When Internet users rallied to defend their much-loved network from the dual threats of SOPA and PIPA, Washington took notice. The newly formed Internet Defense League and the hot-off-the-presses Declaration of Internet Freedom have gotten participation from several members of Congress, most of whom have already gained a track record as being among the few Congressmen who understand technology issues.
But Libertarian icons Ron and Rand Paul threw me for a bit of a loop when they released “The Technology Revolution,” a 4-page manifesto calling for the application of traditional Libertarian values to net policy, earlier this month.
Putting aside the contradictions and shortcomings inherent in the document (already well-documented by Mediaite’s Josh Fledmen) my first thought was: wait, isn’t the Internet already pretty Libertarian?
The Internet’s Libertarian streak was, after all, why SOPA and PIPA were considered so onerous by many: they represented a government intrusion into regulating cyberspace, a violation of the hands-off norm set during the Clinton administration and generally respected thereafter.
The only obvious answer was an the obvious grab by the Pauls at a budding constituency which increasingly ranks Internet freedom at the top of its “most important issues” list. But there’s something more here, too: the manifesto’s very existence suggests there’s a difference between traditional Libertarians and the Libertarian-style beliefs of many Internet users.
My “a-ha” moment came out of an e-mail exchange with Democratic Representative Jared Polis, who’s among the few technologists that are also sitting members of Congress. Here’s what he had to say:
“The ideological Libertarians view government as inherently evil. Online Libertarians view government as generally clumsy and inept, but not inherently good or evil. If anything, governments are sometimes well intentioned but so clumsy that their efforts can be counterproductive. Vibrant governments and corporations are both important to a dynamic internet, but neither any particular government nor any particular corporation should be able to co-opt the internet.”
Polis hits the nail on the head: while traditional Libertarians dismiss any government interference as unwanted (such as net neutrality, because who’s the government to tell an ISP how traffic ought to be treated?), “Internet Libertarians” view government and business as counter-balances to one another: they might want the government to write a law preventing Facebook from spying on users’ online behavior and selling that data to advertisers, but they also applaud Google and Twitter’s efforts at being transparent about government requests for users’ data as a check on government abuse of power.
This is, like every label, a generalization with plenty of flexibility in the fine detail. But I think there’s something potentially powerful here – one needs only look at the death of SOPA and PIPA and the sudden (if still minor) rise of the Pirate Party in Europe to see how Internet Libertarians are gaining clout in the political world.
Whether the Pauls’ attempt to capture that growing constitutency will be successful remains to be seen, but I have the feeling that the transparency-loving Internet Libertarians will see right through the attempt, even if they’re glad to have another voice in Washington paying attention to the issues that matter most to them.