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.
So opens John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, published in 1996. The web was young then, and many of us who were on it thought it would ultimately transform the world. This document captured the spirit of the times perfectly; it’s worth revisiting now to get a sense of how far the zeitgeist has shifted.
Today, Barlow’s Declaration comes across as naively idealistic. “You have no sovereignty where we gather” has proven to be bunk. China — the world’s most populous country — has been censoring its people’s access to the internet with impunity. And now the U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to vote on dismantling a set of rules that protect the neutrality of traffic on the internet. Doing so would open the doors for network operators to vary how they handle traffic to particular properties, favoring some over others. Not quite censorship, but still a worrisome development.
Even if the FCC opts to not overturn the current set of protections now, I wonder about their long-term viability. The system’s incentives are working against neutrality. Access to the internet in the U.S. is provided by a small group of large companies incentivized to generate higher profits, and arbitrage of the network’s traffic represents a viable path to achieving them. These companies have the means to sway politicians towards their interests.
Ultimately, the problem before us is not how to convince politicians to put aside the interests of large corporations in favor of the commonweal, but how to change the system so questions of network integrity and resilience are taken out of the political realm entirely.
Having to delegate to the political system authority over the neutrality of traffic on the internet highlights a flaw in its design. The internet was envisioned as a commons funded by taxpayers and academia; its designers had no reasons to suspect the network operators’ motives. As it stands now, too much of its traffic flows through too few control points, and the operators of those control points are not disinterested parties.