The name cyberspace became as hokey as Space Jam, but the idea of the internet it named retained power for decades. It’s only in the past few years that innumerable little events have brought about the end of the idea of cyberspace as something fundamentally independent from the terrestrial world. Everywhere I look now, the structural change in how governments and their citizens think about the internet is apparent.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has renegotiated its settlement with Elon Musk over his tweeting, because his tweeting, though it occurs online, is still material to his companies’ fortunes. The Federal Trade Commission is expected to levy a 10-figure fine on Facebook, for which the company has already set aside $3 billion. The agency’s previous record for a fine was $22.5 million, two orders of magnitude smaller, but finally in the same universe as a major tech company’s quarterly revenue. Then there is the internet shutdown that the Sri Lankan government ordered in the wake of terrorist attacks in the country. In the old days, a government interfering with social media would have brought condemnation. This week, Wired ran a story under the headline “Don’t Praise the Sri Lankan Government for Blocking Facebook,” because turning the internet off didn’t seem like such a bad idea to many people.
Read: When a country bans social media
Antitrust law has roared back into congressional consciousness as representatives and senators realize that companies with dominant market positions could be violating it, even though they operate on the internet. European regulators designed a new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation, and even California (et tu, Brute?) lassoed the tech industry with some privacy rules. Last year, the Supreme Court reversed itself on that Amazon sales-tax decision, roughly around the time that Jeff Bezos became “the richest man in modern history.”
Read: Jeff Bezos’s $150 billion fortune is a policy failure
This is what it looks like to watch a paradigm fall apart. Cyberspace was a way of thinking about the radical changes brought about by the internet. It gave internet companies, regular people, odd collectives, weird technologies, and other entities space to create something transnational, individualistic, largely unregulated, and free (as in speech and sometimes as in beer).
But over time, cyberspace became dominated by a few large companies. Governments realized their laws were being contravened every day. The model of a globally interconnected society that did not need regulation or the interference of bureaucrats simply did not work.
Servers are located in a place. Internet tubes run places. There is no absolute firewall between the corporations in a place and the government in a place—as Edward Snowden demonstrated, and as China shows. The radical shift toward individual liberty that seemed like such a sure thing to Google’s Schmidt or during Hillary Clinton’s “internet freedom” agenda did not materialize. The internet turned out to be the perfect place from which to launch attacks on democratic elections and electorates, whether the culprits were foreign governments or simply scammers. The supposed “home of Mind” was run through by trolls and bots. People were railroaded into a few platforms of enormous power, fed into enormous surveillance machines, mined for attention, guided by algorithms, all while they contributed to the radical inequality of the broader society.