could fine or even incarcerate people for distributing offensive or indecent content. Battle lines were forming between those who wanted to turn librarians into the arbiters of free speech and those who thought all content should be open.
Then as in now, the politicians did not understand the technology. They can’t. It’s not what got them elected. I’ve never judged that. But they understood that the boundaries of free speech were again being tested and they, as they have done for hundreds of years, wanted to try and limit the pushing of the boundaries. Because sometimes progress is uncomfortable.
Enter the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign, which the EFF was organizing and the Center for Democracy and Technology. The Blue Ribbon campaign encouraged site owners to post images of ribbons on their sites in support. Now, at this point, no one argued these were paid actors. They branded themselves as Netizens and planned to protest. A new breed of protests online and in person. And protest they did. They did not want their Internet or the Internet 25 years later that we have inherited, to be censored.
Works of art are free. Access to medical information that some might consider scandalous is free. And yes, porn is often free. We called people who ran websites webmasters back then. They were masters of zeros and ones in HTML. The webmasters thought people making laws didn’t understand what they were trying to regulate. They didn’t. But lawmakers get savvier every year. Just as the Internet becomes harder to understand.
People like Shabir Safdar were unsung heroes. Patrick Leahy, the democratic senator from Vermont spoke out. As did Yahoo and Netscape. They wanted to regulate the Internet like they had done the television. But we weren’t having it. And then, surprisingly Bill Clinton signed the CDA into law. The pioneers of the Internet jumped into action. From San Francisco to the CDT in Brussels, they planned to set backgrounds black. I remember it happening but was too young to understand what it meant at the time. I just thought they were cool looking.
It was February 8, 1996. And backgrounds were changed for 48 hours.
The protests were covered by CNN, Time Magazine, the New York Times, and Wired. It got enough attention so the ACLU jumped into the fight. And ultimately the Act was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1997. Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion. It was 9-0. The Internet we have today, for better or worse, was free. As free for posting videos of police killing young black men as it is to post nudes, erotic fiction, or ads to buy viagra. Could it be done again some day? Yes. Will it? Probably. Every few years ago legislators try and implement another form of the act. SOPA, COPA, and the list goes on. But again and again, we find these laws struck down. The thought police had been thwarted.
As recent as 2012, Reddit wants to protest against SOPA and PIPA - so they try to repeat the blackout. The protests bring enough attention for the Supreme Court to hear a case and the new laws get overturned. Because free speech. And there’s hate speech sprinkled in there as well. Because the Internet helps surface the best and worst of humanity. But you know what, we’re better off for having all of it out there in the open, as hurtful and wonderful and beautiful and ugly as it all can be, according to our perspectives. And that’s the way it should be. Because the knowledge of all of it helps us to grow and be better and address that which needs to be addressed.
And society will always grapple with adapting to technological change. That’s been human nature since Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humanity. Just as we’ve been trying to protect intellectual property and combat piracy and everything else that can but up against accelerating progress. It’s hard to know where the lines should be drawn. And globalism in the form of globally connected computers doesn’t make any of that any easier.
So thank you to the heroes who forced this issue to prominence and got the backing to fight it back in the 90s. If it had been over-regulated we might not have the Internet as it is today. Just as it should be. Thank you for helping to protect free speech. Thank you for practicing your free speech. And least of all, thank you for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. Now go protest something!