Libertarians and the Internet

The bell is ringing

The first time I heard about libertarians was thanks to Clint Eastwood. In 1986, he wanted to build a small house in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, a beautiful Californian village (see photo) shown in the film Play Misty for Me. His efforts clashed with the town’s bureaucratic government, so he decided to act. He ran for mayor and won with 72% of votes. In his 2 years as mayor, he made it easier to build and renovate homes, a car park was built for tourists, historical enclaves were saved from speculators, and a children’s annexe was created at the library. I remember thinking that he was not only a tough guy on screen but also in real life. The article offhandedly mentioned that Mr. Eastwood’s political preferences were “libertarian”. I had no idea what that meant and I paid no further attention to it.

Sea Lion Point

A few years later I read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond. Eric was a real hacker (not self-proclaimed, but recognized by his peers), author of fetchmail and A Brief History of Hackerdom. His essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, was instrumental in making the open source movement popular. Unlike Richard Stallman, Raymond did not justify open source for moral reasons but for efficiency (“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“). Seven months after its publication, Netscape announced that it would liberate its browser’s code under the MPL license and place it under the auspices of the Mozilla Foundation. A code which, years later, has ended up, among other places, in the browser that I use now to write this. Eric Hahn, Executive Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer of Netscape, acknowledged that The Cathedral and the Bazaar had been a key factor in his decision to liberate the code and thanked Eric Raymond for that:

On behalf of everyone at Netscape, I want to thank you for helping us get to this point in the first place. Your thinking and writings were fundamental inspirations to our decision.

Eric Raymond had changed the world. And he was a libertarian.


I decided to do some research. I’ll tell you what I found out: libertarians state that individuals must be free to do what they want for themselves and for their property, provided that they don’t infringe on other people’s liberty. They advocate for a non-interventionist government: government is necessary but, if its actions go further than penalizing people’s infringement of other people’s liberty, it is violating our civil liberties. Freedom of expression, sexual option, drugs, religion, freedom of trade, the right to bear arms, as you wish. They actively oppose any form of governmental restriction of civil liberties. They accept economic inequalities as a logical consequence of people’s liberties (some actions are beneficial and others are not).

Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau believed in the existence of natural rights that were transmitted from individuals to the government. They called this transmission the “social contract” (remember your school days ;) ) and, as a result of that contract, the individuals transferred the monopoly of the use of force to the sovereign state. In the US, the libertarians have been and are a minority movement compared with the Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats say that they don’t remember signing any contract. The Republicans say that “if you don’t like our social contract (the Constitution and law), go to another country“. The problem is that, according to the libertarians, there are no countries without a social contract, without reduced liberties, without…except the Internet.

And then came the Internet

Internet was perfect. The libertarian dream. A place everywhere and nowhere. With an influence on nations but out of governments’ reach and their desire to control. A virgin territory where they could demonstrate the power of their theories. John Perry-Barlow said it very clearly in 1996 in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

If you’ve never read the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, stop reading this big fat post right now and start reading it. It’s a wonderful, ingenious and powerful document.

Libertarians everywhere

Barlow is a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and he is not the only one. Other recognized libertarians are John Gillmore, Esther Dyson and Mitch Kapor. Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia, recognizes himself as Objectivist, a philosophical system developed by Ayn Rand, an influential figure in the libertarian movement. The EFF has close links with Creative Commons, Boing Boing and many other things considered cool.

You may think that the libertarian movement is present only in the hard core of the Internet conscious, in the not-for-profit circles. But look closely at the Internet for-profit heavyweights. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is a libertarian, as he often repeats in The Perfect Store. In fact, eBay has developed a powerful lobby machinery to avoid government interference in its auctions (see How eBay Makes Regulations Disappear). The founders of PayPal were libertarian: Peter Thiel (CEO), Max Levchin (CTO), David O. Sack (VP of Strategy) and Eric M. Jackson (VP of Marketing). Their reasoning was as follows: corrupt (or simply clumsy) governments steal their people’s wealth via inflation and currency devaluations (Russia, the Asian contagion in 2003, etc.). Average citizens are defenseless because they don’t have the opportunity to create an offshore account with which to escape from those tactics. PayPal was created as a mechanism to allow the poor to decide what currency they would use to save their money, regardless of where they lived. PayPal was created by libertarians to avoid the Argentine corralito. (Source: The PayPal Wars, The Money Shot, Venture Voice Podcast #38 and Who Killed PayPal).

Final thoughts

I don’t consider myself a libertarian but I admire several of them and I sympathize with their obsession to place individual liberties in the beginning and center of everything. I believe (I can’t reason this, it’s in my guts) that government interventionism is excessive. If social government has ever existed, it has gone too far. I’m pessimistic about the real possibility of redirecting the situation: we have given too much power to the world’s governments to be able to recover it. The system now works on its own, it does not need us.

Internet is an enormous opportunity. The new world. Many movements and philosophies (even religions in the future?) see it as a new opportunity to start from scratch. A virgin territory to mold according to their idea of what is right. Meanwhile, world governments and offline companies are shitting their pants…Do you think I’m exaggerating? Think twice. Why do you think that the US resisted as it did losing control of the ICANN? Why is there such a stir when companies or governments try to control the new world’s access doors? How is it possible that the fathers of the Internet (Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf), usually so moderate, express themselves so emphatically these days? A battle is being waged. And we want to participate.

By David Blanco
Saved in: Internet | No comments » | 23 June 2006

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