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The Hacking of America

Political and technological disruption have fed off each other since the nation’s founding. Now they are dangerously out of whack.
The cyber Magna Carta served as the blueprint for the Telecommunications Act. The libertarians’ objective, which went much further than the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, was to ensure that the internet would lie beyond the realm of government control. On Feb. 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton, New Democrat, signed the bill in the reading room of the Library of Congress, on paper, and then, electronically, with a digital pen, the first piece of legislation signed in cyberspace. The act deregulated the communications industry, lifting virtually all of its New Deal antimonopoly provisions, allowing for the subsequent consolidation of media companies and largely prohibiting regulation of the internet. Still, that the United States government would even presume to legislate the internet — even if only to promise not to regulate it — alarmed the libertarians.

On the day Mr. Clinton signed the bill, John Perry Barlow, a bearded mystic who had written lyrics for the Grateful Dead and had helped found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an ex-hippie who had become the darling of the Davos set, wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind,” Mr. Barlow wrote, in a statement that he posted on the web, where it became one of the very first posts to spread, as was said, like a virus. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone,” he said. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”

In the spring of 2000, an article in Wired announced that the internet had already healed a divided America: “We are, as a nation, better educated, more tolerant, and more connected because of — not in spite of — the convergence of the internet and public life. Partisanship, religion, geography, race, gender, and other traditional political divisions are giving way to a new standard — wiredness — as an organizing principle for political and social attitudes.” Of all the dizzying technological boosterism in American history, from the penny press to the telegraph to the radio, no pronouncement was battier. In the years since, partisan divisions have become fully automated functions, those wires so many fetters.

The machine is no longer precisely constructed, its every action no longer measured. The machine is fix upon fix, hack after hack, its safety mechanisms sawed off. It has no brake, no fail-safe, no checks, no balances. It clatters. It thunders. It crushes the Constitution in its gears. The smell of smoke wafts out of the engine room. The machine is on fire.
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