The End of Cyberspace

Internet theorists and companies once declared themselves free of nations and governance, but that’s all over now.

A person cleans up in a room full of computers and neon lights.
Peter Mueller / Reuters

In the most utopian statement of what the internet might be, the late John Perry Barlow laid out the claim that cyberspace was free. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” Barlow wrote in 1996. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s statement drew on—and advanced—California technologists’ libertarian streak and the countercultural idiom developed through the 1970s by the more practical Bay Area hippies and radicals. Few people talked like this even by the mid-aughts, but the strain of thought lived on in word and in deed.

In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that online retailers didn’t have to collect sales tax unless they had a physical location in a given state. That meant two decades during which Amazon didn’t have to collect sales tax in most places—a monumental shrugging off of sovereignty.

Even as late as 2013, the former State Department staffer Jared Cohen and the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt could write, “The internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” But it was for them, as it was for Barlow, a good anarchy. “The most significant impact of the spread of communication technologies will be the way that they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals,” Cohen and Schmidt wrote.

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.

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.”

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.

So, day by day, regulators are clawing back the cyberspace into reality. It hurts, if at one time you glimpsed liberatory potential in the new world of the internet.

But as cyberspace breaks down as an organizing concept for what people do with their internet devices, it opens space for rekindling the concept of what the internet should be, normatively—not just what it is, actually. And this time around, the just-trust-us philosophy of “don’t be evil” probably won’t cut it, for tech workers or the citizens known as users.