PDI Workshop Series: A Brief History of Cyberlibertarianism, 1989-1999

Jonathan Pace

April 30th, 2019

Note: This workshop is open only to faculty and scholars at Stanford University and other academic institutions, not the general public. 

A Brief History of Cyberlibertarianism, 1989-1999

Cyberlibertarianism is the idea that internet technology should never be regulated and should never be the object of institutional involvement, especially state involvement. This paper traces the circulation of cyberlibertarianism throughout the technology community from 1989 to 1999 and offers an account of internet history that operates as the formative backdrop of this ideological circulation. My first argument is that cyberlibertarianism was a pervasive style of reasoning that consistently appeared in the ongoing dialogues of widely different technology groups: hackers, futurists, and artists in the underground computer culture; entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley business world; engineers in the computer hobbyist space; and advocates in digital civil society. Each of these groups had unique interests, concerns, beliefs, and stakes in the management of digital systems, yet they converged on a similar way of thinking about the internet vis-à-vis regulations and institutions — this is my second argument. The history of cyberlibertarianism matters, because, from this paradigm, we inherit an understanding of digital regulations and digital institutions that is radically polarized. In this line of thought, there is either a free and open internet, or a censored and repressed one. Under the weight of this epistemic baggage, we lack a nuanced, textured, gray-area way to discuss the role of regulations and institutions on the internet.

About the Project on Democracy and the Internet Workshop Series:

The Project on Democracy and the Internet organizes regular workshops, hosted by Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford, for scholars studying democracy in the digital age. The goal of this workshop series is to increase the sense of intellectual community and enhance the overall quality of research as we build this new field of study.