16 Dumping Tea in the Virtual Harbor

1 2 3 4 5 6

As to government matters, it is not in the powers of Britain to do this continent justice: The business of it will soon be too weighty, and intricate, to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience by a power, so distant from us, and so very ignorant of us; for if they cannot conquer us, they cannot govern us.

--Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The day after the passage of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), John Perry Barlow, Wyoming cattle rancher (retired), Grateful Dead lyricist, and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, sent out a proclamation he entitled "A Cyberspace Independence Declaration."

"They have declared war on Cyberspace," he wrote. "Let us show them how cunning, baffling, and powerful we can be in our own defense." Addressing "Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel," he went on,

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 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.[1]

Barlow had started speaking about the natural sovereignty of cyberspace about a year earlier, but he had already planted the seeds in columns he wrote from 1990 onwards, in which he refers several times to a new, developing "social contract for cyberspace."[2]

Most of Barlow's writings over the years have captured important principles just coalescing on the Net. Not this time: he got a lot of heat even from friends, some of whom found the declaration embarrassing. Barlow himself was unfazed. "They were debugging my code," he said a couple of months later, [3]meaning that their arguments (such as that since the U.S. government funded the development of the early networks it wasn't right to say it had no part in building cyberspace) were small corrections like the ones you make to software to patch bugs.

Barlow's social contract may have been developing in the early 1990s, when the Net was relatively small and homogeneous, but the tumultuous years since 1994 have made it plain that not everyone coming onto the Net shares the same ideals. The 1960s-style vision of the Net as a new, virgin world in which the old world could be undone and remade entirely was dominant for a while, but although new groups coming onto the Net agree about remaking the world, each has a different image of what it should look like. Or not: successful multinational companies don't so much want to remake the world as find ways to exploit the Net as a new medium and assure themselves of continued dominance.

Barlow himself seems to think that the Net is spawning a new political future: "I think that the culture that lives on the net is much more infectious than anything that lives in a large industrial-period organisation," he said in April 1996. "You cannot convince me that there were 50 million screaming libertarians on the planet Earth 20 years ago."[4]


Copyright © 1997-99 NYU Press. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without written permission of New York University Press is prohibited.

Be sure to visit the NYU Press Bookstore

[Design by NiceMedia]