The End of Internet Exceptionalism – Or Why the Pirates Bet on the Wrong Horse

Once upon a time there was a new political movement. It had a bold vision of a future where the old systems had no place. It had a new language and a confident attitude. It had activism. It had an idea of how a new form of democracy could be built.

Arguably the most obvious starting point was The Declaration of the Indepence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow in 1996 (written in Davos, prescient?). It was the articulation of internet exceptionalism, the idea that the Internet is different, and no rules should apply. It inspired Internet activists and pirates alike.

Internet exceptionalism was a perfect combination of an elitist message – “only we understand this new thing” – and the populist mantra – “no more paying for entertainment!”. The activism was both in piracy; through file-sharing technologies and later more commercialized illegal streaming sites, and in communication via mass e-mail campaigns to policy-makers making the few look like the many. It was not without good humor, for example when the Swedish Pirate Party youth section registered the “Kopimism” religion as an official church, with ceremonies, symbols and the lot.

The new movement had friends in high places, some of the biggest companies in the stock market gave support to its think-tanks and networks. It had telecom operators and business associations on its side. Policy-makers responded to the innovative ideas, some with liking, some with confusion. Journalists fell in love with the thought of free information. Academics in various disciplines developed theory. An endless string of writers, think-tanks, leadership consultants and sages came preaching the message of the new era: unstoppable growth, new opportunity, Moore’s law. You can’t stop modern technology, don’t even think about trying.

The enemy was the copyright industry. Its business models are outdated, the new movement said. Who cares about the old gate-keepers, now that everybody can express themselves, echoed the choir. Any attempt to uphold the exclusivity of copyright content will bring a “draconian” surveillance state. Out with the old, in with the new.

In 2017, everything changed. It turns out that the Internet was not that different after all. It did not bring democracy, but election manipulation. Not free speech, but fake news. Not pluralism, but monoculture. Not quality, but algorithmic idiocy. Not grassroots, but skyscrapers. The surveillance state did indeed come, but not from copyright but from the internet companies. The pirates bet on the wrong horse: it was not Hollywood that broke the Internet, it was Silicon Valley.

What we are witnessing is the aftermath. Some still sing to the tune of Internet exceptionalism. Some still claim that the Internet is best left in the hands of a few dominant players. But policy-makers are coming around, accepting the idea that democracy is necessary also online. And the people always knew. In the surveys, people requested a more responsible online space. It appears that the policy debate is fast catching up.

Technology is great. With Internet exceptionalism out of the way, we can finally talk about how we should apply to get the most of the good and the least of the bad. Who said something about the end of the beginning?


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  1. Great article. I owned a music website from 2000-2006. The internet is NOTHING like it was just 5 years ago. I’m now into Digital Marketing and I see “unlimited” possibilities where this can go. I do hope we find a way to dump the fake news and teach people how to communicate with each other. Every other comment / social media post is so negative. (okay i’m off my soap box)…great article Stromback

  2. As a musician and music licensing sync pro I can tell you that this is a well written and enlightened take on the current situation. When the web first came about we were all excited about having a new place to share ideas and innovations through technology. As the years went by we now realized that we have created a Frankenstein monster that is nothing more than another huge corporate greed grab bag. I remember when first being able to license tracks on line was a great source of revenue and found money for the average Joe musician but quickly the money dried up and sync fees were driven into the ground and the “race to zero” began. Now you are only able to get about 35 dollars for the same sync fee that would have been about 750 dollars just seven years ago. In the mean time people are so desperate to get jobs composing for film and TV that they will work virtually for free until they can get a break and then it is just to get a modest living as a staff writer for some larger outfit. All of our music is routinely streamed and ripped off by larger companies that have written into the fine print of their “Agreements” that they can basically do whatever they want with your music and pay you nothing for it. I have found my own music for sale on Amazon in compilation records that I didn’t even know existed until searching for it on google. I’ve never been paid 1 cent by Amazon for any of my music. Clearly this shit has gotten out of hand.

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