James Boyle


I’m going to talk today about the Internet in relation to political theory and, in particular, to libertarianism.

Anyone who has spent time on the Net or who has read the writings of Internet gurus knows that the default set of political assumptions on the Internet is a libertarian set of arguments. In fact, if you had to come up with a technology-or more expansively, a space-that makes libertarianism attractive, it would be the Internet. The Net mirrors some of the more popular libertarian images of the good society. The Net was formed through a relatively decentralized and anarchic process. The state certainly played a huge role in getting the ball rolling by funding research, setting up precursor networks, funding the creation of open standards, and so on. But in spite, or perhaps because, of this state involvement, the Internet developed without a single master plan or scheme. Thus, the way in which the Internet was formed can be seen as an example of the kind of spontaneous, decentralized ordering that is very attractive to libertarian thinking.

Indeed this decentralized process of development is one of the reasons why the term “information superhighway” is so inappropriate. The “information superhighway” conjures up a structured world, the kind of Eisenhower world in which the state designs and builds the entire system according to a central master plan. This image is a complete contrast to the decentralized character of the Net and, for libertarians, the unplanned organic nature of its growth is precisely the key to its success.