The three tribes of the internet

Authors Primavera De Filippi, Juan Ortiz Freuler, and Joshua Tan outline three competing narratives that have shaped the internet: libertarian, corporate, and nationalist. This matters because our physical lives are now deeply intertwined with and codependent on our internet activities. The latest information about Covid regulations in many communities is first released on Twitter, for example.

A declaration is a political act, which describes what should be done. A narrative is a political tool, which elaborates on why it should be done. [These three narratives] emerged from a community of shared interests; each calls for a set of institutional arrangements; each endures in today’s politics.

With the evolution of the Internet from a voluntary network of private actors mostly located in the developed West, to a global commons available to the public at large, it has become more and more important to develop a public network on privately-owned infrastructure. In its early days, the Internet was regarded as a “public” infrastructure because of its permissionless nature. The Web was neither owned nor controlled by any single individual or entity; it functioned through collective adherence to a common set of protocols and standards. Later, as Internet adoption burgeoned during the 1990s (jumping from 1% adoption in the US to almost 50% by 1999) and as the Internet became home to a wide range of private, commercial, and governmental online services, “public interest” considerations emerged, especially with regard to accessibility, free speech, privacy and security. By 1999 — with the publication of what is now regarded as the first “bill of digital rights” — cyberspace had already started to pick up the qualities of a public square, inspiring new analogies such as digital public parks and digital public infrastructure.

The authors plotted each narrative or tribe across dimensions of centralization and state control.

The authors plotted each narrative or tribe across dimensions of centralization and state control.