The Declarations of Cyberspace

Outlining three essential narratives in the political history of the Internet

By Primavera De Filippi, Juan Ortiz Freuler, and Joshua Tan

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large portion of social interactions have moved online. While our interactions in the physical world are affected by national lockdowns and social distancing rules, our interactions in the digital space are increasingly affected by online operators and algorithmic gatekeepers. Proposals such as the Contract for the Web can help us navigate through some of the current challenges, yet new narratives might be needed to navigate the uncharted waters ahead.

A declaration is a political act, it describes what should be done. A narrative is a political tool, it elaborates on why it should be done. We sketch here three essential narratives underlying the political history of the Internet: the libertarian narrative, the corporate narrative, and the nationalist narrative. Each narrative emerged from a community of shared interests; each calls for a set of institutional arrangements; each endures in today’s politics. And each has something to teach us as we build new narratives to shape the future of the Internet.

Examples of existing declarations and their narratives

The libertarian narrative: cyberspace as an independent space

In 1996, John Perry Barlow, poet of the Grateful Dead and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, drafted A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “Governments of the Corporate 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.

Indeed, the early Internet relied on a loosely-networked system of small, private servers which was relatively free from regulatory interference. From its inception in 1989 to the year of Barlow’s declaration, this system had evolved into a global infrastructure connected through a series of open and standardized protocols — one where everyone with sufficient technical knowledge and means could deploy a server without seeking permission from anyone. But the relative absence of regulation does not imply the impossibility of regulation. Things changed rapidly as governments and corporations began to see the potential of this global network, leading subsequent critics to point out that Barlow’s claims about state sovereignty (“You have no sovereignty where we gather”) were inaccurate or, at best, wishful thinking.

Still, declarations are judged not by the facts they assert but by the myths they create. Barlow’s Declaration articulated a vision of the Internet as a libertarian space, free from any form of regulatory control. It spoke to the highly meritocratic, get-stuff-done ethos of early Internet pioneers — to whom the Declaration was originally addressed — while glossing over the pivotal role of governments in funding and regulating the underlying infrastructure of the Internet. It told a story that was both fearless and optimistic, and in so doing rallied a movement of digital activists who would stand up and fight to preserve their newfound digital freedoms. Such a libertarian narrative was, however, not the only narrative that emerged in the early years of the Internet.

The corporate narrative: access through advertising

The first clickable web ad was served in 1994 by an online publication then known as HotWired. By clicking on a banner, users would be taken to the landing page of AT&T’s “You Will” ad campaign. For the first time, websites and advertisers could see not only the number of banner impressions on a website but also the number of click-throughs.

The first banner ad, served by HotWired.com (later Wired.com), for an AT&T ad campaign

The two-sided, advertisement-based business model first tested at HotWired eventually gave rise to the Internet as we know it today: one where we can search through Google, watch YouTube, and catch up with friends on Facebook — all for “free”. Ad revenues funded the Web’s growth, spurring and sustaining a swath of online services that we now regard as essential services on the Web.

This ad-based business model engendered a powerful new narrative for the corporate Web. To its proponents, web advertising was a positive force: it massively expanded access to Internet services; sustained independent projects and websites across the Internet; and matched relevant ads to those who would benefit from them the most. In a way, those with purchasing power were subsidizing access to those who had none.

To this day, many people maintain a positive view of the role that Internet giants like Google (“don’t be evil”) and Facebook (“move fast and break things”) played in the development of the Internet. To its detractors, the ad-based business model was the economic basis for a new and extractive system of surveillance capitalism and digital colonialism very different from the open and permissionless web promised in the libertarian narrative. Yet, to those complaining about the commodification of personal data and the commercialisation of Internet content, the proponents of this corporate narrative would respond that, while companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter could have funded their online services by directly charging users, how many people would have been able and willing to pay for that service? Would the Web have been more “open” and “free” had it been sectioned off into siloed paywalls in its early years?

All political narratives have an institutional agenda, in the form of a set of business models, governance systems, or ways of life. The corporate narrative emerged to defend a set of institutional arrangements that serve the interests of a specific set of social, commercial, and political actors. But once it is articulated, the same narrative can be deployed for a range of different uses and interests. For example, the narrative of access through advertising has been used to defend everything from zero rating programs such as Facebook’s Free Basics to the rise of walled gardens in the Web 2.0. And those who benefit from a given institutional arrangement will often change over time — witness, for example, the way in which advertising has shifted away from the operators of discrete websites to a new class of algorithmic intermediaries that manage large inventories of online ad space.

Sketch of where narratives stand across key dimensions

Narratives can also be used to narrow or redirect the debate away from a particular set of issues. Just as the libertarian narrative obscured the legal and regulatory arrangements that enabled the early Internet to emerge, so the corporate narrative deliberately introduces a dichotomy between advertising-based business models and pay-for-access solutions. Yet, this vision reflects a limited perspective of the institutional alternatives available to us. We delineate below a set of different narratives that might help overcome this dichotomy.

The nationalist narrative: national hegemony and control

As governments began to see the Internet as a critical infrastructure for economic development, political stability and national security, a new narrative has emerged, focused on national sovereignty and control. China’s Great Firewall is probably the most popular example of this emerging narrative, but it is certainly not the only one. In the past few months, several governments have intervened, regulating access to the Internet, framed as an attempt to protect their national sovereignty — sometimes even going as far as disconnecting from the global network (or at least threatening to do so, perhaps as an attempt to increase their negotiating power). For instance, the U.S. recently required GitHub to block access to its platform in Iran, and Adobe to refuse access to the Venezuelan government. At the same time, Russia has taken steps to create a national intranet, the Chinese government started banning foreign software and hardware in government offices, and the Trump administration is advocating for a “Clean Network” agenda, aimed at excluding Chinese software and hardware from the U.S. territory, and beyond.

This type of fragmentation is not particular to the digital space; nor can it be encapsulated in a left-right wing dichotomy. It is present in the Brexit and the “America First” narratives, in the growth of blocks like BRICS, in the nationalistic speeches of India’s Modi, in the xenophobic waves in Europe and elsewhere, and in the closing of borders all over the world in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also present in more progressive approaches advocating for national or regional autonomy: calls to resist the technological, industrial, cultural and agro-economic dependency to the currently dominant nation-states and corporate actors.

A table with columns Narrative | Villain | Victim |Values; and rows: libertarian, corporate, nationalist
Comparing different narratives

The need for a new narrative?

These three established narratives did not properly address a wide variety of grievances that emerged over the years, as more and more of our social interactions became online interactions. People disenchanted with the state of the Internet coalesced into smaller camps to address the grievances which remained unattended and unresolved.

These include a multiplicity of groups, with different objectives in mind: those who advocate for the need to further the development of the Internet as a decentralized global network; those who condemn the growing influence of governments and consolidated corporate actors as a form of digital colonialism or extractive surveillance capitalism; those who defend the rights of minorities, women and systematically excluded groups, and those who criticize the current Internet landscape as enabling the propagation of hate. While most of these communities would benefit from uniting their forces in a shared front, they have so far failed to coordinate their actions — thereby reducing their ability to ensure that their respective interests and values are effectively catered to.

In contrast, the libertarian, corporate, and nationalist narratives enjoyed tight coordination towards the propagation, consolidation, and attainment of the goals set out by their respective interests. The libertarian narrative was born within the circles of like-minded technologists often in a position of power, and whose coordination was driven by a shared ideology. The corporate narrative emerged from an increasingly-consolidated set of corporate actors who could easily coordinate their lobbying strategies in favor of their shared vested interests. Lastly, the nationalist narrative benefited from an existing bureaucracy that was already well-trained in elaborating and propagating well-articulated narratives to a population that often perceived them as natural extensions of their pre-existing nationalist values.

The other groups were left with a multiplicity of grievances that were more difficult to articulate into a cohesive set of actions or a concrete institutional proposal. The lack of a shared narrative contributed to this failure of collective action. While the power imbalances that exist between these dispersed groups and the more coordinated actors backing up the other three narratives could be seen as a potential source of this coordination failure, another limiting factor in achieving proper coordination is the wide discrepancy of rights and values brought forward by these disparate groups. The problem with this framing is that it further underlines the differences that keep these groups apart, rather than focusing on what they all have in common. For example, women fighting against hate and discrimination, decentralization advocates pushing for more openness and interoperability, and global south activists requesting a seat at the table in global policy discussions all share a common objective: more equality and a level playing field.

With the evolution of the Internet from a voluntary network of private actors mostly located in the developed West, to a global commons available to the public at large, it has become more and more important to discuss whether we can develop a public network on privately-owned infrastructure. In its early days, the Internet was regarded as a “public” infrastructure because of its permissionless nature. The Web was neither owned nor controlled by any single individual or entity; it functioned through collective adherence to a common set of protocols and standards. Later, as Internet adoption burgeoned during the 1990s (jumping from 1% adoption in the US to almost 50% by 1999) and as the Internet became home to a wide range of private, commercial, and governmental online services, “public interest” considerations emerged, especially with regard to accessibility, free speech, privacy and security. By 1999 — with the publication of what is now regarded as the first “bill of digital rights” — cyberspace had already started to pick up the qualities of a public square, inspiring new analogies such as digital public parks and digital public infrastructure.

Despite their different orientations, these unattended grievances marked the emergence of a wide variety of proposals, manifestos, contracts and constitutions for the Internet, which all share one common observation: as the Internet has become a public space, rights must be safeguarded on cyberspace at least as much as they are in the physical space. Yet, the argument goes, current arrangements have failed at providing substantially just and procedurally legitimate solutions.

The multistakeholder model of Internet governance promoted through ICANN, the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, and the WIPO Development Agenda has been presented as an attempt to mediate the grievances of these different groups. Yet, this specific approach to Internet governance has been subject to criticism due to the growing perception that it has fallen under corporate capture. The multistakeholder model — allegedly designed to serve the public interest — is being condemned as a guise for watering down the legitimate role of governments in the pursuit of a neoliberal ideology or corporate interest, or as a means of forwarding the compound interests of a small set of corporate and state actors from the north.

The ingredients for an effective shift in the way the Internet operates are already there. The current sources of discontent are varied in nature, yet they are not necessarily distinct. If the strategy of consolidated power is to keep critics divided, it is all the more crucial to underline the commonalities that subsist underneath these different struggles. The goal is to form a united front that actually leverages these different narratives, bringing a multiplicity of actors (including software engineers, activists, legal experts and policy-makers) together around a stronger consolidated narrative. We need a narrative that can accommodate all these grievances into a cohesive and coherent story, enabling proactive cooperation across these groups. We need to bridge the gaps between these separate narratives, even if that requires acknowledging that we all speak different languages, and that we are all looking at a similar problem, from distinctly situated perspectives.

A table with columns Narrative | Villain | Victim |Values; and rows: anticolonialist| gender rights| dweb
A sketch of alternative narratives

Declarations, new and old

As we navigate new governance challenges, these narratives — new and old — are already being used to mobilize collective action and rally political will. Understanding these narratives can help us write better manifestos. But seeing these narratives side-by-side can also help us understand the interplay and interdependence that subsists between these narratives: for example, the degree to which the corporate narrative is an outgrowth of the libertarian one, the extent to which the nationalist narrative feeds on the perceived failures of the former two, and the conflict or overlap between different variations of the blockchain and dweb narratives. Understanding these patterns in political storytelling can help us identify those liminal gaps between narratives where new narratives, new politics, and new declarations might emerge.

Acknowledgements: this document grew out of discussions at the “Building blocks of Web 3.0” workshop held at Harvard Law School in the spring of 2020. We would especially like to thank Beatriz Botero, Joana Varon, Seth Frey, Sylvie Delacroix, Ulises Mejias, Nick Couldry, Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Dennis Redeker, and Charles Nesson. We would also like to thank all the participants of the RadicalXchange Workshop. This document is very much a work in progress, and we look forward to your comments and feedback.

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Juan Ortiz Freuler

Juan Ortiz Freuler

Justice & participation. ICTs & Data. Affiliate @BKCHarvard. Alumni: @oiiOxford & @blavatnikSchool . Chevening Scholar. Views=personal. Here-> open discussion.