A Citizen of the Internet – first thoughts

9 December, 2010

“A constitutional amendment was offered to create a new fourth branch of government for American citizens whose ‘primary residences were virtual networks’.” – Bruce Sterling, Distraction

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. 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.” – John Perry Barlow

“The general concept is simple, there are people that want to send a message that the Internet is a sovereign territory” - Barrett Lyon

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I do not trust the government of the country of my birth. I do not feel any loyalty to them, or any other country, whatsoever. At best, I see them as an especially powerful mafia I have to kowtow to and buy services from. The closest thing to patriotism I have ever felt is to the Internet.

So, why can’t I take Internet as my nationality?

Barlow’s Declaration of the the Independence of Cyberspace is now nearly fifteen years old – which coincidentally is about how long I’ve been online. The internet was a very different beastie back then.

In the last couple of days, the fallout from the Wikileaks affair has spread far and wide. Julian Assange is in a British jail on what even skeptical observers note is a rather enthusiastic prosecution of an alleged sexual assault charge. Few doubt the real reason he is there is pressure from the US government. Ranking members of that government have called for his assassination. Wikileaks has been hit by multiple DDoS attacks – and, perhaps inevitably, Anonymous have responded with a wave of DDoS attacks of their own against targets which have supported the pressure on Wikileaks and Assange (from Paypal, Mastercard and Visa to the Swiss bank who froze his assets).

On the same day as Assange was arrested, the US Dept of State sent out a press notice, thus:

The United States is pleased to announce that it will host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in 2011, from May 1 – May 3 in Washington, D.C. UNESCO is the only UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press.

…New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.

I’m not quite sure what is worse – the staggering hypocrisy of this, or that the US think we’ll not notice that, or that they simply don’t care.

My own country’s government – run by a weak coalition government which is acting like they have a landslide mandate – is cutting vital services to the poor and disadvantaged to pay for deficits caused by their banking pals’ having been caught running the largest Ponzi scheme in human history… and their representatives have the gall to blame those poor and disadvantaged for the financial mess. Students are taking to the streets in protest. They are not my rulers, except by virtue of monopoly of violence and general habit.

When we’re at the point where The Economist refers to Anonymous as “a 24-hour Athenian democracy” I think it’s time to at least consider the idea. (Although, as my esteemed colleague David Forbes points out, that also means unruly mobs…)

There’s plenty of precedent for dual-citizenship (such as my being both a citizen of UK and EU), as well as transnational exemptions based on residential status – think diplomatic immunity. (And if ever there was a system that sums up the idea of privilege overriding local law, it’s diplomatic immunity… though as a quick-and-dirty way to get Internet Citizens protected, granting all such citizens diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention would do nicely! After all, every Internet Citizen is potentially a post-state actor unto themselves…)

There’s also precedent in such ideas as the World Citizen aspect of the Bahá’í Faith, as well as libertarian proposals for independent states such as Sealand.

Citizenship implies abiding by, and contributing to, a social contract. Doing Your Bit. I have to tell you I’m far happier doing that for the internet than for any state. It’s rules, customs and rituals make more intuitive sense to me than any state I have ever heard of. And yes, I would cheerfully give up my right to vote in the UK and EU for the rights and responsibilities of Internet Citizenship. (Dear David Cameron – that’s what a Big Society really fucking means.)

(Of course there’s intrinsic problems with being Citizen Internet. As I was writing this, I had an ISP issue that required multiple reboots of router & 2 hours on tech support. The physical infrastructure of the internet is indeed reliant on meatspace hardware located in post-Westphalian states. But then again, a huge amount of the wealth and culture of those states is now internet-based… some form of detente is surely negotiable. And perhaps the Wikileaks fallout is the first ugly step towards such a detente.)

(I’m also very aware that saying The Internet is a gross oversimplification of a whole bunch of different, sometimes competing, cultures. A key issue would be finding some common ground among all users – from attitudes to censorship to trolling to vandalism. But having a set of ground rules all citizens can accord to is surely the first necessary step for a citizenship, yes?)

The single biggest issue with declaring the internet as a sovereign territory is that nation-states have nothing to gain, and much to lose, from this. But then again, that doesn’t make it unthinkable – those nations once also had a lot to lose by making slavery illegal. (I can imagine quite similar arguments from them, too – “We own that! You can’t take our property!”) The quote from Bruce Sterling’s political SF novel Distraction comes from near the end of the book, after a post-financial crash US has to negotiate with a new power within it’s borders, nomadic tribes who conduct most of their social admin and political apparatus online (think Whuffie on steroids). I can easily imagine circumstances where the US would have to come to an understanding with non-state (or rather, post-state) actors. Another quote from Distraction goes, “Politics is the art of reconciling aspirations”.

OK – so let’s assume through some miracle the Powers That Be allow Internet to be recognised as a nationality. There’s a rotating crowd of randomly selected Anons sitting at the UN or something. What does that actually do?

One advantage I can see is that all those Blue Laws which use the phrase “based on the prevailing standards of the community” go away. My community is the Internet. Our standard for sexual freedom is /b/. (Obvious exception – and perhaps a necessary precondition – is zero-tolerance of actual child pornography and images of actual rape.) I also imagine that property and privacy laws would develop rather differently… the most important part for me is that those who wish not to play the same games as their home state have somewhere to call home. It would also be somewhere (for a rather virtual definition of ‘somewhere’, of course) where organisation to survive failed states and other antiquated tribes can be accomplished.

No doubt existing state actors would cause all kinds of problems for the Internet Citizen – governments tend to do that. But then again, they do that between each other – as the Wikileaks cables clearly show.

And for the states which claim to be democracies, it’ll show one possible result of truly sharing power among the people.

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NB – This isn’t a working proposal. It’s not even really a manifesto, yet. It’s perhaps just a naive dream… but it’s one that obsesses me increasingly. If anyone has useful ideas to contribute to this, sing out!


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