Writing our future freedom ourselves

Society was so worried about potential government interventions into the digital sphere, that powerful Silicon Valley companies swept in and largely took over instead. Our digital future must free us away from them

Photo by Marwan Ahmed

Early philosophers of cyberspace viewed the Internet as an open space of opportunity, freedom, and rebellion. John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Grateful Dead lyricist (among many other things), famously wrote in his 1996 manifesto, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”:

“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. 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.”

Along with many of his peers, Barlow saw the global Internet as a new frontier, existing outside traditional frameworks of government control and free from traditional conceptions of identity (among other things)—and, therefore, free from the restrictions traditionally imposed upon it.

It would be unfair to suggest that these thinkers of the ‘90s digital sphere failed to foresee the imposition of governments into the digital frontier. Instead, they created a utopian vision for what the Internet could be. By 1996, when Barlow wrote the Declaration, the United States government had already begun to infringe on digital freedom, and other countries—from China to Tunisia—were already much farther along in imposing censorship and surveillance.

But what the philosophers of the early Internet largely seemed to miss—or at least avoid talking about—is the potential role that corporations would play in regulating the new public sphere. While governments were figuring out how to control cyberspace, Silicon Valley companies were more focused on turning a profit than protecting the rights of their users. As I describe in my recent book, Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism, many social platforms were simply figuring out as they went along rather than trying to create sustainable frameworks.

The promises of Silicon Valley to make the world more open turned out to be rather empty. Instead of connecting us, these companies have time and time again sought to control, “civilize,” and cure society’s ills with technosolutionist measures.

As such, by the time the threats to our online civil liberties posed by governments became apparent, the companies that had promised to bring the world closer together were left scrambling. In 2008, Yahoo! (then still a giant) handed over user data belonging to a Chinese dissident to his government, resulting in his imprisonment.

Around the same time, YouTube was making questionable decisions to comply with the censorship demands of authoritarian governments such as those of Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand. Meanwhile, a young man who used Facebook to create a fan profile of a member of Morocco’s royal family found himself banned from the site for violating its “real name” policy and arrested by his government for the crime of impersonation.

Later, these same companies would go on to enact their own censorship and other rights-restricting measures, sometimes at the behest of governments while at other times seemingly of their own volition. The promises of Silicon Valley to make the world more open turned out to be rather empty. Instead of connecting us, these companies have time and time again sought to control, “civilize,” and cure society’s ills with technosolutionist measures.

Today, we face myriad threats to our freedoms from governments and companies, but the answer is neither giving up nor turning against each other. Instead, we must work together to create new spaces and new forms of governance so that freedom can prevail. Together, we must write our own future.

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