Good thinking. Foreign Policy is getting better.
The future of the Internet may lie in the past. And that’s not a good thing.
Nearly 365 years ago, more than 100 warring diplomats and princes got together in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück, in what is now northwestern Germany. There they signed a set of treaties that became the basic framework for our modern world: the Peace of Westphalia. Thanks to these dignitaries, we have territorial sovereignty: nation-states, demarcated by borders.
In the intervening centuries, Westphalian sovereignty has been the basic ordering principle of our societies. Empires have risen and fallen, countries come and gone. The most successful states have established internal monopolies on information and resources and have exerted discretion on what trade, ideas, money, or people crossed their borders.
But 30 years ago, humanity gave birth to one of the most disruptive forces of our time. On Jan. 1, 1983, the implementation of TCP/IP — a standard protocol to allow computers to exchange data over a network — turned discrete clusters of research computers into a distributed global phenomenon. It was essentially the work of three men: two engineers to write the protocol, and one to carry out the plan. It was a birth so quiet no one even has a photo of the day; arecent post by one of TCP/IP’s authors, Vint Cerf, was able to turn up only a commemorative pin.
It took awhile for the Internet to make it from mainframes in universities to desktops in the home, but as it did, it birthed its own culture, full of shorthands and memes, communities and cesspools. This Internet was wild and wooly, unknown and unregulated. It was clearly a place, but a place without any familiar cultural signposts, a space beyond the boundaries of geography or identity. It deserved its own name: cyberspace.
Like all new frontiers, cyberspace’s early settlers declared themselves independent — most famously in 1996, in cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow asserted a realm beyond borders or government, rejecting the systems we use to run the physical universe. “Governments of the Industrial World,” he reproached, “You have no sovereignty where we gather.… Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”
With the flip of a switch, three engineers had undone the work of more than 100 princes and diplomats.
Barlow was right, in part. Independence was a structural fact of cyberspace, and free expression and communication were baked into the network. The standards and protocols on which the Internet runs are agnostic: They don’t care whether you were in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Boise. If they run into an attempt to block traffic, they merely reroute along a seemingly infinite network of decentralized nodes, inspiring technologist John Gilmore’s maxim: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”