At the dawn of the Worldwide Web when there was a heating up of imposition of laws by nation states on the international communications networks, one isolated voice spoke out and was cross-posted more times than the author could imagine. In March 1999, the strategy for regulating government exploitation of the Internet in the UK was set out for the first time in the Modernising Government White Paper.
Until late 2005 the focus of policy development in respect of interactive and transactional services online had been based upon consideration of how to drive up access and demand. However, government intervention with regard to the Internet has to some people been unwanted, as was voiced quiet vehemently by John Perry Barlow in his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’. He openly declared in this document, ‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’
This text is now one of the cornerstones in the history of the Internet. Barlow’s concept of cyberspace as a homeland without and beyond frontiers is somewhat challenging to the concept of a nation state put forward by Adam Smith but perhaps more consistent with the view of a nation as an ‘imagined community’ put forward by Benedict Anderson.
Barlow’s separation between the virtual world and the “real world” has been overturned by legislation and legal cases as soon as analysts began to worry about “spillover” from problems in cyberspace to problems in the real world. However, as Manjikian suggests, the legal and political systems are only one part of the story. Legitimate questions on the authority of websites in Cyberspace and its users as opposed to whether it can be considered a sovereign body can still be asked.
Cyberspace may still exist as a cultural society, where its users share the same technologies and share similar networks of mental artefacts, such as beliefs, values and experiences. A question that must be asked is whether Barlow’s document could be considered a constitution for the Internet. If so what impact does it have on the way we think about the constitutional and administrative laws that make up ‘the British Constitution’.
Definitions abound as to what a constitution is. It has been pointed out that a source that can be used to find information on such a definition would be the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a California-based online community (Rheingold, 2000). It has also been argued that our current understanding of what a constitution is largely depends on the constructions which nineteenth-century constitutionalism placed upon it, locking the constitution into a series of complex relationships with liberal views of the modern nation state.
A current understanding of constitution is that it is a set of principles which determine the way a country will be governed, and a description of the order in which the principles should be invoked. Others have defined a constitution as something to which people subscribe to which sets out rules they agree to abide by. Based on these definitions, John Perry Barlow’s document could be considered a constitution for the Internet as it was at one point cross-posted by 40,000 websites who accepted the ethos of an ungoverned community called Cyberspace driven by a distinct order of statelessness.
However, a constitution is not only a repository of values, it also has considerable legal and political consequences. From this it can be seen that the United Kingdom’s constitution, while not written, has a structure of institutions governed by a set of shared economic and legal frameworks subscribed to by all those subjects who are deemed British citizens. This suggests that while Barlow’s document serves as a symbol of Internet users’ wish to be untouched by State-like institutions and legal rules, the unwritten British constitution has shown there is more meaning to the term than a document that prescribes a set of common values and beliefs. Indeed, it has been argued that the British constitution is at a critical historical, political and institutional juncture in which a number of inter-linked emerging agendas are altering the relationship between parliament and the executive. A constitution could perhaps therefore be defined as ‘a common agreement between a network of actors as to how they agree to co-exist as a society’.