Hypermedia freedom by richard barbrook
Turn On, Log In and Drop Out!
As with any other law, the Telecommunications Reform Act will face the problem of enforcement. The "War on Drugs" hasn't stopped Americans from voraciously consuming billions of dollars of illegal chemicals every year. There must be similar doubts about the practicality of the censorship measures in the new Act. Is the American state really going to be able to prevent its citizens saying "fuck" to each other in their private e-mails? How will it prevent people logging-on to Web sites in other countries with a less hypocritical attitude towards adult sexuality? The development of hypermedia is the result of the convergence not only of radio and television broadcasting, but also of other types of less censored media, such as printing and music. Why should the Net be subject to broadcasting-style restrictions rather than those applied to printed material? A long political battle is now beginning to find an acceptable level of legal controls over the new forms of social communications.
Yet, at this crucial moment, one of the leaders of the principal cyber-rights lobbying group - the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - has been gripped by an attack of ideological hysteria. In bizarre act of presumption, John Perry Barlow, the EFF's co-founder, has issued a Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. In this manifesto, he casts himself as the new Thomas Jefferson calling the people to arms against the tyranny of Bill Clinton: "the great invertebrate in Washington". Claiming to speak "on behalf of the future", he declares that the elected government of the USA has no right to legislate over "Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind". Because "we are creating a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live", Barlow asserts that cyberspace exists outside the jurisdication of the American or any other existing state. In cyberspace, only Net users have the right to decide the rules. According to Barlow, the inhabitants of this virtual space already police themselves without any interference from Federal legislators: "you do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society with more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions." Users of the Net should therefore "reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers" and ignore the censorship imposed by the Telecommunications Reform Act.
It is too easy to laugh at this Declaration as a high tech version of the old hippie fantasy of dropping out of straight society into a psychedelic dreamworld. In sci-fi novels, cyberspace has been often poetically described as a "consensual hallucination". Yet, in reality, the construction of the infobahn is an intensely physical act. It is flesh and blood workers who spend many hours of their lives developing hardware, assembling PCs, laying cables, installing router systems, writing software programs, designing Web pages and so on. It is obviously a fantasy to believe that cyberspace can be ever be separated from the societies - and states - within which these people spend their lives. Barlow's Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace therefore cannot be treated as a serious response to the threat to civil liberties on the Net posed by the Christian fundamentalists and other bigots. Instead, it is a symptom of the intense ideological crisis now facing the advocates of free market libertarianism within the online community. At the very moment that cyberspace is about to become opened up to the general public, the individual freedom which they prized in the Net seems about to be legislated out of existence with little or no political opposition. Crucially, the lifting of restrictions on market competition hasn't advanced the cause of freedom of expression at all. On the contrary, the privatisation of cyberspace seems to be taking place alongside the introduction of heavy censorship. Unable to explain this phenomenon within the confines of the Californian Ideology, Barlow has decided to escape into neo-liberal hyper-reality rather than face the contradictions of really existing capitalism.