The Internet has become the greatest liberating tool in human history. It has freed people from ignorance and helplessness. It has revolutionized our personal relationships, how we are entertained, educated, and make everyday choices. The abundance and availability of information online has led to innovations that make our lives healthier, happier, and more fulfilling.
We know this implicitly, and appreciate it in different ways and amounts.
Yet not everyone can celebrate.
As Gropegate rages, the netroots debate President Obama’s statist credentials, and tea partiers continue to plot, politicians must lament the rise of the Internet. It’s unpredictable, ubiquitous, and decentralized. It challenges government power regardless of borders and legislation, and allows people to pose difficult questions to those previously considered out of reach.
Suspicion of political authority is an American pastime. In the early republic, newspapers and pamphlets were excellent media for political rabblerousing. They were decentralized; almost anyone could publish their thoughts. Although relatively few had access to — or the ability to read — printed media, it made life interesting for those who sought and gained political power.
Radio and television eventually replaced the written word as the public’s primary source of information, but, unlike paper, they were built to depend on centralized frameworks. Government and corporate interests moved quickly to control them, and found it easy. The FCC manages frequency spectrums used by television, and recently ordered stations to transition to digital equipment, knocking countless grannies’ rabbit-eared televisions off-air.
The Federalists’ dream of creating a homogenous nation united by a strong, centralized government detached from the influence of local interests and town halls was nearly a reality until the advent of the Internet. In a way, the Internet has validated James Madison’s creative explanation of how a large republic would be more stable than a small one. Online, right-wing activists are countered by left-wing activists who are challenged by corporate shills against libertarian purists.
Although they don’t quite cancel each other out as Madison hoped, they provide clear alternatives to the tired tropes in Washington and state capitals. These competing interests represent a public good because they assist in achieving a condition of mild political deadlock, continuing the debate.
Politicians have carefully expressed their true feelings about the Internet on many occasions, attempting to regulate, control, and centralize it. The only problem is most people appreciate what the Internet has become, and say so both online and on the ballot.
Every congressional candidate who signed a net neutrality pledge lost their race earlier this month. Additionally, there has been massive blowback against local ordinances that require bloggers to be registered or else face fines.
Politicians have also used the bully pulpit to dissuade the public from becoming too informed. President Obama recently told a group of students that information on the Internet “becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” That was only after our modern-day Mr. Spock admitted he is unable to use an iPod to browse the Web.
The ongoing kerfuffle over invasive security procedures at airports is only the latest example of how the “distraction” of information challenges the ability of politicians and bureaucrats to do what they want. While the Old Media and the TSA showcase polling that shows around 80 percent of Americans approve of the naked-body scanners, the Internet is abuzz with chatter about the harms of such scans and the inappropriateness of the intimate pat-downs to which all air travelers can now be subjected.
Although some say the fuss is due to a few loud rebels, it has reached a volume that those politicians who would willingly trade their constituents’ dignity for the mirage of full security can no longer ignore.
Despite the countless ways the Internet has empowered rebels of every kind, it has become so much of our daily lives that we mostly take it for granted. It’s almost as mundane as indoor plumbing and automobiles, but no less amazing. It’s little wonder that some politicians wanted to take credit for its invention when the World Wide Web first became popular and the Internet became more than a medium through which scientists could share their latest findings.
But politicians neither created the Web nor the ventures it has sparked. Tim Berners-Lee led the team that made the first Web transmission on December 25th, 1990 by connecting the Internet to text and links (hypertext) that ordinary people could use. Since then companies have come and gone, millionaires made and destroyed, and countless politicians ruined by enterprising ideologues and idealists. A quick scan of congressional election outcomes over the past twenty years shows electoral margins have tightened as voters have been able to see the truly poor choices presented for their consideration.
The Internet has allowed Americans to become aware of the mortality of our political leaders. It’s yielded a vibrant marketplace of information — true and false — that people can consume, produce, and trade voluntarily. It’s a way to buy things, but, even more importantly, it’s a free market of ideas that complement and compete against each other, helping us all make more informed choices, grow, and demand better from political leaders, corporations, and neighbors.
The Web brought the Internet to life on Christmas Day 1990. Humanity gained an invaluable tool to share knowledge and realize its potential. From that point forward, the politicians increasingly lost their ability to control the message and set the terms for debate. Today, twenty years later, it’s likely many wish they had nipped it in the bud when they had the chance.
Richard Lorenc is cofounder of Liberty Markets LLC, a financial intermediary that connects charitable donors of modest means with entrepreneurial non-profit policy organizations advocating free markets, individual freedom, and limited government.