Notopia, Part 3 – Crypto Rebels and Pirate Utopia

5 mins read

By Fredrik Thorslund

This article is the third in a three-part series exploring the notion of utopia, the human search for a perfect society – and specifically – those who have tried and failed to establish them. You can read the first article here and the second article here.

The story begins with the Telecommunications Act issued by the Clinton administration in 1996. In fact, it stretches far beyond ’96, but for the sake of this subject, let’s begin there. The act was primarily intended to deregulate the broadcasting market, but in reality, it struck much broader across the regulatory body surrounding media and telecommunications in the US. One of its most controversial features was the Communications Decency Act, under Title V, which effectively criminalized the transmission of obscene or indecent material to children. The anti-indecency provisions, having effectively upset most free speech advocates in the country, were struck down hard by the Supreme Court in the famous Reno v. ACLU-ruling of 1997 – as they were found to be in violation of the First Amendment – but the obscenity provisions, along with rest of the Telecommunications Act, survived.

The interesting thing about the Telecommunications Act and the Reno v. ACLU-ruling, however, was not that it regulated the use of dirty words in broadcasting media, but its scope of application. It was the first major legal schism in the US to concern the use of the Internet.

Of course, in 1996, the Internet was a wildly different place from now. Mark Zuckerberg was just entering puberty, Google was a Stanford research project and the first iPhone was more than a decade away. On the frontlines of the Internet were an aristocracy of mostly progressive techno-libertarians – the so called digerati (the digital literati). These people were not particularly keen on government interference, and if the indecency provisions left a bad taste in the mouths of the old fashioned free speech advocates, imagine how the legislation resonated with this new, libertarian netocracy.

The regulation attempts were seen as a hostile move from the state, and it quickly triggered immunological responses from some of the self appointed guardians of the web. Allegorical to the shooting of Franz Ferdinand or the Boston Tea Party, cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow responded to the regulation attempts by publishing ”A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”, in which he challenged the US government’s claim of jurisdiction over the Internet. With the now iconic opening sentences, the declaration stated:

”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.”

Barlow, with a growing number of sympathizers, argued that the Internet was a place beyond the legitimate reach of any government or authority, as jurisdiction stems from the control over a physical territory. The Internet was something else – an immaterial free-zone, governed by none. As this seed of thought took root, a new movement begun to form within the Internet community – the crypto-anarchist movement

”Crypto-anarchism”, etymologically, derives from ”crypto-fascist”; a pejorative used in the 60’s to describe someone who secretly holds fascist beliefs under a veil of political correctness. It was mostly as a pun that the prefix was reinvented in the late 80’s, when Tim C. May published ”The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” in a mailing list for online activists called the Cypherpunks. By now, of course, ”crypto” referred not to any wish to conceal one’s agenda – but to cryptography.

May and the Cypherpunks were convinced that modern encryption technology would cause a revolutionary powershift. Communication and business transactions would be conducted in clandestinity, made anonymous by strongly encrypted channels, far away from the reach of any government, prosecutor or tax authority. Decentralized, unregulated cryptocurrencies would enable a whole new faceless economy, where systems of rating and reputation would guide buyers toward trustworthy sellers. In the void of governing structures, spontaneous order would reign. Much like the use of barbed wire had once enabled the concept of private property in the old West, these crypto-anarchists believed that encryption technologies would once and for all ensure anyone the right to absolute anonymity within the realm of the Internet.

Just as the crypto-anarchists foresaw the recent rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, anonymization software such as the Tor browser, and dark markets like Silkroad, they also foresaw the objections that would rise from states and ideological opponents. National security threats, drug deals, child pornography, tax evasion, contract killings; no one denied that these things would find their rightful place in the crypto-anarchists utopia too. The point, however, was notwasn’t that this was a moral dilemma to overcome, but that any moral dilemma was irreleant. Crypto-anarchy, at this point, was not a political objective, but an inevitability:

”(…) only recently have computer networks and personal computers attained sufficient speed to make the ideas practically realizable. And the next ten years will bring enough additional speed to make the ideas economically feasible and essentially unstoppable.”

Tim C. May, ”The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto”, 1992

Looking back, not ten years but a quarter of a century later, things didn’t turn out as May had imagined. The right technology has long since been invented, and the infrastructure for the faceless economy is right there in front of us – hell, even the Bitcoin price index is higher than ever before – but somehow the Internet is not yet the anarcho-futuristic place that the 90’s promised. The largest country in the world is still struggling with a heavily censored Internet. All over the free world, electronic surveillance has intensified under shifting pretexts. In the US, any hopes for strong net neutrality laws to protect open data flows withered away with the Trump inauguration. 

No, the Internet as an unregulated sanctuary is still conspicuous by its absence. And as the last outpost – as the last place left shielded from the grasp of a state, in a world that no longer leaves any land untouched or untaxed – should the anarchist’s utopia now de declared dead, too?

What of the anarchist dream, the Stateless state, the Commune, the autonomous zone with duration, a free society, a free culture? Are we to abandon that hope in return for some existentialist acte gratuit?

The rhetorical question was asked by Hakim Bey, philosopher and crypto-anarchist partisan. Bey, of course, didn’t believe it to be so. He even argued that the whole idea of a ”permanent autonomous zone” free from government interference was too much to hope for – whether in the material world or on the Internet. Instead, Bey advocated the establishments of ”temporary autonomous zone” – pop-up spheres of autonomy that would live on as long as they went unnoticed by the state. He likened these zones to the mythical pirate utopias of the 18th century – like the legendary Libertalia – where, on secret islands all over the world, pirates would gather, trade and establish lawless colonies. Like pirate utopias, free enclaves would still emerge within the vastness of the Internet, at least for a while, albeit the omnipresence of the state. Maybe the dream was not dead; maybe it was just marked by misdirected ambitions.

And for the sake of conclusion, maybe this is true in a broader sense too. Utopias, whether a digital free-zone, a 19th century garden of Eden, or an architectonic masterplan for the contemporary city, can never exist but for a brief moment in time, if at all. At best, they constitute a temporary distortion on the EKG-tracing of history; an elusive high for those involved. They are fun while they last, but they never really do.

By Fredrik Thorslund

Cover: Markus Ireland

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