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 Its business models are outdated, the new movement said.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?