Does the Internet Have a Political Ideology?

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.

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About Alex Fitzpatrick

Alex Fitzpatrick is Homepage Editor for Time.com, also covering technology, policy and cybersecurity. He previously covered politics and policy for Mashable. Fitzpatrick has a degree in International Relations from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he also served as News Director and Station Manager for the campus radio station, 89.3 WGSU. Follow Fitzpatrick on Twitter at @AlexJamesFitz or email him at alex.fitzpatrick@timeinc.com.
This entry was posted in Op-Eds, Politics/International Affairs, Tech. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Does the Internet Have a Political Ideology?

  1. Alex Jones says:

    Internet is free and wild, its anarchism expressing liberty and creativity that most users want to retain.

  2. Very important question to be discussed.

  3. This is interesting. I feel like a lot of communication mediums have an underlying political tilt, and the internet is no different

    http://stepstochangetheworld.wordpress.com/

  4. this was insightful, and reminds me I have a long ways to go before truly understand politics. i had no idea there were different types of libertarians.

  5. kristennemarie says:

    Never thought about this. Only seen some posts on 9gag :p

  6. I must say that is a pretty good post that you’ve published there. I haven’t seen your blog before and “stumbled” upon this post via the Freshly Pressed section of the WordPress Dashboard thingy. I liked your post so much that I thought it deserved a few minutes of my time to leave this comment. So hence, the reason why you are reading this from me.

    I found it to be clearly presented, well written and very to the point. I’ve also enjoyed reading some of the previous comments left by other users.

    Please… please keep up the good work and I will be sure to stop by in the near future!

    Have a nice day! 🙂

    Kindest regards to you…

    Barry.
    http://brownhillsbarry.com

  7. Libertairans opine under the shade of trees planted by community minded people.

  8. jehjeh007 says:

    The purp is when private enterprise give notice to these intrusions yet comment them themselves in the name of “free enterprise”. Yes, you signed the EULA to such agreements basiclly to gain voice. But remember the next time you try to get a job, that some unethical free enterprise company can/may/will sell your information to the highest bidder, including any gov’ts around the world who has disguised themselves as private coporations. While a father takes his daughter’s IPad away so she will go to bed after playing “Daisney’s Fluff Muppet’s App” he reminds her with “Yes, little Mary, you are being pimped too. I’m sorry I allowed it so as to please you because you have been such a will behaved daughter to your mommie and me”. She looks at him confused but quickly concludes that daddy is talking stupid again like Mommie always tells her, but she knows he is a good Dad because he takes care of them and works very hard. She smiles and being exhausted from the long hour spent on the game, goes right to sleep knowing tomorrow she can play again as long as she keeps being a good girl. The IPad never sleeps……

  9. Anthony says:

    Actually, there is one function of government Libertarians agree upon that could lead to being behind net neutrality: guaranteeing the right of property. They may think of access to an unbiased (unfiltered) Internet would be considered a “property,” and as such, true libertarians would be fine with the government protecting it.

  10. Savitri Ananda says:

    I think the Internet suffers from the same cultural hegemony that the rest of society does. Popular views still seem more popular due to better websites, ability to advertise, more comments, and more shares–which only keeps those views in circulation.

  11. Sarah D. says:

    I’m going to come back and reread this when I have more time. Very thoughtful and insightful post. Thanks for writing it — and I’m glad you got FP so I can see it.

  12. chitchat140 says:

    Internet Libertarians – I like that term

  13. NomadSage says:

    I wonder whether these “internet libertarians” will ever formally label themselves. I tend to doubt it only because many young people share these beliefs, and while they may all agree that the government is well intentioned but often clumsy or counterproductive, that is perhaps the only belief they share. It’s hard to form an organized political identity around only one belief. Thus, it seems likely to me that we will see a lot of these Internet Libertarians uniting to stop some political bill here and there before going their separate ways.

    Still, an interesting piece.

  14. I don’t know where I stand on this issue, but thanks for the info.!

  15. Prole Center says:

    In the U.S. there is a gross misunderstanding of what libertarianism really is – or should be. The original political ideology of libertarianism would shock most Americans. It is a far cry from the selfish, hyper-individualistic, myopic outlook of so-called “libertarians” in the U.S. It is a socialist or communist ideology that says that freedom for oneself at the expense of others is no freedom at all. See below what a true libertarian really is.

    From the entry for “Libertarianism” on Wikipedia:

    “The word stems from the French word libertaire. The use of the word “libertarian” to describe a set of political positions can be tracked to the French cognate, libertaire, which was coined in 1857 by French anarchist Joseph Déjacque who used the term to distinguish his libertarian communist approach from the mutualism advocated by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.[37] Hence libertarian has been used by some as a synonym for left anarchism since the 1890s.[38] The term libertarianism is commonly considered to be a synonym of anarchism in countries other than the US.[9]”

    • Aurora says:

      Perfect! And anarchy is unfortunately not what the internet’s becoming…I fear all the spying going on (both by governments AND by big business!!!). I hate that one of the internet’s basic principles – creating an avatar – is now faced as being “fake” and having bad intentions! It’s GOOD to be anonymous and to be able to say whatever one wants, dammit!! Even when you create a character/avatar, the whole fixed IP thing ruined this…anyone can be identified and easily found these days, and that’s very sad (not to mention dangerous!).

  16. Interesting read. I agree with NomadSage for what its worth. The only cause internet liberterians can agree on, is the internet.

  17. The simple answer to your question is ‘No’. The internet is collection of networks that have networks themselves. It can have no political ideology, just discussion. Maybe some of these interconnected networks share Libertarian ideas on them, but so to are other ideologies represented on plenty of other networks. The people make up the discussion and with their actions assert change. With respect to your Representative Polis, he is wrong to assert that “ideological Libertarians view government as inherently evil.” While yes, Anarchism does have some roots in Libertarian thought it is definitely not the presiding thought especially in the American way of Libertarianism.

    John Locke, Frederic Bastiat, and many others that morphed the U.S. discussions on the topic believed in legitimacy of the state along with natural rights and social contract. These ideas distinctly view government as a natural process of good equal men accepting co-operation until force is used to take away life, liberty, and property. Then it becomes harmful. Protecting the internet is a by-product of what we believe as natural rights, since it is the state trying to take away liberty and possibly personal property. There is no need to distinguish between “online” libertarians and “ideological” ones in such a fight. Yes, there might be a fundamental doubt of political authority as opposed to individual values, but that doesn’t mean it views government as evil.

    There are different types of libertarians with different schools of thought, but I don’t think this “technology manifesto” is anything as divisive as you suggest. It is just a reminder to us and more pointedly to our government officials to strive for a continued non-interference approach as was used in the Internets early days. To not get caught up in playing god with it. Not everyone in congress believes in the application of libertarian values to the internet and thus the document was directed at them.

    • thelyniezian says:

      The first part of your post I think dovetails quite nicely with what Iwas going to comment on. Personally, I think that’s the beauty of the internet- that because it is a decentralised collection of many different networks and is not owned by one organisation or entity, it is open to all comers, all human life is here. So it is freely open to discussion. The thing is, I doubt you will find any overall consensus from discussion- I have come across some blogs pretty much in support of SOPA and PIPA, for example. Look on any topic of dicussion, and you will find wildly diverging views and sometimes extremely bitter and vitriolic arguments, which is the ugly side of the internet- not only are people free to pretty much say what they like, but sat safe behind a computer, quite often do so, without reservation, when mere social niceties (or the threat of things turning violent) would prevent them in real life.

      Where there has been consensus, perhaps it might not merely be due to some sort of libertarin ideology or even the understanding of freedom espoused by classical liberalism, to be free within reason from tyrannical authority or intrusion upsetting the balance of life and the liberties to be expected within that; perhaps also it is simply business interest, with too many online services having a lot to lose from a potential shutdown.

      Is it absolutely necessary for the internet to be totlally free from intrusion of such a nature? I’m not sure it is, seeing as there are laws which need to be enforced both online and offline which are not said offline to necessarily limit free speech, and the internet is no magical excpetion to this- but at the same time theose laws must meet the same standards online as offline, for example, innocent until proven guilty rather than the other way round, which is what many such laws aimed at preventing piracy and the like effectively end up doing.

  18. tokogabe says:

    Internet is free and wild

  19. internet should remain free and wild……………..a free for all…………..however humanity has in built hypocracy as even i believe certain content should be restricted……where to draw this line is the question……………

  20. Arsaris says:

    Everything can be political or be turned into politics. The minute I write anything or express any opinion, I become political. If I say “yay” to widgets, there will be enough anti-widgetarians to attack me. If I say “no” to widgets, all the “widgeyphiles” will surely want to cut off my head. If I decide to remain silent due to my Christian values which tell me to remain politically neutral, both the anti-widgiweirdos and the widgey-fanatics will attack me condemning me for my silence which they will surely claim is political, because “neutrality” is (after all) a political stance. I will then be attacked for my conservative Christian neutral values and I will be surely hated. Having said that…yes… the net is political, is becoming more and politicized. Why? Wherever there are two people expressing an opinion, there is politics in the making. I liked your post. It is concise and precise, well-thought out and informative. Lastly and not least, …NO… the internet should not be regulated. AT ALL. Even EVIL should exist here. It is up to us, the consumers of words, to have better judgment and be able to discern trash from excellence, evil from good, refinement from mediocrity. Thanks for listening…and please don’t stop writing. Arsaris – royalsolomon@yahoo.com

  21. Sean Hillyer says:

    The internet has an ideology in the same way that it has a purpose (conduit of information and ideas, communications tool, commerce facilitator, home of LOL Cats, etc), a social class (upper, middle, lower, upper-middle, lower-middle, upper-upper, etc), a religion (The Church of the Latter Day Dude, Southern Baptist, snake handler, etc.), a sense of morality… The list of amalgamations could go on forever.

  22. I guess, on its own, the internet is of no use, it has no purpose and no political opinion. People need to be there to use it, they pass comment, put their ideas and opinions forward to the masses, show us their holiday snaps and all the other wholesome things WE do on the internet. The ideologies, political and religious leanings are never those of “the internet” they are ours, so as such the internet can only reflect our opinions and by its nature, the opinions held by the majority will be at the fore. That also means by virtue of poverty, geography and lack of facility the opinions of some will be lost. I suppose its the same as a gun, which is only as dangerous as the attitude of the bloke with his finger on the trigger or in this case keyboard. Personally I don’t mind if governments the world over sneak a peek at my emails or my browsing history from time to time as it will bore them stupid. I think that the internet is probably already covered by many a law that originally served us pre-internet, recent cases in the UK prove that your butt can end up in court if you get an attack of motormouth on Twitbookspacebo and that’s a good thing. Laws of slander, racism and libel should be available there, among others.

  23. Bryony Bates says:

    The distinction you make between internet Libertarianism and traditional Libertarianism is a really good one – I hadn’t thought of it that way before. However, if we’re talking about the attitude to government of people who have a particular ideology for what the internet can and should do, there is a clear anti-authoritarian streak: think Anonymous or Lulzsec. Internet Libertarians may not see government as ‘evil’ in the way that traditional Libertarians do, and you could say that hacking into CIA databases is just a way to show off and show up how clumsy and inept government systems are. I wouldn’t be so sure – it is, to some degree, an assertion of power. I don’t know exactly how that would feed into this, but I think it’s worth taking into account.

  24. ditchthemarriage says:

    I called my representatives on SOPA, I wrote letters, I made polls and signed petitions. I would say I hold some Libertarian views, But these are mostly contained in internet privacy and usage, property rights and of course, gun rights. Ron Paul has fought hard to keep these rights where they belong, with the people.

  25. Usualfool says:

    I think Mr. Polis’ definition of Libertarianism is rather egregiously biased and misleading. Considering the thoughtful nature of the rest of your post, I’m surprised you didn’t notice. At least in my experience, Libertarians don’t think government it evil; a degree of organization–a regula–is necessary and helpful whenever individuals coexist. (The origin of the term as it related to anarchy is essentially irrelevant, like the origin of numerous other terms people use.)

  26. Libertarians make many valid points, but their belief in the freedom of the internet is naive.
    People will use the internet for good and evil purposes that is the nature of the beast.
    Therefore it is not unreasonable for a government or society to ask for regulation in areas of concern.
    We live in societies full of rules and regulations generally for the benefit of everyone,
    are people seriously suggesting that internet should be above all these things?
    Finally the internet is not free or wild , we pay for its services both in infrastructure and content?
    Microsoft , Google or Apple are businesses not charities.

  27. I will have to think about this, so thank you for bringing it out. I am for freedom of expression on the internet, but not anarchy. There are pitfalls in all the idealogy.

  28. ecodolphin says:

    Interesting blog, I’ll definitely have to think about this one. It covers an idea that I had never thought about before. Congradulations for making me think, and of course, for getting Freshly Pressed!

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