4.1.1. Anarchy and the Internet

The compatibility of the architecture and culture of the Internet with these ideals was recognised early in its development. Bruce Sterling famously described the Internet in 1993 as “a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy.”[1] A few years later, John Perry Barlow issued the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace;[2] an anarchist tract par exemplar.

With the inroads that governments have since begun to make into the Internet’s inherent architectural anarchism, those who would practise anarchy on the Internet have not so much retreated as regrouped. Today, self-styled crypto-anarchists utilise technologies such as strong encryption, virtual private networks (VPNs), and electronic cash,[3] in an endeavour to forge a stateless anarchist society online.[4]

These technologies further this aim by enabling users to craft online spaces, known as cypherspace (or cipherspace), in which they may act anonymously or pseudonymously, thereby rendering domestic laws on such matters as copyright, content regulation, and taxation unenforceable and thus, it could be said, inapplicable.[5]

Predictably, resources hosted in cypherspace include unlicensed copies of copyrighted media, child pornography, and even supposed confessions to murder, but also anonymous support fora for victims of sexual assault, communiques from dissidents and whistle-blowers, and lively pseudonomous chat and discussion fora.

4.1.1.1. Usenet

Anarchy is also a familiar governing principle for some more conventional and widely-used Internet services. An early example is found in the governance of Usenet. Usenet was one of the early applications deployed on the Internet, preceding the World Wide Web by six years, but even before that it existed as an independent online network of computers running the Unix operating system (the name Usenet being derived from Unix User Network).

Unix users were no strangers to anarchistic governance regimes. Richard M Stallman, founder of the GNU project to create a free Unix-like operating system,[6] discussed the philosophy that lay behind a previous operating system developed by hackers, the Incompatible Time-sharing System (ITS) of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. ITS was designed to solve problems of users hacking into each other’s accounts and bringing down the computer, precisely by not putting any controls in to begin with: the system had no passwords, and could be brought to its knees by any user typing the command “KILL SYSTEM.” Stallman boasted,

If I told people it’s possible to have no security on a computer without people deleting your files all the time, and no bosses stopping you from doing things ... nobody will [scil would] believe me. For a while, we were setting an example for the rest of the world.[7]

Usenet provides a discussion board system, that unlike most similar systems before or since, is distributed. That is to say that, in keeping with the principle of decentralisation that underlies Internet architecture generally, there is no central archive of Usenet messages (or posts); rather, each site that participates in the Usenet network maintains its own copies of posts, and periodically synchronises them with its peers. New posts can therefore enter the Usenet network from any such site. Haubern writes that

Usenet should be seen as a promising successor to other people’s presses, such as broadsides at the time of the American Revolution and the Penny Presses in England at the turn of the 19th Century. Most of the material written to Usenet is by the same people who actively read Usenet. Thus, the audience of Usenet decides the content and subject matter to be thought about, presented and debated. The ideas that exist on Usenet come from the mass of people who participate in it. In this way, Usenet is an uncensored forum for debate - where many sides of an issue come into view. Instead of being force-fed by an uncontrollable source of information, the participants set the tone and emphasis on Usenet.[8]

Usenet posts are categorised by topic in fora known as newsgroups. From the inception of the network in 1979 until 1985, anyone could create a newsgroup and anyone could delete one.[9] As the network grew larger, it became evident that this procedure did not scale well, as there was no way to enforce the addition and deletion decisions made at one site by others. Additionally, some newsgroups were straining under the weight of off-topic or offensive posts, or vituperative and insulting exchanges—“flame wars.”[10]

But as anarchy does not imply disorder, rather collaborative and voluntary order, the solution to these problems came from within. To address the issue of coordination, one Usenet administrator, Gene Spafford, from 1985 to 1993 published a monthly list of “officially recognised” newsgroups which other Usenet-connected sites could (but were not obliged to) follow in deciding what groups to carry for users on their own servers.[11]

To address the issue of inappropriate posts, rather than censoring (“cancelling”) such posts, the facility for the establishment of new moderated groups was introduced—but even in this case, the architecture behind the moderation technology was advisory rather than hierarchical. A message would automatically pass through into a moderated group if an “Approved” header—which could easily be forged—was inserted. [12]

In 1985, a group of system administrators of those servers that had come to function as something of a backbone of the Usenet network, and who styled themselves with some irony as the “Backbone Cabal,” reordered the newsgroups into an hierarchical structure. At the root of the hierarchy at this time were the prefixes comp, misc, news, rec, sci, soc and talk, respectively for discussion on computing, miscellany, Usenet, recreation, science, society and controversial topics that were likely to produce flame wars. The decision of the Backbone Cabal to sideline controversial topics in the “talk” (originally “flame”) branch of the hierarchy, which could be easily omitted from a site’s Usenet feed, was productive of much dissent from ordinary Usenet users.[13]

Still further controversy resulted from the refusal of Backbone Cabal members to carry the newly-formed groups rec.sex and rec.drugs. The process by which new newsgroup could be formed had by around this time been formalised, such that proposals should first be discussed on the news.groups newsgroup, and a vote taken: if 100 more votes favoured the creation of the newsgroup than opposed it, being at least two-thirds of the total number of votes, it would be added to the list of officially recognised groups.[14] Yet although rec.sec and rec.drugs had passed this test (or a less formal precursor of it), Spafford declined to add them to his “official” list.[15]

Whilst this may have suggested that Usenet was no longer organised along anarchistic lines after all, but had become subject to the dominance of the Backbone Cabal, this did not account for the fact that Usenet’s anarchistic origins had been embedded in its technical architecture. Accordingly in 1987 a small group of Usenet administrators, dissatisfied with the policies of the Cabal, simply bypassed it by establishing a new hierarchy of alt (“alternative”) newsgroups, amongst the first of which were alt.sex, alt.drugs, and for good measure, alt.rock-n-roll.[16]

In the alt hierarchy, new newsgroups could once again be created or deleted by anyone, though normally a site would only choose to carry a group upon request, or following the emergence of sufficient consensus as to the utility of the group on the alt.config newsgroup. The alt hierarchy soon became, and remains, the biggest on Usenet.

A regular posting to the newsgroup news.announce.newusers, intended for new Usenet users and originally authored by Chip Salzenberg, states under the heading “Usenet is not a democracy,” that “[s]ince there is no person or group in charge of Usenet as a whole—ie there is no Usenet ‘government’—it follows that Usenet cannot be a democracy, autocracy, or any other kind of ‘-acy.’”[17] Whilst much else has changed in Internet governance in the intervening years, Salzenberg’s statement remains accurate.

This is not to say that Usenet is a utopia. Far from it. The anarchistic system by which it is governed has resulted in a measure of chaos and antisocial conduct online, ranging from the omnipresent newsgroup spam that originated with lawyers Canter and Siegel,[18] to the creation of groups such as alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.rape and alt.kill.jews. However, the anarchistic project is not to create a utopia. Rocker writes,

Anarchism is no patent solution for all human problems, no Utopia of a perfect social order, as it has so often been called, since on principle it rejects all absolute schemes and concepts. It does not believe in any absolute truth, or in definite final goals for human development, but in an unlimited perfectibility of social arrangements and human living conditions, which are always straining after higher forms of expression, and to which for this reason one can assign no definite terminus nor set any fixed goal.[19]

4.1.1.2. Wikipedia

The popular online encyclopædia Wikipedia[20] provides an example of how an organisation both more formal and more recent than Usenet might be successfully governed along anarchistic lines.

Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopædia. Its one millionth article in its English language edition was published in March 2006, at which time there were also 228 other language editions, eleven containing 100 000 articles or more. In February 2007 Wikipedia reached its highest ranking of eighth amongst the most popular Web sites worldwide.[21]

Wikipedia is only the most prominent example amongst thousands of “wikis”; Web sites constructed and hosted using software which allows visitors to the site to collaboratively edit its content using a convenient Web-based interface.[22] Other typical characteristics of wikis are the heavy use of cross-hyperlinking between pages, and that contributors are required to license their contributions under an open source style licence, so as to allow other users to freely make their own adaptations of the content.[23]

The problems that might have been expected to result from such a liberal regime have indeed arisen in Wikipedia’s case: regular vandalism of pages, “edit wars” between users who compete to have the last word by undoing (“reverting”) each other’s changes, and the publication of inaccurate or erroneous information. Given that the mission of the site is to act as an encyclopædia, it is this last problem that has drawn the most comment from critics. A correspondent to the Washington Post is representative of these, writing:

It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you’re getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it’s fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.[24]

However, other commentators have been impressed with Wikipedia’s accuracy. A 2005 report in Nature found Wikipedia’s accuracy to be roughly comparable to that of Encyclopædia Britannica (whilst this was strongly repudiated by Britannica,[25] Nature has defended its original report[26]).

The level of overall accuracy that Wikipedia has attained, and its resilience against attacks from vandals and disruption from disputes between editors, are not accidental. They are matters directly addressed by the norms of the Wikipedia community, and formalised in its structure, and its official policies and guidelines. As at September 2006, there were 42 policies[27] and hundreds of guidelines in place (guidelines being less imperative and more advisory in nature than policies).[28]

Tellingly however, there is one policy that explicitly overrides all others: “If the rules prevent you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia’s quality, ignore them.” It is this policy that reinforces the distinction between the rules of an hierarchical community and the norms of an anarchistic one such as Wikipedia.

A further illustration of the difference between policies as rules and policies as norms is in respect of the consequences of their breach. A Wikipedia editor who goes by the username “the Cuncator” explains that breaches of policy “should not be used as reasons to violently delete other people’s work. Rather, if you believe in the rules, you should attempt to convert those people to your view. Use words, not force.”[29]

Notwithstanding these sentiments, there has been a continuing tension between those Wikipedia administrators and editors such as the Cuncator who favour the retention of an anarchistic approach to the editing of the encyclopædia, and pragmatists such as Wikipedia’s original co-founder Larry Sanger[30] who have proposed to create a hierarchy of more trusted users with elevated privileges,[31] such as exists on other community-developed Web sites such as the venerable news discussion site, Slashdot.[32]

Although Sanger’s views have not found favour within the broader Wikipedia community, this is not to say that the project is completely egalitarian. Outside of its substantive work, the administration of the project combines anarchistic with consensual, democratic, and even hierarchical models of ordering.[33]

As an example of consensual ordering, ordinary users cannot delete articles: this ability is reserved to Wikipedia administrators, and then only after the issue has been put up for discussion by all Wikipedia users for about a week, and a rough consensus has been reached in favour of deletion. Anyone may nominate themselves (or another user) for the status of administrator, and requests are assessed in much the same way as proposals to delete an article; once a consensus is reached following a discussion period amongst Wikipedia editors.[34]

As for democratic ordering, Wikipedia has a Mediation Committee and an Arbitration Committee which take a more substantive role in the editing process, by assisting to resolve disputes between editors. Whilst membership of the Mediation Committee is open to any who volunteer and who are approved by consensus discussion, the twelve members of the Arbitration Committees are elected for three year terms by a vote of Wikipedia editors.[35]

The MediaWiki software and databases themselves of course require computer hardware and network connectivity in order to operate, and these in turn require funding, as well as administrative oversight. These issues are the responsibility of the five-member Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has owned the infrastructure of the Wikipedia project since 2003.[36]

All active Wikipedia editors are eligible to vote in the biannual elections of the Board of Trustees, and to nominate for one of two Board positions. However the remaining Board positions are held by Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales, and two members appointed by him. The authority that Wales exercises in perpetuity is an example of hierarchical ordering within the Wikipedia project.[37]

Thus the Wikipedia project does not embody anarchistic governance in its purest form, but can perhaps be fairly described, in the words of the Cuncator, as “a noble attempt at a limited anarchistic society.”[38] It illustrates well for present purposes is how an Internet-based social entity of significant size can, successfully and consistently with the principles of anarchism, be internally governed largely through the non-hierarchical mechanisms of architecture (the MediaWiki software) and norms (Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines).

Notes

[1]

Stirling, Bruce, A Short History of the Internet (1993)

[2]

Barlow, John P, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996)

[3]

For example e-gold; see http://www.e-gold.com/, and compare Ripple at http://ripple.sourceforge.net/, which is an open source implementation of electronic cash, the value of which depends upon the trust between debtor and creditor, rather than being backed by a valuable commodity.

[4]

May, Timothy C, Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities (1995)

[5]

One of the tools used in this way is Tor, which was discussed at Section 1.3.1.

[6]

See http://www.gnu.org/, GNU standing for “GNU’s Not Unix.”

[7]

Levy, Steven, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (2001), 427.

[8]

Hauben, Michael & Hauben, Ronda, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet (1996), chapter 3

[9]

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, “If I Want It, It’s OK": Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech (1996), 371

[10]

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, “If I Want It, It’s OK": Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech (1996), 373

[11]

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, “If I Want It, It’s OK": Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech (1996), 371

[12]

Later, the facility for the moderator to be authenticated using digital cryptography was added to prevent such forgeries, though this was only adopted in a minority of moderated groups: Rose, Greg G, The PGP Moose: Implementation and Experience (1996).

[13]

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, “If I Want It, It’s OK": Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech (1996), 375–376

[14]

Lawrence, David C, How to Create a New Usenet Newsgroup (2000)

[15]

Hardy, Henry E, The History of the Net (1993)

[16]

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, “If I Want It, It’s OK": Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech (1996), 377

[17]

Salzenberg, Chip, Spafford, Gene, & Moraes, Mark, What is Usenet? (1998)

[18]

Campbell, K, A Net Conspiracy So Immense (1994)

[19]

Rocker, Rudolf, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (2004), 15

[20]

See http://www.wikipedia.org/.

[21]

See http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia.org_is_more_popular_than....

[22]

See generally Leuf, Bo & Cunningham, Ward, The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web (2001). The original Wiki software, WikiWikiWeb (see http://c2.com/cgi/wiki/), was released in 1994, but numerous reimplementations and improvements upon the idea have since been written, including MediaWiki (see http://www.mediawiki.org/) upon which Wikipedia is built.

[23]

See Section 4.2.4.4.

[24]

Ahrens, Frank, Death by Wikipedia: The Kenneth Lay Chronicles (2006)

[25]

Encyclopædia Britannica, Fatally Flawed: Refuting the Recent Study on Encyclopedic Accuracy by the Journal Nature (2006); and Brittanica staff have attacked Wikipedia’s accuracy elsewhere also: McHenry, Robert, The Faith-Based Encyclopedia (2004) .

[26]

See http://www.nature.com/nature/britannica/.

[27]

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_policies.

[28]

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_guidelines.

[29]

Thurgood, J, How to Build Wikipedia (2003)

[30]

Sanger, whilst agreeing with the Cuncator that the Wikipedia project is organised anarchistically, criticises it for being “anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated)”: Sanger, Larry, Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism (2004).

[31]

Poe, Marshall, The Hive (2006)

[32]

See http://slashdot.org/.

[33]

These are to be discussed at Section 4.3.2, Section 4.3 and Section 4.2.

[34]

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Administrators.

[35]

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Elections.

[36]

See http://www.wikimedia.org/.

[37]

Wales himself, an objectivist, could be described as a “minarchist” if not an anarchist: Poe, Marshall, The Hive (2006).

[38]

Thurgood, J, How to Build Wikipedia (2003)