I recently finished reading “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” by Fred Turner. What attracted me to the book was the historical aspects of how those individuals active in the counterculture of San Francisco (hippies, Summer of Love, etc.) were some of the earliest adopters and users of technology that became what is today called the “Internet.” What I found most amazing about the book, however, is the naivety of otherwise intelligent and foresighted people of what the Internet was and would become.
In the heady days of the Clinton Administration there was a euphoria about this new thing called the Internet. Many of the people discussed in the book were considered among the intellectual elite at the time. They all saw the Internet as a transformative technology that would finally allow people to talk about issues, share information, and govern themselves without governmental interference.
Perhaps the best-known document published at this time was titled “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Its author, John Perry Barlow was described as “an information technology journalist and pundit, and a former lyricist for . . . the Grateful Dead.” Thanks to new technologies, such as the Internet, he wrote:
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
Barlow argued to the existing governments:
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.
Alas, this idyllic world was not to be. Governments worldwide (as well as major industries like the music and movie industries) have found ways to harness the Internet for their own purposes. In the last 15 years, governments have found ways to prevent or strictly control citizens’ access to the Internet and the information it provides. Laws have been enacted by the thousands to control citizens’ ability to use the Internet, and technologies have been developed to prevent people from speaking or acting freely.
Few would disagree that the Internet has significantly decreased personal privacy. Indeed, in just the last few weeks the U.S. government has admitted to secretly reading emails from newspaper reporters and the U.S. government has taken the position that it can freely read anybody’s emails without a warrant and without violating the Fourth Amendment.
And what about those “good old days” when the First Sale Doctrine of copyright law gave you the right to dispose of a copy of a book, song or other copyrighted work as you chose. Today, digital rights management (DRM) technology and restrictive licensing arrangements prevent such activities. Despite the fact that we are paying as much, if not more, that before for these works, we never really “own” anything. We only get a very restricted right to “use” it – and only in the manner chosen by the copyright industry.
The optimistic view in the 1990s of what the Internet could become has come face-to-face with the harsh realities of what the Internet has become. And it is not a pretty picture.