Summary and Keywords
Cyberlibertarianism, broadly speaking, refers to a discourse that claims that the Internet and related digital media technology can and should constitute spaces of individual liberty. Liberty here is understood as non-interference such that individuals are able to act and express themselves as they choose, and thus are self-governed, where interference is understood as most readily emanating from governments but also at times from corporations, particularly crony-capitalist ones. Various strands of this discourse have developed over the last few decades. These strands differ in the weight that they place on technology, markets, policy, and law for securing cyberspace as a space of, and for, individual freedom.
Introduction: The Techno-Liberation Imaginary
Cyberlibertarianism, generally speaking, refers to a discourse that claims that Internet and related digital media can and should constitute spaces of individual liberty. Liberty here is understood as noninterference and as a condition that empowers individuals to act and express themselves as they choose, whereas interference is seen most readily as emanating from governments but also, at times, from corporations, particularly crony-capitalist ones. Media historians have traced the roots of this discourse to a techno-liberation sensibility that developed on the West Coast of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s among anti-establishment thinkers and activists, who drew on both the fading 1960s (anti-authoritarian) counterculture and an emerging hacker culture, where hacking involves the exploration and repurposing of a technology for uses other than what it was initially intended and designed for (Barbrook, 2015; Turner, 2006). The coming together of these two cultures saw the development of a techno-liberation vision of freedom in which technology in the hands of ordinary people was seen as liberatory, as enabling the formation of do-it-yourself communities free from state and corporate power (e.g., this vision was encapsulated in the Whole Earth Review). Computer networking became the central and most celebrated technological form of this techno-liberation vision from the early 1980s, following the spread of reasonably affordable microcomputers in the United States and elsewhere that could be readily programed and networked by computer hobbyist-hackers. The networking of computers brought physically isolated individuals together into what came to be celebrated as “virtual communities,” places where individual minds met, free (supposedly) from many of the physical, normative, and legal constraints of offline embodied life. This Cartesian picture, of the minds of physically isolated individuals meeting, oriented the techno-liberation vision away from the communitarianism that had infected 1960s counterculture and toward individualism and a more individualist conceptualization of freedom. This increasingly individualist orientation was fueled by an American frontier mythology. Computer networking was referred to in “pioneering” and “homesteading” metaphors, invoking the adventurous exploration and settlement of a newly found, untamed, and thus unregulated space by free and self-regulating individuals (see, e.g., Rheingold, 1993).
This techno-liberation vision, as well as the associated practices of networked individualist community, turned emphatically in an individualist direction in the early 1990s through its articulation with, first, celebratory claims about individual liberties and empowerment resulting from the rapidly expanding Internet and, second, U.S. libertarianism.
The Internet and U.S. Libertarianism
The Internet emerged in the early 1990s out of its government and university closet after the lifting of restrictions against commercial activity. A combination of factors then led to the rapid growth in the network’s use, including, first, the proliferation of commercial Internet service providers offering public access to the network and, second, the invention and release into the public domain of the World Wide Web and associated Web navigation software (browsers and search engines) that made the Internet significantly more user-friendly. Techno-liberation enthusiasts, supported by eager technology commentators, quickly found much promise for their visions in the Internet, celebrating what they saw as the medium’s empowering promise for everyday users. Empowerment was seen as the result of attaining the ability to act freely: the medium’s decentralized, largely (at first) unregulated, anonymous, global, and near-instantaneous communicative form was hailed as a new self-regulated space—which came to be known as cyberspace—of (inter)action free from the physical (geographical, bodily), normative (social, cultural), and legal (including government regulatory) constraints found in offline space.
At the same time as this Internet empowerment excitement was infecting the techno-liberation imaginary, this imaginary became increasingly influenced by U.S. libertarianism, a political-economic tradition grounded in classical liberalism and Austrian School economics that, as a result of such grounding, equates liberty with individual freedom from interference, where interference is, in turn, largely equated with government regulation and also, at times, with corporate control (especially when those corporations are cooperating with government). As such, government regulation, as well as any domineering crony-capitalist control, was to be replaced in all spheres of society by self-regulated individual interactions and exchanges, the best model of which is seen to be the capitalist “free” market. This libertarian tradition—to be differentiated from left-libertarian and anarchist traditions—gained increasing appeal and legitimacy in the United States following the success (in the 1980s) of Reagan-style neoliberalism. Although Reaganism was conservative with respect to issues of social liberty, its political economy lined up with the U.S. libertarian conception of economic liberty—that is, as antigovernment and pro–free market. Articulated with this form of libertarianism, techno-liberation thinking moved in a more antigovernment and pro-free-market direction. This articulation was advanced by the elective affinity that existed between the libertarian ideal of self-regulating individual interactions and exchanges (exemplified by the mythical free market) and the Internet’s own mythically self-regulated communicative exchanges.
The new Internet-libertarian discursive formation that developed from out of the articulation of techno-liberation thought, Internet empowerment celebrations, and U.S. libertarianism was first tracked and named “cyberlibertarianism” by its critics (e.g., Winner, 1997). Although they rarely referred to themselves as cyberlibertarians, the early advocates of the discourse often identified as libertarian or explicitly embraced libertarian values, and loudly proclaimed that the Internet’s decentralized, global, anonymous, and largely (in the beginning) unregulated form and newly commercial status fostered a “friction-free” marketplace of ideas and commerce in which information (and other goods and commodities) would flow freely—free of government, as well as of crony-capitalist interference—and socioeconomic relations would be based on individual self-regulation and self-interest, realizing individual liberty (e.g., Barlow, 1996; Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, & Toffler, 1994; Gates, 1995). At the same time, those articulating this discourse were aware and concerned that this new interactive space was not in fact immune to government regulation: while there was much talk of the global, decentralized “nature” of the Internet resisting state regulation (e.g., Barlow, 1996; Johnson & Post, 1996), there were also outcries, sometimes from the same rhetoricians (e.g., Barlow, 1996), against nascent attempts by the U.S. government to regulate the Internet.
Indeed, soon after the Internet was commercialized (which was completed by 1995) and had begun to be widely adopted by everyday users, the U.S. government began to put forward legislation aimed specifically at regulating online content for, firstly, “decency,” through the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, and secondly, “child safety,” through the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA), and, thirdly, commerce (copyright in particular), through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. In addition, existing fraud laws and export regulations, among other rules, were interpreted broadly and deployed by the U.S. government to go after crackers of corporate sites and sharers of computer files, including of cryptographic code (Sterling, 1993). Concurrently with these legal developments, the U.S. government was also pursuing Internet regulation via technological design and funding. For example, between 1993 and 1996 the National Security Agency (NSA) encouraged digital technology manufacturers to install an encryption device in their products (the “clipper chip”) that had a built-in backdoor, enabling surveillance. And vice president Al Gore’s talk of advancing national computer networking via U.S. government funding of the development of an “information superhighway” suggested that the government aimed to take greater control of digital communications.
These actions by the U.S. government galvanized and united the new cyberlibertarian discourse. Government regulation was unwelcome, not only because it was seen as unnecessary given that the Internet was believed to enable self-regulation, but also because it was seen as harmful to this self-regulation—that is, harmful to the free flow of information and the space of individual freedom, epitomized by the market, that was believed to be emerging on the “digital frontier.” Yet much of the talk about how the Internet was, could, or should be free of government regulation through law or otherwise can be understood as fanciful polemical and political strategy in the service of attacking and pushing back, but not eliminating, this regulation. As will be seen in the examples that follow, much cyberlibertarian practice accepted and, indeed, presupposed, or even called on, at least a minimal role for offline law (constitutional and regulatory), backed by state violence, in order for the Internet to thrive as a space of individual liberty. Moreover, these early cyberlibertarians were largely silent on the government funding of Internet developments and research. As such, cyberlibertarianism (in practice) can, in many cases, be largely understood in terms of “small l” libertarianism.
Civil Liberties and Hacker Strands of Cyberlibertarianism
Small l cyberlibertarianism was, and still is, exemplified by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF). The EFF was set up in the United States, in 1990, by a group of cyberlibertarian-oriented Internet activists with the aim of defending online “civil liberties”—particularly “free speech” and “privacy” “rights”—against government “overreach” in the wake of a series of raids by law-enforcement agents on suspected hackers (Sterling, 1993). The EFF’s primary weapon was constitutional law (on which rights and liberties are legally defined and protected in the United States), but it also deployed education (of the public, policymakers, and law enforcement) and policy activism (lobbying and advising to push for “freedom friendly” laws). “Overreach” here referred mostly to incursions into free speech and privacy online, including the harassment and arrest of freedom-focused hackers who were developing and distributing, or simply publishing the code of, encryption software. The EFF argued that instead of government regulation, technological innovation (e.g., encryption and filtering systems) and self-regulation (through competitive markets, industry norms, and cyberethics) should be turned, as far as possible, to solutions to problems—such as child safety, theft, fraud, and “market failures” like monopoly control—facing online users and undermining their freedom.
The EFF had, and continues to have, ongoing success in the courts and influence in digital policy and education. For example, with respect to legal cases, its support of Daniel J. Bernstein’s challenge, in 1995, of the U.S. government’s attempt to restrict the publishing of encryption code led, by the end of the 1990s, to software code being ruled constitutionally protected speech. The EFF’s use of the court system and of policy and legislative activism to push back against government “overreach,” and sometimes corporate control, not only indicated that cyberspace was not immune to state regulation, but that law, backed by state violence, could be deployed as a means of securing online freedoms, hence their small l libertarianism.
Many, but certainly not all, of the hackers and hacker projects that the EFF and other civil liberties groups defended in court or supported through policy advocacy were partial to libertarian ideas and practices. This partiality toward libertarianism was strong among hackers identifying as cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist, whose ideas had become popular among hackers in the late 1980s, and posited that individual freedom, particularly from state interference, was dependent upon privacy, and that cryptographic technologies would ensure online privacy and thus liberty (see, e.g., May, 1994). Many other liberty-oriented hackers and hacker groups not immediately identifying as cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist also deployed cryptographic techniques to safeguard privacy and thus individual freedom. For example, the iconic hacker group the Cult of the Dead Cow, and its late 1990s spin-off Hacktivismo, saw online liberty being threatened by governments around the world that were attempting to spy on and censor Internet communications, and as a result developed and distributed online cryptographic tools to ensure freedom of information, and thus of individuals. In contrast to this focus on cryptographic techniques, other liberty-oriented hackers put energy into breaking coded restrictions on digital technologies (including breaking “digital rights management” restrictions) that they saw as limiting user freedoms, while others still concentrated on developing software under “free software” licensing systems, which not only protect freedom in the development, use, and distribution of software but ensure that users can identify and eliminate the systems of censorship, surveillance, and control implanted in code.
These liberty-oriented hackers and hacker groups could be loosely named cyberlibertarian, even when they did not explicitly self-identify as libertarian, given that they believed in individual freedom and self-regulation and that this freedom was understood to be ensured by the free flow of information online (Jordan, 2001). While the attention of these cyberlibertarian hackers was on the actions of the state, any entity involved in undermining privacy or the freedom of information online was viewed as an enemy, including powerful corporations.
But these cyberlibertarian hackers did not crack into or try to bring down enemy systems, as crackers and cybersabotage or cyberanarchist hackers aimed to do. Rather, their practices, as indicated in the examples just given, involved investigating, modifying, developing, and distributing computer network code and licensing systems that would ensure that computer networking, and the Internet more specifically, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” (and thus around surveillance), a maxim that was first declared by EFF cofounder and cypherpunk John Gilmore (Elmer-Dewitt, 1993) but that had become taken-for-granted fact among many Internet hackers and commentators by the mid-1990s. Cyberlibertarian hackers, particularly those influenced by cypherpunk and crypto-anarchism, insisted that such coding for freedom would succeed, maintaining that the mantra “information wants to be free” was both right and true, not only as an ethic (it should be free) but as a built-in bias or drive of information and associated technologies toward freedom (rather than toward zero cost, as the influential techno-hippie writer Stewart Brand had suggested when he had coined the phrase).
These hackers, however, did not in fact rely on code alone. Despite maintaining that information wants to be, and should be, free and that the Internet, along with cryptographic tools, could route around censorship, surveillance, and regulation, they still called on legal rights groups like the EFF to come to their defense when they were pursued by government agents; Lawyers were needed for the protection of hackers and hacking, and thus for the protection of the freedom of information and individuals online. In fact, some liberty-oriented hackers and hacker groups, including Hacktivismo, explicitly invoked constitutional law and international human rights agreements to legitimize their actions. And some cyberlibertarian hackers, including Gilmore, actually sued the United States for breaches of free speech or privacy rights: they were prepared to fight it out with the government, not just in cyberspace by hacking technology but in the courts of law, attempting to hack the law. Thus few hackers in practice fully embraced a “big L” cyberlibertarianism involving the elimination of all government regulation.
The Market-Focused Strand of Cyberlibertarianism
Much libertarian-oriented hacker politics, or hacktivism, was, like the work of the EFF, focused on securing civil liberties online (namely, “free speech” and “privacy”). However, many cyberlibertarian activists and hackers also saw civil liberties as intimately and inextricably tied to economic liberty, which was often understood as being realized through free-market capitalism in combination with computer network technology. In particular, many cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists strongly embraced capitalist free markets as both morally good and, given the right conditions, realizable: “morally good” since free markets, including free markets in the sphere of computer networking, were understood as spaces of individual freedom constituted through private ownership and the unregulated exchange of information and commodities, thus extending free speech and privacy on and offline; and “realizable” given free (unregulated) cyberspace communications and cryptographic security that together disposed of nation-state borders and government regulations (see, e.g., May, 1994).
This interest in cyberspace communication as a platform for free-market capitalism, and vice versa, was prominent among thinkers associated with the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF). Formed in 1993 and active until late 2010, the PFF was the first think tank whose core mission was the development and spread of cyberlibertarianism. It was backed by prominent libertarians, including futurist thinkers (e.g., Alvin Toffler), business people (e.g., Esther Dyson), and policy advisers (e.g., ex-Reagan advisers George Gilder and George Keyworth, the first PFF “chairman”). While certain economic-liberty-oriented cyberlibertarian ideas were introduced by some hackers, particularly cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists, who imagined a positive relation between free cyberspace and free markets (e.g., May, 1994), the PFF represents the institutionalization of an economic-liberty or market-focused strand of cyberlibertarianism that was, and remains, concerned first and foremost with the realization of free markets through the Internet. Following a combination of classical liberalism and Austrian School economics, advocates of this strand believe that free markets are the basis of individual liberty and, moreover, argue that an unregulated and commercialized cyberspace will realize free markets (Dyson et al., 1994—this is the foundational paper of the PFF). Based on this free-market centered logic, the PFF strongly called for the U.S. government to back off this space of freedom, not only by repealing any new or existing laws that might in any way interfere with cybercommunications, but also by deregulating all markets associated with the Internet, from hardware to information (content and software) products. This deregulation, they argued, would result in dynamic competition that would drive innovation of and through the Internet, including innovation advancing free markets and securing individual freedoms (Dyson et al., 1994).
There were some suggestions in this market-focused cyberlibertarianism that there might be a need for an ongoing role for government in antitrust regulation (see Dyson et al., 1994). However, the general policy advice was, following a Schumpeterian logic, to leave the digital market as a whole alone in the belief that monopolies would invariably be undermined by creative-destructive competition arising from new digital ventures deploying disruptive technology: an unregulated digital economy was seen as essentially dynamic, driven by consumer demand and enabled by the creativity of, and competition between, the free minds of individuals working with free-flowing information and developing new, disruptive technologies. This market creativity and dynamism was seen to be exemplified by “the hacker”—a rational, innovative, nonconformist, individualist, and competitive, yet networked, subject constantly reinventing and reconstructing technology (e.g., Keyworth, 1995).
Some of these market-focused cyberlibertarians also contemplated the possibility of a minimal role for government in the redefining, and even the allocating and enforcing, of property rights (see Dyson et al., 1994). However, all agreed that nation-state boundaries and individual embodied-citizen identities no longer applied in cyberspace and that old nation-state-based legal frameworks were therefore outmoded, meaning that any cyberspace-appropriate legal frameworks would have to be transnational in scope. The clearest example given of this redundancy of nation-state-based law in cyberspace was the undermining of intellectual-property regimes (particularly copyright) by the (largely) unregulated, near instantaneous, and costless—assuming one had access to the Internet and computer hardware—reproduction and distribution of cultural goods through file-sharing systems. Such sharing practices, though seemingly anarchic and mitigating against cyberspace becoming the promised free market of commodity exchange, were not condemned by cyberlibertarians but, rather, seen as creative-destructive forces driven by user demand and hacker invention. That is, online sharing practices were seen to be helping to sweep away old state-bound intellectual property regimes that were understood to be holding back creativity and productivity, and to prepare the way for the development of new and better property definitions and enforcement systems, where better here meant more purely free market and thus more self-regulated dynamic, innovative, and “information age” appropriate (Dyson et al., 1994). New systems and mechanisms for protecting and remunerating creative work produced in, and distributed through, cyberspace would develop naturally and freely given a digital free market, in which creators innovatively respond, on the one hand, to user demand and practices (such as filesharing and other digitally enabled creative-destructive forces) and, on the other hand, against regressive (antifreedom) actions of governments and corporate monopoly powers acting to protect their outmoded property systems. These cyberlibertarians envisioned the new information-age remuneration systems and mechanisms as being based on a combination of technological code (especially encryption), market and hacker ethics, and new property licensing systems, all of which wrote freedom into ownership (Keyworth, 1995).
This was a larger “L” cyberlibertarianism than the one represented by the EFF. The PFF called for a “vastly smaller,” “dispersed,” and “decentralized” government suitable to the needs of the “information age” (Dyson et al., 1994). But it was still not an unreservedly large L cyberlibertarianism because it still required at least minimal government rather than no government. Its idea was for a downsizing and rethinking or re-engineering of government. The PFF clearly recognized that its vision of an information society based on digital free markets would still require government in a range of ways, particularly in protecting the system as a whole from theft, fraud, and terrorist attack.
The Fall and Rise of Cyberlibertarianism in the Public Sphere
Cyberlibertarian rhetoric quieted in the early 2000s, at least in the mass media and the online public sphere, even as digital civil liberties groups like the EFF and liberty-oriented hackers continued to work hard in the background. Contrasting contextual factors help to explain this quiet, three of which are highlighted here. First, some of the perceived threats to “Internet freedom” that had emerged and that had pressed cyberlibertarians into action had not materialized: the CDA and COPA had failed to become law (both were ruled unconstitutional); the surveillance enabling clipper-chip technology had not been taken up by manufacturers and cryptographers had successfully developed and distributed, with the help of the EFF, privacy software without backdoors; and the feared “information superhighway” turned out to simply involve government funding to support Internet research, development, and education, including, most famously, funding (from Al Gore’s “national information infrastructure” initiative), the development of the first World Wide Web browser, Mosaic, in 1993 (in fact, the Clinton-Gore administration fully embraced the free market and drove the Internet’s privatization and commercialization). The DMCA was still cause for concern to those who saw it as a threat to information freedom online. However, U.S. government attempts to stop piracy (or, from a cyberlibertarian perspective, to inhibit freedom) through the DMCA were proving futile: when one online file-sharing service was closed down for breaching copyright—as was the case with Napster in July 2001—other, more fully decentralized and thus harder to censor file-sharing services—such as those based on the distributed BitTorrent protocol and file-sharing program developed by cypherpunk Bram Cohen released at the same time as the Napster shutdown—would simply arise from the ashes of those that had been closed. In this case, the cypherpunk-hacker slogan that the Internet routes around censorship proved true (on the proviso that we are talking about the Internet in general as an evolving whole rather than individual services and sites). As a result, the threat from government and content corporations to the free flow of information online seemed weak.
A second contextual factor explaining the lack of interest in cyberlibertarian concerns in the mass media and online public spheres is that the rapid uptake of the Internet by businesses and populations in the United States and across the world, in combination with increasing threats to everyday Internet use—child porn, cyberbullying, cyberattacks, digital fraud and extortion, privacy incursions, and terrorist use of the network to organize that became so visible with the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001—led to widespread commercial and public acceptance and, indeed, demand in the United States and elsewhere for government oversight and regulation of digital communications. Information privacy and free-speech issues thus diminished in importance in the public sphere. Finally, a third contextual factor is the dot-com stock market crash of 2000, which not only brought down many Internet start-ups and took a great deal of investment out of digital technology development, but subsequently burst the bubble of excitement over the “Internet revolution”—particularly for media-technology commentators.
Cyberlibertarianism, or at least its concerns, became prominent again in the mass media and online public spheres from the mid-2000s onward. Factors that fueled interest in cyberlibertarian concerns, included: celebratory conferences and publications promising user freedom, empowerment and economic success through “Web 2.0” platforms; activism against new government laws threatening Internet liberties, including against the Patriot Act of 2001 and later, in 2011, successful protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), and (mostly in Europe) against the multinational Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement; and the increasing shock and anger at revelations, from the early 2000s onward, reaching a peak soon after Edward Snowden’s 2013 NSA leaks revealing the U.S. government’s program of vast and ever-increasing surveillance of national and international online and offline communications, surveillance that was greatly assisted by the cooperation of many of the largest Internet corporations. These and other factors not only brought cyberlibertarian concerns back to prominence in the public sphere but took cyberlibertarian rhetoric and practice in new directions.
Web 2.0 Cyberlibertarians
The name “Web 2.0” was popularized in the mid-2000s through the conferences and publications of technical publisher Tim O’Reilly, who deployed the concept as a device to help re-enthuse technology and business communities about the importance of the Web after the dot-com crash, suggesting a set of Web principles and practices that made for successful post-crash Web ventures (O’Reilly, 2005). The meaning of Web 2.0 evolved with usage but generally came to refer to any website enabling, and relying upon, user interaction and collaborative participation in content generation, in contrast to the image of a static, noninteractive 1990s “Web 1.0,” as well as one-way mass media. Web platforms referred to as Web 2.0 included blogs and micro-blogs (e.g., Twitter), social networking sites (e.g., Myspace, Facebook), user-generated video sites (e.g., YouTube), interactive virtual worlds and digital gaming (e.g., Second Life), and Wikis and other collaborative Web platforms (e.g., Wikipedia). The idea was that these applications were empowering to users because they enabled users to participate, not just in cultural consumption, as was understood to largely be the case with Web 1.0 and the mass media, but also in social interaction-collaboration across the globe and do-it-yourself (DIY) production and exchange of cultural goods—in other words, they enabled not just two-way communication and organization but “prosumption,” a concept coined in 1980 by futurist and PFF sage-adviser Alvin Toffler, that gained new life in Web 2.0 cyberlibertarianism. Thus, Web 2.0 was seen as liberating users from both Web 1.0 and mass media systems of owner-controlled and easily regulated content production and one-way transmission.
Of course, user interaction and collaborative participation in cultural production had for decades been a significant part of computer networking and the Internet (via email, email listserves, bulletin-board systems, Usenet groups, real-time online chat groups such as Internet relay chat (IRC) groups, and multiuser role-playing games) and also of the Web itself (via Web forums and social networking services such as Yahoo! Clubs, eGroups.com, and Six-Degrees, all established in 1997 or 1998). But this interactive and collaborative aspect of the pre-2000s Internet and Web was obscured in Web 2.0 discourse. Supported by the development of diverse types of new interactive Web platforms, the idea of a more user-centered and user-controlled, and thus freer, version of the Web took off. Journalism once again, as in the mid-1990s, caught digital-technology fever and started to generate articles celebrating Web 2.0 liberty and empowerment; Time magazine making its 2006 person of the year “you,” celebrating ordinary people engaging in and being empowered by collaborative, do-it-yourself (DIY), prosumer actions through Web 2.0 (Grossman, 2006). While journalist commentary made a lot of excited noises, it was popular academic (technology and business-oriented) texts, published in quick succession between 2007 and 2008, that most fully articulated this loudly digital-enthusiast, social and economic focused, strand of small l cyberlibertarianism (e.g., Reynolds, 2007; Shirky, 2008; Tapscott & Williams, 2007). Although these texts largely emanated from the United States, they were not heavily or explicitly influenced by U.S. libertarian thought to the extent that some of the other cyberlibertarian strands were. Web 2.0 cyberlibertarianism developed out of a focus and celebration of the liberating qualities—here drawing loosely and often unconsciously on the classical liberal tradition—read into the technology: Web 2.0 was heralded as enabling spontaneously ordering systems to evolve where individuals were linking up and self-organizing across a multitude of fields through Web 2.0 prosumer, DIY networks and subsequently collaborating (across the globe) on a vast array of projects that were free of hierarchical, external, paternalistic-authoritarian nation-state-based systems of social organization and regulation.
New Generation Market-Focused Cyberlibertarianism
In contrast to the subtle and largely non-card-carrying cyberlibertarianism of the Web 2.0 celebrations, the more explicitly libertarian, economic-liberty or market-focused strand of cyberlibertarianism represented by the PFF continued to assert itself in the United States via policy lobbying, media releases, position papers, and conferences. This market-focused strand read the so-called Web 2.0 platforms not as something radically new but in line with the vision of free exchange of ideas and free markets of commodities being established on and through cyberspace, by way of free-enterprising, creative, and competing networked individuals.
This market-focused cyberlibertarianism has been championed by a growing number of (mostly U.S.-based) openly self-identifying cyberlibertarian digital technology commentators and activists centered around the PFF until its closure in 2010 and subsequently around a new cyberlibertarian think tank, Tech Freedom.org, and a blog, the Technology Liberation Front (techliberation.com). Proponents of this strand have increasingly identified their cyberlibertarianism as a direct descendent of American libertarianism and have steadily become more strident in their demands, which can be summarized by the motto “government hands off the Internet!” as declared by Thierer and Szoka (2009), two prominent market-focused cyberlibertarians. In this discourse, an unregulated Internet at all levels—including those of applications software, Internet protocols, physical infrastructures, and network management—is understood to be the basis on which pure capitalism and genuine freedom can come to pass on and through the Internet: unregulated digital-market competition will, as argued by the PFF and early market-focused cyberlibertarians, foster disruptive technological innovations that will solve both “market failures” (e.g., monopoly control) and “technological failures” (e.g., lack of universal Internet access, and lack of privacy, free speech, and property rights protections), failures seen as standing in the way of genuine individual freedoms (Thierer, 2009). It is not just that government regulation is bad, it is also belived to be unnecessary: any necessary regulation will evolve naturally from a combination of market competition, technological design, self-regulation, public pressure, and social norms (Thierer, 2009, 2016). Hence, market-focused cyberlibertarians, like most other cyberlibertarians, oppose any laws (such as the, now defunct, SOPA and PIPA) aimed at strengthening the hand of government and the position of media corporations with respect to the regulation of online intellectual property. They generally also oppose antitrust regulations, arguing that “market failures” such as monopoly privilege “are best dealt with by spontaneous evolution of markets and new entry” (Thierer & Szoka, 2009). More controversially, and unlike many smaller l and more civil-liberties-focused cyberlibertarians such as those associated with the EFF, but staying consistent with their antiregulation stance, they have persistently opposed the imposition of net neutrality (i.e., antidiscrimination) rules on network data carriers, arguing that such “regulation is nothing more than infrastructure socialism” (Thierer & Szoka, 2009). They also do not get, to quote Thierer (2009), “all that worked up about a private company collecting data in an attempt to sell people more goods and services,” and hence do not support calls for regulation of corporate surveillance and censorship, although they do call for more constraints—that they do not deem to be regulation—on government surveillance and censorship.
Darknet Markets and Crypto-Anarchists
Faith in digital technology to realize both free markets and information and individual freedom (from interference by outside authority) was also maintained by some hackers, especially by those identifying as cypherpunk or crypto-anarchist. This faith was strengthened with the development of cryptocurrencies, darknets, and, subsequently, darknet markets. Cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists had, in the 1990s, identified electronic money protected by cryptographic technologies as the most important missing element in the realization of digitally enabled free markets (e.g., May, 1994). In 2009, Bitcoin—the first and by far the most popular of many cryptocurrencies—was released, based on open-source software that facilitated secure and difficult-to-trace and disintermediated user transactions over time and space. Once it was launched, libertarians across the board, and particularly those identifying as cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist, celebrated Bitcoin, and subsequent cryptocurrencies, for enabling money to escape nation-state control—central bank controls, banking regulations, surveillance of transactions, and taxation—as well as corporate bank controls, and hence providing the basis for freedom in markets and in social life in general (Golumbia, 2015; Guttenberg, 2014).
Cryptocurrencies paved the way for the development of unregulated “darknet markets,” as cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists had predicted and wished for. Darknet markets involve the use of cryptocurrencies—mostly bitcoin—as the universal equivalence of exchange for commodity markets on “darknets,” darknets being anonymous networks, such as Freenet and TOR, piggybacking on the public Internet that provide users a great deal of privacy and hence are also, in their own right, celebrated by cyberlibertarians (Golumbia, 2013). The first commercially successful darknet market was the drug-trading site Silk Road, which began operating in February (2011). The Silk Road was founded and administered by the big L (crypto-anarchist) libertarian Ross Ulbricht, whose pseudonymous writings on the site suggested that his mission was first and foremost about constructing a space founded on libertarian principles that would not only be free, in the sense of bypassing state regulation, but would realize a self-regulated market, making government control, and indeed governments themselves, obsolete (Bearman & Hanuka, 2015). Many similar marketplaces followed, invariably focusing on the trading of illicit drugs, which did not tarnish these online marketplaces as models of freedom for big L cyberlibertarians, since they have generally argued that the trading of drugs should be legal and regulated by markets and social norms. These markets have been dogged by problems, including being downed by law enforcement (as the Silk Road was in 2013), hackers (often for ransom), and scammers (sometimes site administrators), but the fact that they actually got up and running in the first place has suggested to market-focused cyberlibertarians the imminent realizability of their dreams of unregulated cyber-markets. Moreover, these marketplaces (have) offered new heroes and martyrs (upon his conviction, Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole) and clarified the evil villain (i.e., nation-state governments and their systems of control) to be fought against in the cyberlibertarian tale of freedom versus regulation, and technology plus markets versus governments. Despite setbacks, for many cyberlibertarians the power of digital technology (as well as cryptography) means that this story, like that of peer-to-peer file-sharing, can only end in final victory for liberty. Resolution in favor of liberty is seen as being demonstrated by the fact that when a network of freedom, whether a peer-to-peer file-sharing service like Napster or a capitalist marketplace like the Silk Road, is brought down by law-enforcement agents or other forces, new and more resilient networks—as in resistant to shutdown—spring up. In other words, the belief is that the cyberlibertarian-cypherpunk hacker mantras will hold: information wants to be free and the Internet routes around censorship.
Darknet markets have developed beyond the free trade in illicit drugs, a diversification that at first seems to be promising for market-focused cyberlibertarianism. However, much of the merchandise on darknet markets—for example, child porn, false degrees, and stolen goods—is an affront to the high ideals of extending individual liberty in such a way as not to impinge on others’ liberties. Significant limits to liberty via unregulated markets are also starkly highlighted by the rapid development of “cyber-arms” darknet markets, such as the Cyber Arms Bazaar, trading in digital technologies that can be used in cyberattacks. On the one hand, these cyber-arms markets may be celebrated by cyberlibertarians for their “freedom” (i.e., being outside state regulation), innovation (the constant development of new products), and market efficiencies (prices for cyber arms have come down rapidly since their development). On the other hand, these markets undermine the liberties advanced by cyberlibertarians because these markets enable buyers to acquire cyber-weaponry (e.g., malicious software and software exploits) to attack enemies—hacking into networks and extracting (private) data or simply taking sites down, denying these network and site owners a range of freedoms, including privacy, free speech and free communication, and private property (Bennett, 2015). Moreover, without any state support, darknet markets have to develop their own violence-backed defence systems to protect them against existential threats, often related to extortion, ranging from having critical information exposed to governments and other potentially dangerous elements to being subject to malicious attacks aimed at shutting them down (Farrell, 2015). While libertarains believe in the need for violence backed policing for the protection of individual freedoms from external interference, they envision any such policing as transparent and accountable to all individuals affected. In contrast, the defence systems that have been deployed in darknet markets have been secretive and authoritarian, undermining the idea that these markets are free. For example, the Silk Road’s founder and administrator Ross Ulbricht resorted to secretly hiring hitmen to (unsuccessfully, it seems) murder thieves, extortionists, and scammers (Bearman & Hanuka, 2015), as well as “paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to stave off denial-of-service attacks that threatened to cripple his website” (Farrell, 2015). In fact, the generally secretive nature of most aspects of the operation of these markets, even to their own users, contrasts to the ideal of free markets as involving transparency of information and user oversight.
One of the most alarming developments in darknet markets, if not to crypto-anarchists, are assassination markets. At least one of these “services,” the Assassination Market, is a (big L) cyberlibertarian project. The Assassination Market, developed by a self-identifying crypto-anarchist operating under the pseudonym Kuwabatake Sanjuro and informed by some 1990s cypherpunk’s (wishful) predictions about assassination markets developing through a combination of strong cryptographic technology and digital currencies, is “a crowdfunding service that lets anyone anonymously contribute bitcoins toward a bounty on the head of any government official” (Greenberg, 2013). The aim of the market is not simply to keep state power in check but to frighten potential candidates from standing for public office altogether, thereby bringing an end to all governments everywhere (Greenberg, 2013).
Another self-identifying crypto-anarchist (Kopstein, 2013; Popescu, 2016), Cody Wilson, developed the first 3D printable gun (in 2012–2013), which could be used to, among other things, help carry out the assassinations undetected: the guns are untraceable—that is, crypto-guns—when the designs from which they are printed are encrypted. With a group of friends Wilson established a nonprofit company, Defense Distributed (http://www.defdist.org/), to develop open source design files for 3D printable guns (“WikiWeapons”) and distribute them without financial charge across the Internet and thereby advance freedom by advancing the individual’s power vis-à-vis the state (Popescu, 2016). Wilson and his libertarian supporters, including cyberlibertarian hackers such as the open source developer Eric Raymond (Kopstein, 2013), directly drew on the rhetoric of the libertarian-cypherpunk hacker tradition, claiming that the distribution of 3D printable gun design files was primarily about “the liberation of information,” and thus of individuals, that “information should be free, and it wants to be” (Wilson, 2012). Wilson backed this claim with cash, pouring more than $US1 million into suing the U.S. State Department on the grounds of the First Amendment right to free speech after he was forced to take the designs off his website (over 100,000 designs had already been distributed)—the State Department had threatened to charge Wilson with breaking firearm export statutes (Popescu, 2016). But Wilson’s, and Defense Distributed’s, politics were clearly not just about freedom of speech. They were also about strengthening the “right to bear arms” (which many libertarians in fact equate with the right to free speech). In other words, Wilson’s politics were also about defending freedom against threats of state coercion and violence by enabling individuals to get their hands on guns more easily and with greater privacy (“anywhere there is a computer there is a weapon”; Wilson, 2012), circumventing both the big gunmakers and regulatory obstructions, making gun laws, and any attempt to strengthen them, irrelevant (Doherty, 2013; Popescu, 2016).
In response to the State Department demand to cease distribution of 3D gun designs and the subsequent need to raise money to sue the department over the right to publish the designs (Popescu, 2016), Wilson turned his Defense Distributed company to the manufacture and sale of computer-controlled milling machines that enable individuals to turn their homes into a gun production factory and produce untraceable (i.e., crypto) semi-automatic “ghost guns” made to U.S. military specifications for defending, so the argument goes, freedom against state aggression.
Although his practices suggest a radically anarchist politics, Wilson has always attempted to work within the law, by, for example, suspending the distribution of his designs following State Department orders; following legal channels to contest the State Department’s demands; complying with all firearms regulations relevant to the ghost gun milling machines, including doing background checks on all customers and verifying that they were legally “U.S. persons”; and even purchasing a federal firearms license as a legal safeguard, although not necessary for the specific design and manufacturing work being undertaken by Defense Distributed when the license was acquired (Popescu, 2016). Ultimately, Wilson wants his work to remain within the law not simply so that he can stay out of jail but because he wants to make a very public and defiant stand against government and for individual freedom, specifically freedom of speech and of gun ownership. In other words, he wants to make his stand by legally hacking the state’s own laws: by finding openings or holes in the law, especially those resulting from deploying not-yet-legally-accounted-for new technology (based, in turn, on hacks of gun design and manufacturing), and by creatively deploying law, including the U.S. Constitution. Wilson and Defense Distributed are thus clearly not about competing in a marketplace of illegal weaponry: in practice, as Wilson (2015) has pointed out, there are other websites for gun designs or pre-assembled and second-hand weapons where an assassin or anyone else with a bit of cash can readily acquire an unregistered gun, sites driven by the desire to make money rather than take a political stand but that are still, in the eyes of a crypto-anarchist, advancing the right to free (unregulated) gun ownership and free speech.
Digital Civil Liberties Activists and Cypherpunk Whistleblowers
Alongside, and in many ways complementary to, the economic-liberty-focused strand of cyberlibertarianism, whether policy oriented or technology centered, the EFF and other digital civil liberties groups within the United States and across the globe have continued their work of defending individual free speech and privacy in cyberspace, maintaining their multipronged political strategy involving law, education, lobbying, and (on a small scale) sponsoring or developing (encryption) technology. Their biggest challenge has been defending online free speech and privacy in the wake of the massively increased U.S. government surveillance on- and offline after 9/11. While the U.S. government passed laws to legalize increased national and international surveillance—including the Patriot Act, on October 26, 2001, and the Protect America Act, in 2007—it has still gone beyond its own laws, and since at least 2001 has carried out, with the assistance of telecommunications carriers like AT&T, illegal dragnet surveillance of U.S. residents (Electronic Freedom Foundation, n.d.). Since this illegal surveillance was exposed by NSA whistle-blowers in 2005, the EFF has worked hard to bring it to an end, including by (from 2008) suing the NSA and other government agencies, as well as AT&T (Electronic Freedom Foundation, n.d.).
The antisurveillance efforts of the EFF, as well as of other digital civil-liberties groups in the United States (e.g., the Center for Technology and Democracy) and many international groups (see https://edri.org/members/) have gained much greater publicity and support following Edward Snowden’s 2013 release of documents that revealed the massive extent of U.S. government spying on domestic and international users of the Internet and phone systems. Snowden, along with Julian Assange and his whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, has been enthusiastically embraced by cyberlibertarian activists (e.g., Ron Paul, a leading voice in U.S. libertarianism), commentators (e.g., Reason.com editor in chief Nick Gillespie, 2015), hackers, and political organizations (e.g., Students for Liberty, New Hampshire Liberty Forum) as a hero and one of their own. This identification is not simply fantastical. Although neither of these “hacktivists”—hackers with political ends—have explicitly nailed their politics to cyberlibertarianism, they have come close to doing so in many writings, interviews, and talks both before and after their leaking activism and have not only promoted information freedom and individual privacy (particularly via cryptography, Assange being active in cypherpunk discussions since the early nineties) but also endorsed free markets and libertarian political parties (Assange, Appelbaum, Müller-Maguhn, & Zimmerman, 2012; Greenberg, 2010; Terkel, 2013; Watson, 2013). The relentless pursuit by the U.S. government of Snowden and Assange, with the cooperation of other Western states and large corporations, along with the increasingly aggressive pursuit and harsh punishment of other hacktivists, has further emphasized to cyberlibertarians, among others, the reality of threats to online individual liberty from governments and kowtowing corporations, and thus the greater-than-ever need for the EFF and other digital liberties organizations in the United States and globally.
Anonymous and Complex Articulations with the Left
Such has been the popularity of Assange and Wikileaks among liberty-oriented hackers that, in 2011, hackers identifying with the name Anonymous went into battle against corporations (including Amazon, PayPal, Bank of America, MasterCard, and Visa) that had cut services to Wikileaks in response to political pressure, using distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that crippled (for a number of hours) many of their corporate websites. These “Operation Avenge Assange” DDoS attacks followed a swathe of other coordinated DDoS attacks (between September 2010 and early 2011) by Anonymous hackers. Going by the name Operation Payback, these attacks temporarily brought down dozens of the websites of high-profile pro-copyright and anti-digital-piracy entities around the world. Anonymous protests are often retaliatory, and this “operation” had been ignited in retaliation to DDoS attacks sponsored by several Bollywood companies on websites that did not respond to copyright-violation takedown notices. Operations Avenge Assange and Payback were only the beginning of what came to be a central practice of Anonymous: the deployment of DDoS attacks, and other communication-compromising tactics such as website defacement and stealing data, to protest the interference by powerful interests in the freedom of information and expression online.
Operations Avenge Assange and Payback were cyberlibertarian in the sense that their actions were taken in the name of online freedom of information and communication. However, DDoSing and hacking-based protest tactics that compromise the online information and communications systems of their targets have been rejected as unethical by some cyberlibertarians, including the libertarian hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow (Mills, 2012), because they violate the hacker ethic of freedom of information and communication that Anonymous claims to be fighting for. In its defense, Anonymous and its supporters would contrast its actions to that of its targets in terms of the aims and scale of the interventions—Anonymous’s actions only compromise for a limited time and in a limited way, for the purpose of making a political protest that is particularly aimed at getting media attention, the information and communication systems of powerful entities who, in contrast to Anonymous, are involved on a large scale in the permanent obstruction of freedom of information (Coleman, 2014). But the Cult of the Dead Cow and other “digitally correct” cyberlibertarian hacktivists, as Jordan (2015) aptly refers to them, stick to the line that any interference in information freedom is unethical. Digitally correct hactivists argue that hacktivist tactics should always involve securing access to information over the Internet, deploying technological hacks to either defend free flows of information and communication or to open up lines of communication where systems are compromised. Anonymous has, in fact, been involved in such “digitally correct” hacks to free Internet information blockages. For example, in support of the December 2010 to January 2011 democratic uprising in Tunisia, Anonymous hacktivists not only deployed DDoS and digital graffiti attacks on government severs but came up with a range of creative hacks to protect the flow of the activist’s digital communications from government surveillance and censorship (Jordan, 2015, pp. 177–178). Such actions add to Anonymous’s libertarian credentials, but the Anonymous “movement” cannot be pinned down as cyberlibertarian because it displays a wide range of disparate political commitments and ideological tensions (Goode, 2015). Cyberlibertarian themes are strongly evident but so, too, are liberal, socialist, and left (anticapitalist) anarchist ones (Fuchs, 2013). Left-progressive elements were brought to the fore in 2011, when persons identifying with Anonymous became early active participants of the Occupy movement and its protests against finance capital.
In fact, the discourse of many digital-liberation activists, particularly that of activists based outside the United States, has always had strong leftist elements—that is, elements that are anticapitalist as well as antistatist, promoting positive freedom (freedom to act via social resources) as well as negative freedom (freedom from interference). Here we can think of elements in the rhetoric and practice of hacktivist groups that were active well before Anonymous, including the Critical Art Ensemble (Jordan, 2015, pp. 183–185). We can also think of how “pirate parties,” which are now prominent in the political landscape of a number of countries around the world, have fought against both state-capitalist threats to freedom (e.g., against intellectual property restrictions and state-corporate censorship and surveillance) and for social equalities (e.g., for free education and a basic income) (Cammaerts, 2015).
The left elements within libertarian-oriented hacktivism have been nurtured and promoted among digital-libertarian activists located outside the United States (mostly in Europe), at least as much, if not more, as those inside the country. In contrast, cyberlibertarianism has, as indicated here, largely been a U.S. phenomenon, although its civil liberties, cypherpunk and hacktivist strands have their own particular, often even smaller l libertarian articulations in Europe and elsewhere (See European Digital Rights, https://edri.org/for a list of digital civil-liberties groups in Europe).
The critics of cyberlibertarianism or of themes and elements therein have highlighted striking problems with its logic, problems that, quickly stated, include a failure to acknowledge the central role of governments in the Internet’s development (in funding and regulatory support for Internet research, infrastructure, and governance) and in protecting rights of various kinds (neither computer hobbyists nor the market built the Internet, as cyberlibertarians often suggest); a simplistic and frequently decontextualized understanding of the relationship between society and technology, often assuming a naïve “technological solutionism,” which Morozov (2014) has detected throughout digital technology commentary; a one-dimensional conception of power that reduces power to state (and sometimes corporate) power; a naïve optimism with respect to “free markets” that misses the negative impacts on society and the environment of unregulated capitalism; a narrow and limited conception of liberty, where liberty in much cyberlibertarianism is conceived simply as individuals being free from the constraints of government and its lackeys; a narrow conception of subjectivity, as being naturally rationalist, competitive, individualist, self-interested, creative, and spontaneous; and a contradiction between assumptions about the inevitability of Internet freedom, owing, on the one hand, to a belief in the Internet routing around censorship and information wanting to be free mantras, and a concern, on the other hand, about the Internet being taken over by governments and corporations.
“Cyberlibertarianism,” however, is not in fact a singular thing. It is a name that encompasses a range of rhetorics and practices that are articulated by a multitude of actors and that are ever evolving in relation to contextual influences. This article has grouped this discursive array into a number of strands, differentiated in terms of the extent to which they emphasize civil or economic liberties, how much they wish to eliminate government, and how much faith they have in technology versus markets versus law and policy versus education to safeguard freedom on and through digital technologies. What these strands all have in common, for which they can be understood as cyberlibertarian, is an aspiration to secure cyberspace as a space of individual liberty (and thus self-governance)—that is, liberty in the sense of freedom from external constraint, specifically from authoritarian (normally understood as government or crony capitalist) interference in the flows of digital information, communication, and exchange. The model held up as to be replicated is that of the capitalist free market.
Few academic studies have looked specifically at the discourse named here as “cyberlibertarianism.” The research and writing that has been undertaken tends to be essayistic and polemical in style, largely emanating from a range of left-progressive political positions. The methodological approaches deployed in these works could be very loosely placed into two broad categories that can be referred to as critical discourse analysis and investigative journalism mixed with tinges of ethnography.
Critical-discursive-type approaches can be found in two texts that can be considered foundational to initial framings and conceptualizations of cyberlibertarianism: Winner’s (1997) Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community, which was possibly the first critique to use the term “cyberlibertarian,” and Barbrook and Cameron’s (1996) The Californian Ideology, a now classic essay that focuses on the neoliberal and associated cyberlibertarian politics of Wired magazine and Silicon Valley. Other papers of Barbrook’s, from the 1990s, also provide important insights into 1990s U.S. techno-liberation culture. These papers can be found in the archives of the Hypermedia Research Centre (http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/). More recent works undertaking broadly discourse-analytic critiques of cyberlibertarianism include those by Dahlberg (2010), who deploys both critical political economy and post-Marxist discourse theory in his analysis of Web 2.0 cyberlibertarianism, and by Golumbia (2013, 2015), whose central concern is to illuminate the danger he sees in cyberlibertarianism for left thought and politics. In-depth historical-discursive work has been undertaken on the prehistory of cyberlibertarian thought and practice by Turner (2006) and Streeter (2010). Streeter (2010) also provides the context of 1990s cyberlibertarianism by discussing, among other things, 1990s computer culture, Wired magazine, and Gore’s information superhighway.
The key investigative-journalistic- or ethnographic-type study in the 1990s is Borsook’s Cyberselfish, which provides an insider examination of Silicon Valley’s 1990s libertarian culture. Rheingold’s (1993) iconic story, again more journalistic than academic, of the WELL online community provides another reflective insider account of early digital-liberation thought and practice, but this time from the sympathetic perspective of a digital-frontiers enthusiast. A third investigative-journalistic-type account, Sterling’s now classic 1993 book The Hacker Crackdown, provides useful insights into the emergence of libertarian practices and values associated with early 1990s hacker culture, as well as the state repression of hacking against which the digital civil-liberties strand of cyberlibertarianism developed and the EFF formed. Given that both Rheingold and Sterling are at least cyberlibertarian sympathizers, if not cyberlibertarians themselves, their work could be read as not only research about cyberlibertarianism but as objects of such research.
Moving away from investigative journalism, Jordan’s (2001) rigorous academic work also touches on, and provides valuable insights into, the cyberlibertarian elements associated with hacking and hacktivism in the 1990s and early 2000s. Jordan’s work has been extended into the 2010s through the discourse and content analysis of Goode (2015) and Fuchs (2013), who together identify cyberlibertarianism as a, and possibly the most, significant ideological influence on the politico ethos of Anonymous. Useful insights into the most recent and radical libertarian tendencies of hacktivist practices is, once again, provided by investigative reporting with ethnographic tinges, such as the work of Greenberg (2010, 2013).
The current dearth of rigorous academic studies specifically examining phenomena named “cyberlibertarian” means that there are all sorts of research questions and directions waiting exploration. Possibly the most urgent attention needs to be paid to the influence of cyberlibertarian discourse in spheres outside specific think tanks, civil liberties groups, high-tech companies, and hacker culture, including its influence on education, politics and activism, government (social, economic, and communications) policy, and social-cultural thought and practices more generally.
Archives of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) can be found on its website, which is a significant source for understanding its past and present activities. A list of European digital civil-liberties groups and associated archives can be found at https://edri.org/. The think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) closed on October 1, 2000, but archives of many of its writings can be found at http://www.pff.org/. The website TechFreedom.com and the Technology Liberation Front blog (techliberation.com) are central nodes of, and resource hubs for, research into post-PFF economic-liberty-focused cyberlibertarianism, offering publicly available textual materials and audiovisual archives of policy papers, press releases, think pieces, polemical posts, and conference presentations from 2000 onward.
Examining all these sites and archives also highlights the laws related to Internet regulation that have been enacted and proposed since the 1990s. These laws provide insights into the identity of cyberlibertarianism because they form the main “enemy” against which cyberlibertarianism, and its institutional formations like the EFF and the PFF, was constituted.
Publicly available archives of Wired magazine (1993–) and its offshoot, the Web magazine Hotwired (1994–1999)—which have been responsible for publishing many cyberlibertarian-leaning thinkers and articles—can be found online, particularly on the Wired website.
Publicly available texts and audiovisual materials of various U.S. libertarian organizations, including Reason magazine and the Cato Institute, provide very informative contextual background to cyberlibertarianism, especially to the market-focused strand, and some of its materials are directly related to, and constitutive of, this strand.
The cypherpunk mailing list and archives are available at https://www.cypherpunks.to/list/.
An excellent introduction to the historical background, key references, practices, and (often libertarian-oriented) ideology of cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists is the Cyphernomicon, available at http://www.cypherpunks.to/faq/cyphernomicron/cyphernomicon.html. It was written by Timothy C. May, one of the movement’s central figures, as a long FAQ (frequently answered questions) document to the cypherpunk electronic mailing list and was first published in 1994.
The articulation of various forms of cyberlibertarianism can be readily found in a plethora of other rhetoric and practice freely available online, including in libertarian political-party manifestos, policies, and conference presentations that promote cyberlibertarianism, as well as a number of radio shows; the writings, interviews, and speeches from well-known Silicon Valley cyberlibertarians such as Jimmy Wales and Peter Thiel; and the writings of key independent cyberlibertarian-oriented thinkers such as Bruce Sterling (1993).
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