Even this letter, for all its condemnation, never mentions Hillary Clinton. It never even asks people to vote against Trump. “We stand against Donald Trump’s divisive candidacy and want a candidate who embraces the ideals that built America’s technology industry,” say its signatories. That other candidate remains nameless.
In February of last year, the Federal Communications Commission affirmed that net neutrality was the law of the land. The decision closed an unusually public fight (at least for a piece of media regulation) that involved public statements from Barack Obama, a high-profile op-ed from the FCC chair, and a viral John Oliver rant. Throughout, Silicon Valley leaders were nearly unanimous in their support for net neutrality.
Mat Honan, bureau chief of BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau, saw the net-neutrality victory as the end of an era. “The internet is now meat-and-potato politics, like gas prices and health care costs,” he wrote. Going forward, the web would change and be changed by “the quotidian stuff of City Hall press conferences, empty congressional speeches, vision and demagoguery alike, and high-pressure, high-stakes regulatory action.”
Computing technology no longer held a special place as an unalloyed good, in other words. It was just politics now.
For Honan, this represented the ascension of the internet as a political force. All Americans care about the web now, so all Americans will assert a stake in its governance. But it’s also possible to see net neutrality as the last easy piece of techno-political infrastructure. It was the final policy measure that a vast majority of Silicon Valley stakeholders saw as an absolute need, the last element of a bipartisan program to create and secure the modern internet.
In that light, the internet is just as likely to become part of our “normal” politics—but in a darker way. Both libertarians and progressives have long grabbed onto the internet as a way to route around partisan politics. In the same essay where Thiel seemingly grieved the fact that women can vote, he highlighted cyberspace as a bright spot for libertarians.
“In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states,” he said. Liberals saw the same potential in the web during that era—they might have even found themselves agreeing with Thiel, who wrote, “one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of [American partisan] politics.”
Together, that alliance of liberals and libertarians have built the web together. But the operative word in that sentence is have. In the years to come, they shall find themselves in disagreement over the web’s—and the world’s—direction. They will ask politicians to solve their problems and, over time, align themselves with parties. And then the web really will belong to normal politics.