In 1996 the Internet was extremely new. This means it was exciting, captivating, and frothing with potential, but still rather exclusive for the common layman. Prior to and during this time, a degree of tech savviness was required to even access it, and upload/download speeds were a fraction of what we enjoy today. So it is not so crazy to see how the internet used to be a movement, rather than an integration to the normal day to day. It even had its own declaration of independence.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation in February of 1996 published a paper on their site outlining the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It was almost certainly a response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed by the US Congress and signed into law. As a publication, the Declaration of independence of Cyberspace focused on the role of traditional governments in the online world. Written by John Perry Barlow -a cyber libertarian and internet rights advocate-, this piece is extremely optimistic in its content and goals of what the internet is and is not. It calls for decentralization and deregulation of everything online
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. 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.”
This first paragraph lays out eloquently Barlow’s vision for the tricky question of where to place the Internet, and who has jurisdiction over it. Put simple, Barlow suggests here that the internet is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time, being subject to every one of its users but no larger collective than the individual. He thoroughly rejects the idea that government should have any place in guiding the course of the internet in any meaningful way. It also, whether inadvertently or intentionally, calls attention to the heavy role of industry in many governments today and the internet’s initial break from that world.
The following paragraphs speak at length about the inherent authority of liberty and personal agency. For Barlow, the Internet was a place of endless individual potential. This declaration disconnects the internet -cyberspace- from the analog lives of citizens. Barlow, and others, through this and similar declarations aimed to make a sovereignty for the internet, a place which was outside of governmental and industrial regulation.
While many people and organizations sympathized with Barlow, it was shared on over 20,000 sites by 2002. Barlow was later asked about his previous works -specifically concerning the declaration of the independence of cyberspace- and he noted famously how we “all get older” and “we all get smarter.” It is likely that he is noting the almost hopeless optimistic tones of his original declaration.
Still, this declaration -if not a bit naive in more modern context- is something that every internet lover should strive toward. Especially when the internet, your free speech -and dare I say, your personal sovereignty- is under attack. Remember, fellow internetphiles, our cyberspace is transnational. Just because companies and governments have benefited from the internet, does not mean that it is theirs. The internet still is built upon the backs of individuals, of you and me. This is ours, do not lose that fact.
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