By Doc Searls
February 22, 1996

This essay is featured in Dave Winer's 24 Hours of Democracy.
You can find links to other essays here.


Liberty on steroids
No limits = no majorities
Politics is a side show
Power from the people

Liberty on Steroids

Suddenly we're all Libertarians. And why shouldn't we be? The Web is the most libertarian medium ever created. It's the first press whose freedom is virtually infinite. On the Web one's power to publish moves so far beyond the scope of the First Amendment that any laws Congress makes are as binding as stoplights in space.

In fact, space may be the best metaphor we have for the Internet. Think about it. In cyberspace, you can teleport your presence anywhere in an instant. Great mass has little if any leverage (either economic or political). The universe seems boundless.

The only laws that bind in cyberspace are technical. The Internet depends utterly on TCP/IP protocols, T-3 links and transmissive properties of electricity and light. But the Internet is oblivious to the Exon-Coats Communications Decency Act, which Senator Exon blindly calls "a step toward better assuring our kids a chance to travel safely through cyberspace."

Plenty is being said about how this amendment to the Telecom Bill (which became law on February 8th) is unconstitutional. But more needs to be said about how it is simply unreal. The most it can do is scare a few liverless publishers back into the dark.

The cyberworld as we know it is the product of infinite liberty, boundless enterprise and limitless opportunity for everybody who participates. It is where Adam Smith and Karl Marx finally meet: a place where everybody "is perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man or order of men," and a system that easily undermines the coercive weight of industrial mass.

Markets are conversations, and the Internet takes simple human conversation -- the process by which people learn things from each other -- and removes all limits to the ability of anybody, anywhere, to gain knowledge from anybody else. And to do business with them.

In movie Patton, the General looks on a smoking battlefield and reflects on his love of war. "Compared to war," he says, "all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance."

With the Internet have we created the opposite of a battlefield and the opposite of war? Do we finally have an environment where the opportunities for cooperation and engagement are as constructive as war is destructive?

No limits = no majorities

The difference is limits, or the absence of them.

Battlegrounds are finite places. Their finitude makes them worth fighting over. But cyberspace is virtually infinite. One company does not always succeed at another's expense.

This has interesting political as well as economic implications. Because democracies operate within limits, and majorities rule. Really: what's a majority on the Web, which expands by thousands of sites per day? And even if you can find a majority, how can it prevail?

The Web succeeds precisely because majority rules are absent from it. Those who have made the Web what it is today are not representative of the terrestrial world, and comprise only a tiny percentage of the terrestrial population. They succeeded as a minority, not a majority. In fact, they succeeded mostly as individuals, small groups and independent enterprises. Not as political dependencies.

It is quite possible that the Exon-Coats Act, which passed the Senate on a vote of 84-16, represents the democratically expressed will of The People. It may even be possible that the majority of people who inhabit cyberspace (including all those who only send email and look at the occasional Web site) agree with Senator Exon that what most people would call "smut" is readily accessible to children, and ought somehow to be curtailed.

(And don't think it isn't easy to run across "dirty" content by accident. Searches for innocuous words or phrases will often dredge up all kinds of material. Try "pretty dress" on AltaVista and see what happens.)

Perhaps democracy is working just fine, and those of us with blue ribbons and black pages make a mistake when we call for democratic action to "save" the Web. We're already seeing democratic action, and it's not a pretty sight. But neither is a lot of what we seek to protect. We need to face the democratic implications of this fact.

Fortunately, cyberspace does not welcome democracy. Rather it welcomes three of the most civilizing forces we can name: liberty, community and enterprise. In cyberspace, we can build communities of interest and practice that create, through effort and error, solutions to social problems as they arise.

Clearly, something does need to be done. And, of course, it will be done, without any government "help." With little effort, people who publish sexually explicit material on the Web can identify it in ways that allow search engines and surfers alike to navigate around them, or to address them in some purposeful way that does not abridge anybody's rights to free speech.

And it will be in the interest of those publishers to recognize the social and economic advantages of flagging the nature of their content.

Politics is a side show

On public radio recently, Jesse Jackson lamented the mistake made by the civil rights movement when it put too much faith in politics and too little in economics. He spoke truth.

But in truth most of us make the same mistake when we think that what happens in politics matters more to our lives than what happens in business.

Think about it: who matters more to Silicon Valley -- Lewis Platt and Gil Amelio or Anna Eshoo and Tom Campbell?

Sure, politics is important. We need government to do what only government can do. Market forces won't protect the ozone layer or old growth redwoods. But on the whole government tends to get in the way -- not only by making laws we don't need, but also by borrowing interest that would be better spent on subjects that really matter.

Tonight on the radio, about 50% of the news was about the Republican primaries. In every respect, the reports were nothing more than sportscasts, and their subjects had about as much real significance as the NBA quarterfinals.

It should be plain that we have a government of, by, and for the groups that pay for campaigns. Bob Dole may be the straightest shooter in the GOP, but his primary employer is the NRA, which over the years has made him their number one recipient of campaign contributions. And he has delivered for them.

This system will break down, of course. Not because campaign finance reform will restore democracy to The People; but because The People now have The Web. And there are people on the Web who are making it their business to expose exactly to whom each politician has sold shares of his or her soul.

Power from the people

There is no overstating the degree to which The Net will change everything. It will subsume the phone system, the post office, most of the media, and more things than we have time or space to list here. Through The Net, both companies and politicians will be far more accountable than they are today.

The main effect of the Telecom Bill, and the censoring amendments it contains, is visible right here. We -- an enterprising libertarian community -- are busy informing the world about what we know best and the world has only begun to learn.

But eventually the whole world will be on The Net, one way or another. Then "we the people" will make the world a much different place than it is today. Whether in business or politics, it will be power from the people.

When that happens, maybe even our lawmakers will finally stop looking to government as a way to solve every problem.

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