Marc Hochstein is the editor of CoinDesk.
The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a newsletter of order information distributed every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.
“You do not have sovereignty where we come together, we do not have an elected government, we are not likely to have one …”
The “we” that John Perry Barlow mentioned in his 1996 essay titled “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” was an emerging global community of Internet users. But you would have a hard time finding a subset of this community that took the ethos to heart more than the pioneers of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. For the best or for the worst.
Barlow, who died last week at the age of 70, was a key figure among digital rights advocates, one of the first advocates of an Internet without permission – something that users consider today as acquired. when he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
A long-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow envisioned cyberspace as “a world in which everyone can enter without the privilege or prejudice of race, economic power, military force or place of birth.” or his beliefs, however singular they may be. “
While Barlow’s work focused on the freedom of expression and confidentiality of communications, the principles that he advocated probably animated bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, supposed to resist censorship, to be anonymous and open to all.
For example, anyone with an active Internet connection, no matter who or where it is, can download the basic software and use a Bitcoin wallet to transfer value to someone who is not. Another who has one. are. No intermediary can veto the transaction. Similarly, anybody can contribute code to an open-source project; other members of the community will accept or refuse their work based on merit, not status or credentials.
“In some ways, the best bitcoin and blockchain technology in general adheres to this vision of personal freedom,” said Patrick Murck, a member of the Harvard Klein Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Law School. .
However, Barlow was not Pollyanna, and while being optimistic about the potential of digital technologies to improve people’s lives, he acknowledged the disadvantages and warned against “good or bad” binaries . think about it.
“You design the architecture of freedom and slavery, both, in these tools derived from the blockchain and other similar things,” Barlow told a rally of Stanford University technologists and contractors in 2015. “What you do and the ways you do it will have long-term effects.”
This was an important message for the community, said Primavera De Filippi, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and at the Berkman Center. “You can not assume that simply because technology is disintercultural and transnational, it can not be used to strengthen existing social, political and economic structures,” she said.
The technology “is going to be used by all stakeholders to promote their own interests,” Filippi added, noting that much of the investment in blockchain software comes from from financial institutions, the same actors that Bitcoin was looking for. derive.
While it was good for companies to improve transparency and simplify the reconciliation of ledgers, Barlow’s decision was that “less we invest in time and effort in building these applications from the point of view of civil society, no one else will, “she said.
I had the privilege of attending the Stanford conference, and I will never forget what Barlow said about the value of online anonymity.
“I feel the same about anonymity as me about guns,” said the cattle rancher and former Republican. “It can be useful to have in the closet if the government escapes control.”
The worlds collide
Speaking of governments, Bitcoin and his descendants tested the limits of independence that Barlow said for cyberspace.
The basic protocols are not and probably can not be regulated by a state, but ramps of access, where fiduciary currency is converted to encryption and back, can and are. Similarly, Bitcoin addresses are pseudonyms, but licensed cryptographic exchanges require users to identify themselves.
And while initial offerings may solicit funds from users around the world, they are considered to be subject to the securities laws of the time of the Depression, as Jay Clayton, President of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The common denominator is that the “tired giants of flesh and steel”, as Barlow has described them, tend to reaffirm their authority at the borders between cyberspace and space, where the new decentralized networks affect centralized governments.
“If you build a system that is really attached to the existing institutions of the old world, you will be bound by the rules of the old world,” said Mr. Murck. “That’s where we see regulation.” On the other hand, “nobody says you can not run a bitcoin node,” an endogenous bitcoin activity.
Today’s Web 3.0 projects, such as Filecoin, Blockstack and Sia, seek to create networks that would truly live entirely in the new world, noted Mr. Murck, but their success remains at home. determine.
Regardless of the question of whether it is possible to create an autonomous virtual domain where the ‘legal concepts of ownership, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply “, some would say that it is even desirable .
These skeptics will point to the cruelest uses of cryptocurrency, such as ransomware or assassination markets – not to mention online abominations in general, such as porn revenge and blackmail sites – as evidence that without regulation, a free Internet inevitably degenerates into a Hobbesian war against all.
But, without endorsing any of these vile activities, we must weigh them against the advantages for humanity: to allow like-minded people to form communities without regard to geography; to open access to knowledge for those who are prone to learning without having them sit in a classroom six hours a day; to allow peers from different continents to trade with each other as easily as they stood face to face in a bazaar.
I suspect that the cost-benefit analysis would squarely favor an open Internet – and an open financial system.
So, that Barlow’s words continue to be a source of inspiration for the builders of a new digital economy. Be careful, though. These giants of flesh and steel can be tired, but they have guns.
Image by John Perry Barlow via Wikipedia.
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