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
"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 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
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
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
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, 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
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."
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