Cyber-libertarianism, free speech, and the ‘social turn’

By Charlie Markham.

“How do you define free speech with an online lens in mind?” This was the first question posed by the brilliant Charlotte Jee, during the WebRoots Democracy Festival event on free speech in the internet age. It is a simple question which, like all great questions, sparked the asking of further questions.

Listening to the answers, I wondered about how the concept of free speech online has developed over time and if there were lessons from history which could improve our approach to the emerging challenges regarding free speech online.

Fortunately, cyber-libertarian essayists like John Perry Barlow were documenting the ideological development of the internet. Not only did Barlow have an incredibly perceptive mind, but he also had an artistry with words: his essays on the internet offer as much insight as they do poetic justice.

In his now-infamous “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, Barlow articulates the cyber-libertarian approach to online free speech which permeated through much of the developing tech world:

“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.”

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow, 1996.

In this conception, online free speech is a virtue, but also wholly contingent on the independence of the internet from the offline, material world. Over time, the independence of the internet has been challenged on several different fronts. The conversations in the UK about regulating ‘online harms’ would likely have been abhorred by Barlow and the early cyber-libertarians. This peculiarity begs the question: what changed? How did we get from resisting any form of government intervention to nearly 80% of UK adults supporting regulation of online spaces?

The social turn

In 2005, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in which he described Facebook as an “online directory” whose purpose was to “connect and reconnect people”. In another interview, a year earlier, he detailed how users publicly provide personal information about themselves. Of all this information, Zuckerberg notes, the “most important” is “who your friends are” and allowing users to “browse around” each other’s social networks.  With this innovation, Facebook intrinsically altered the way we experience the internet. Their model relied on importing information, identities, and social networks from the offline world to the online. This fundamental change is what I label the ‘social turn’ of the internet: the merging between two historically independent worlds.

This fusion of worlds has been bittersweet. On the one hand, we cannot deny that social media has induced an unparalleled expansion in the application of the internet. On the other, we are continuously confronted with a series of unforeseen challenges to free speech: content moderation, internalised self-censorship, and the decay of political discourse online.

These challenges arise as the ideology of cyber-libertarianism reconciles with the liberal ideology which governs our offline existence. The merging between the offline and online worlds we are experiencing requires the continuous negotiation and renegotiation of concepts like free speech.

In addressing these emerging challenges, we need to recognise how the ideology of cyber-libertarianism informs our understanding of concepts, and how our recent experience of the internet differs from those original ideological conceptions. We should continue to carry the torch of free expression while appreciating how the ‘social turn’ necessitates liberalising free speech, not purely liberating it.

This requires understanding that “some values are better than others” and that free speech online should imbue and emanate the values of “respect, understanding and equality, as well as fundamental human rights”. If our cyber-libertarian concept of free speech impinges upon these liberal values, we have a duty to seriously consider whether unrestricted free speech online is a worthy end in and of itself.

With the advent of social media and the subsequent ‘social turn’ of the internet, we have progressed past the point of limitless free speech. By understanding the ideological history of free speech online, and also how our experience of the internet has changed, we may find ourselves in a better position to understand and adequately address the emerging challenges to free speech online.

Charlie Markham is a volunteer with WebRoots Democracy and a Politics and International Relations graduate from the University of Nottingham.

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