The Book Club

The Lost Dream of an Anarcho-Libertarian Global Paradise

Dear Tim and Jack,

“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” As I read your book, Who Controls the Internet?, that old Maoist catchphrase kept resonating, because the short answer to your title’s question is, “The guys with guns.” This must come as something of a disappointment to the guys who were counting on computers to permanently alter the balance of power between individuals and their governments.

At its heart, Who Controls the Internet? is about the way national governments turn out to be able to exercise much more control over what people do on the Internet than most “visionaries” in the 1990s thought would be possible. You begin with a discussion of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace and then demonstrate that the notion of a boundary-free Internet is, well, a bit exaggerated. After all, you point out, China has successfully suppressed dissidents online and has made it difficult for users to access content available in the United States; the French government has successfully forced Yahoo! to stop selling Nazi memorabilia to users in France, and so-called “data havens” like SeaLand—an offshore site for storing controversial information outside the reach of government regulation—have failed, to name only a few examples.

“We know where you live” is an old threat. In recent years, the improvement of geolocation technology has let advertisers (and governments) map Internet users to real-world locations; at the same time, courts and regulatory agencies have shown a decreased willingness to defer to the Internet as some sort of special place. The result, as you say, is an Internet that is becoming less independent and more geographically bordered. Barlow’s vision of a separate and untouchable cybersphere is increasingly unrealistic. Interestingly, you argue that this isn’t so bad.

I very much enjoyed the book. But it will surely come as a dash of cold water to the more effusive strands of 1990s cyberlibertarianism, which held, as Barlow put it, that the Internet was beyond the jurisdiction of national governments, those “weary giants of flesh and steel.” Some of those cyberlibertarians dreamed of a worldwide revolution driven by technology that would just kind of, well, happen, without a lot of troublesome preliminaries or complications. Call it the revolutionaries’ version of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck.” Such a vision turns out to be just as illusory in the political context as in the sexual.

I’m a cyberlibertarian of sorts myself, of course, but of a somewhat less effusive variety. And perhaps that’s where we differ. The bubble you burst isn’t one I’ve ever fully believed in. My new book, An Army of Davids, looks at how technology is empowering individuals to do things that once were the province of nation-states and big corporations. But though I do think the Internet has empowered individuals in new ways, I don’t think that makes nation-states obsolete, or impotent. Cyberspace may declare independence from government, but the actual people who are using cyberspace are embedded in the real world and subject to real-world constraints and coercion. And these constraints do work: Napster is gone, other file-sharing systems have been weakened by the movie and record companies and their ceaseless lawsuits, and Chinese cyberdissidents now languish in jail—sometimes, as you note, with the active connivance of Western companies like Yahoo! that once stood for Internet freedom.

But—to return to the theme of my own book—that hardly means that the Internet and other technological tools haven’t empowered their users. Napoleon famously said that the tools belong to the man who can use them, and that’s the story here, too: Tools, by themselves, don’t provide freedom. They have to be used, by people. And, to emphasize where our approaches diverge, the point of my own book is that people are using them, to considerable effect.

Although the communications revolution hasn’t brought about an anarcho-libertarian global paradise, as once envisioned, that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t done any good. Chinese bloggers—and text-messagers—managed to end-run the Chinese government’s information quarantine regarding SARS. Bloggers played a major role in publicizing and coordinating the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. (They’re trying to repeat that process in Belarus as I write this. They may fail, but they’re certainly getting more attention than they could have managed in the pre-Internet era.)

Certainly, governments and companies constrain some forms of Internet activity. But we shouldn’t overstate their impact, and we shouldn’t forget that Internet activity is also constraining governments, even in repressive countries. In spite of China’s filtering and censorship, new communications tools have produced a considerable increase in accountability on the part of powerful institutions like the army, which was formerly not accountable at all. A recent report at StrategyPage points out that Chinese citizens are now quick to protest on the Internet and via cell phones when the army seizes their land without cause or creates environmental problems; this ability to make noise has caused the government to impose new rules limiting what the army can do. That represents a significant change. This sort of empowerment is likely to encourage more assertiveness on the part of the citizenry in other areas. It may not be democracy, at least not yet, but it is an improvement.

Now my question: In Who Controls the Internet? you note that geographical boundaries are starting to matter more, as the Internet sheds its original character as a community of rootless cosmopolitan academic types and becomes more like everyday life, where location does shape how we interact. You also argue that this is in many ways a good thing. But I found that part of the argument a bit less clear. At times, it almost seemed that you were alluding to the sorts of arguments that are often made on behalf of federalism within the United States, arguing that it provides opportunities for experiments in varieties of governance and allows people to “vote with their feet” to choose the rules they will live under. Am I right? Might you elaborate a bit on why we’re better off with an Internet that reflects real-world geography?