300 Year Old Philosophy Powered by the Internet

The 300 year old school of thought of Libertarianism is seeing a renaissance thanks to the internet. If you have read anything about Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Bitcoin, Uber, AirBNB, PayPal, 3-D printed guns or Silk Road you have probably had some exposure to ideals of libertarianism. These radical libertarian ideals have found some traction in permeating pop culture in the last couple of years thanks to a number of projects facilitated by the internet.

Libertarianism has been around since the 1700s. It is an idea of holding personal liberty above all else. That the government hold too much power and it should be limited, at the very extreme end contends that the government should not even exist.

In America, this has translated into an actual political party, the Libertarian Party. They are classified as fiscally conservative/socially liberal. Fiscally conservative refers to the idea of free markets; they’re looking for less intervention from the government. Socially liberal being that individuals should be able to say and do whatever they like. However, as a political party they have not seen much success, they have received less than 1% of the vote in the last 50 years in America and most people do not understand what they stand for. It was not until the Internet that they were able to start showing the benefits of their ideals.

The earliest trace of applying Libertarianism values to the internet can be traced back to an email mail list in 1992 called the ‘Cypherpunks’. It comprised employees of high-tech companies and well known computer scientist researchers of the day. The group was interested in Cryptography, the study of how to preserve the privacy of online communication from third parties, namely governments and businesses. Founding member Eric Hughes wrote the Cypherpunk Manifesto, “Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. … We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organisations to grant us privacy … We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. … Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and … we’re going to write it.” The Cypherpunks gained popularity when they lobbied the Clinton administration against violations of privacy. Clinton tried to introduce the policy initiative called Clipper Chip, a chipset for secure voice communication, it would give the government the opportunity to read your internet traffic when authorised by law. They went on to create a number of successful programs including off-the-record messaging which allowed for encrypted conversations over MSN, and PGP an open source email encryption service.

Where the early Libertarians were interested in the freedom of individuals in regards to online activity, it was one of the original members Julian Assange who had the realisation to use the cryptography to show a different side of the debate. He realised that there were no safe ways for individuals to be whistleblowers about their governments abuse of power. Cryptography allowed for privacy of messages between individuals but it also allowed an opportunity to keep these individual safe. Julian created the site Wikileaks for whistleblowers around the world.

One of the proponents of Libertarianism is skepticism in the government, that if the government is given the chance they will do the worst that is possible. Creating Wikileaks added wood to the fire in terms of a person’s skepticism towards their own government. Overnight he had started to sow the seed of doubt in people’s minds. This led to a number of whistleblowers coming forward as they felt comfortable that they could get their story out there anonymously, with leaks relating to the abuse of power by the government in regards to Guantanamo Bay; the Afghanistan War; corruption in Kenya; illegal airstrikes in Afghanistan and Iraq War logs. All examples of the abuse of power by the government.

One of the key whistleblowers that Julian inspired was Edward Snowden. In 2013, Snowden hit at the heart of the social liberties debate when he revealed that the US government were listening to their own people. What the cypherpunks had originally feared had come true and it was impossible to miss this story. Libertarians and the general public saw this as a gross injustice and the skepticism of the government increased.

It was not just the scepticism over the power that the government had in terms of monitoring its population that was a concern for Libertarians, it was also related to commerce. Libertarians believe that the government should not be in charge of their population’s currency. The first instance of this was in 1998 with PayPal. Libertarian and founder of the company Peter Theil’s vision for the company was ‘to create a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were.’ However PayPal ended up being government regulated when it was sold to Ebay. This set the stage for Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that was free from government regulation.

Bitcoins got their early success thanks to another Libertarian online venture, The Silk Road. Ross Ulbricht was convicted in 2013 as being the mastermind behind the Silk Road, which has commonly been referred to as the Amazon for buying drugs. The site was a libertarian nirvana in Ulbricht’s eyes: “Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles … The same principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere human beings come together. The only difference is that the State is unable to get its thieving murderous mitts on it.”

It has both the fiscally conservative approach of the government not being involved and the social liberal element where people could buy anything they wanted. The site’s customers were a small base of dealers and buyers, although they got to experience a libertarian marketplace. The currency that made this all possible was Bitcoin. A currency that allowed for transactions to be anonymous in the same way that money can’t be tracked offline. The value of Bitcoin comes from the fact that there are a finite amount and no governing body can produce any more.

Both Bitcoin and The Silk Road have provided the general public with real life examples of what the Libertarian values are. They have won over a number of fans with examples of what can happen when the government are not in control of the your choices and currency.

It is not just happening on the fringes of the internet anymore, Libertarianism is gaining popularity in Silicon Valley as well. Libertarians also believe that the government should not be in control of services — this should be left to the people and the disruptive economy, one of the latest movements in Silicon Valley, is disrupting many government regulated institutions with a new wave of start-ups. Investor Chris Dixon got straight to the point of what they are trying to fix — ‘regulations that truly protect the public interest are necessary. But many regulations are created by incumbents to protect their market position.’

Uber is currently the poster child of this new generation of disruptive start-ups. The mobile application connects cab drivers with passengers via a mobile app. Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, who has been very enthusiastic about the company since its launch in 2010, claimed ‘let’s help break the back of the taxi medallion evil empire.’ City taxi services are one of the most regulated bodies in a city.

Uber have provided a model to other starts up to challenge government organisations. Uber didn’t try and work through the red tape of government utility regulatory bodies. They scaled fast and got a number of loyal fans on board and, by the time they got into legal trouble, they used social media to mobilise their fans and lobby government over antiquated laws that no longer made sense. In DC and San Francisco, Uber fought legislation and got old laws overturned in their favour, thanks to their vocal fans.

It is not just Uber vs. the taxi industry, there are a number of other high profile start ups that are taking on government regulation. Peer-to-peer home rental start up AirBnB recently got 235,000 people to sign their petition to legalise AirBnB in New York City, much to the dismay of the government regulated housing board.

The internet has been an amazing opportunity for a 300 year old radical philosophy to help permeate pop culture and show why their point of view makes sense. Through the internet they were able to show why the population need to decrease the power of the government at all opportunities. Through Wikileaks and Edward Snowden they were able to show the governments abuse of power when it came to freedom of communication. Through Bitcoins and Silk Road they were able to give you a choice of currency that was not controlled by a government and a freedom of choice. Then through this new school of start ups that are disruptive to government, they were able to give you an option to services that were only ever offered through government regulated services.

The above piece was written by Julian Cole, ECD and Head of Communications Planning at BBDO and was taken from the “Culture” section of our latest book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation, which features chapters from 35 leading creative directors and business owners giving their views on the big topics shaping the future of advertising and brands.