My latest Guardian column looks at the fiction and reality of “Internet Utopianism,” and the effect that a belief in the transformative power of the Internet has had on movements, companies, and norms.
I have been among the Internet Utopians for most of my life. I read Barlow, dropped out of university, and became a software developer, then a web developer, then a startup founder. I’m here to tell you it’s time to torch the strawmen, burn down the whole field, and give Internet Utopians the credit they’re due.
Start with Barlow. He didn’t write the Declaration because he couldn’t imagine how the state could possibly coerce people through the internet. He wrote it in response to a series of hamfisted FBI raids and the warrantless seizure of a public electronic mail server. The Declaration isn’t a statement of immutable fact, it’s a call to arms – a description of what we should build, not what will come automatically.
But Barlow wasn’t finished. The Declaration was part of a wider political project, undertaken by Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor, who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organisation which turns 25 this year (I’ve worked for them, off and on, for 14 years now). EFF’s mission was to use law, policy, markets, code and norms to insist that the liberties that mattered to us in the pre-internet world should remain intact as we moved online.
EFF has won a great many battles since then, as have its sister organisations, like the UK Open Rights Group, which I co-founded a decade ago.
Why do people work for these organisations? Because they are utopians. Not utopians in the sense of believing that the internet is predestined to come out all right no matter what. Rather, we are utopians because, on the one hand, we are terrified of what kind of surveillance and control the internet enables, and because, on the other hand, we believe that the future is up for grabs: that we can work together to change what the internet is and what it will become. Nothing is more utopian than a belief that, when things are bad, we can make them better.
The internet is the answer to all the questions of our time [The Guardian]
(Image: John Perry Barlow, Joi Ito, CC-BY)