On the anniversary of John Perry Barlow's issuing 'A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,' a response and alternate call to action. Seventeen years ago today, on February 8, 1996, John Perry Barlow sent out his manifesto "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," a statement of the core belief of many cyber-libertarians that governments should have no authority on the Internet. That belief may seem quaint to many of us today, when the separation between the real and the virtual is growing ever fuzzier. And yet the Declaration remains a fairly accurate representation of the views of many of the anti-government voices on the Internet. These beliefs motivate the actions of groups like Anonymous and the writing on blogs like Tech Liberation Front and TechDirt. Moreover, many of the protests about things like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and Aaron Swartz are fundamentally driven by a deeply held belief that government should not be involved in the Internet. The ideas expressed in the Declaration are not only wrong today but were fundamentally wrong in 1996, says Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). For that reason, and because the Internet is more central to society than ever as a communication, information and economic development tool, Castro and ITIF are publishing, in the style of Barlow's original Declaration, "A Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace," which replaces the call for sovereign nations to give up all claims of authority on the Internet with an even more radical call for these same political powers to work together to build the utopian vision of the Internet promised by its creators.
A Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace
Libertarians of the Virtual World, you gray-bearded detractors of government and sovereignty, we too come from Cyberspace. On behalf of the future, we ask you of the past to leave us alone. Your declaration of independence rings false, and your stale principles are a threat to progress.
The Internet has no elected government, nor is it likely to have one, but this does not mean it is not governed. The Internet is ruled, as are all technologies, not only by the norms and beliefs of its users, but also by the laws and values of the societies in which they live.
You allege that government has had no role in the Internet, and for this reason it has no claim to the Internet today, but this accusation is founded on nothing more than ignorance and superstition. Government labs and government-funded research programs gave birth to the Internet's essential technologies, and government policies continue to guide the development of important Internet innovations today.
You denounce legitimate authority and tell us we must choose anarchy or face tyranny. Your claim is nonsense. Liberty does not diminish in the presence of collective action but rather flourishes in vibrant and well-organized societies.
You have no moral basis to declare the Internet a no-man's land of anarchy and lawlessness. The rights of man do not end where the Internet begins, nor should governments relinquish their duty to govern at the borders of cyberspace.
You declare that the rights of humans to determine the fate of that which their minds create are null and void on the Internet. Casting aside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you proudly proclaim that any ideas or property you can steal from others should be yours to reproduce and distribute freely in cyberspace. We reject the fiction that the Internet gives you the freedom to disregard basic human rights of property, expression, identity and movement. The rights to life, liberty and property are natural to man and preserved by the societies we build and the governments we elect.
You claim to be advancing society on the Internet through a new social contract devoid of government influence, yet you have often dismissed or ignored the problems we face today. While many problems can be solved through self-governance, many others require government action. The governments of the world, not merely your virtual personas, have been at the helm of most initiatives to provide more universal access to the Internet, to foster digital literacy, and to limit digital crime.
All around the world you are trying to fend off the hand of government even when it governs legitimately. At times government may overstep its authority or exercise it imprudently, and we must cry out when it does, but that does not mean all government is unwelcome. When we fear tyranny, we must expose it in all its forms. Tyrants are no more likely to appear in the halls of government than in the committees of technical standards bodies.
We do not want an Internet governed by the nations of the world, but neither do we want an Internet divorced from government. We seek a balance that recognizes both the rights of the individual and the benefits to the community of well-ordered systems.
Legitimate political institutions derive their power justly from the consent of the governed, and these same institutions have legitimate authority on the Internet. While you denounce legitimate authority as tyranny, we seek to use this power to build our utopia of a world with universal digital access, an economy transformed by data and digital processes, and an Internet where criminals are accountable for their misdeeds.
We too want to build a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth, but we want to build this world in both our cities and our networks.
You claim that the Internet is distinct from the rest of the world and that the laws of man should cease where the physical meets the virtual. These anti-government sentiments place you in the same position as those previous lovers of anarchy and lawlessness whom history has shown to be enemies of a free, progressive and prosperous society.
Your declaration has failed because the strength of the Internet does not come from the ability of a small group of individuals to separate themselves from the rest of us but by allowing all members of our global community to come together online to create and share, to work and to play. It is the voluntary cooperation of individuals, businesses and governments that has created the Internet that we know today. Thus the greatest asset of the Internet is not its independence but its interdependence.
We reject your declaration of independence and take up a new call for interdependence among sovereign nations and peoples. We will work together in common cause so that no one can arrest our progress.
We will create a civilization of both bits and steel. May it be more humane, fair and prosperous than the world we have made before.
February 8, 2013
Daniel Castro is a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank.