Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Barbed Wire Fences and Internet Freedom

When I was in High School I had an excellent American History teacher. One of the things he taught us about was the role of the frontier in the development of the American psyche. He was of course introducing us to Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis which emphasizes the role of the American frontier in the development of American ideas of freedom, liberty, and property. Because of the availability of seemingly endless amounts of open land and resources Americans developed a strong rugged individualism and seemingly boundless optimism than was not present in European societies.

All this began to change when in 1874 Joseph Glidden was granted a patent for wrapping a small wire in between two longer intertwined wires. This short, sharp wire, called a barb, would become the critical part of what is now called barbed wire. This simple invention would radically revolutionize the shape and character of the American West (and would go on to change warfare, fortifications, security and crowd control). Over the next few years barbed wire would divide up the historically open range land and would restrict the free and open movement of people and cattle.

The change was not immediate, but over the next several decades the change came in fits and spurts. In some cases the changing dynamic was manifest in the Range Wars of the late 1800's. The open range cowboys and ranchers fought the fences and farmers for access to water and grazing land. This type of conflict became so typical that it would later be immortalized in the many Westerns made in the 50's and 60's. Perhaps one of the most famous movies in this genre was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Despite all this it was not until 1893 that Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the American frontier, and wondered how the closing would change American society. Even though we "ran out of new land" to populate, Americans were able to find new frontiers. We moved into new technologies. We were inspired to go into space and even reached the moon. For a while space became our final frontier.

Due to some minor issues with space travel it seemed that that frontier would have to wait. This is when the frontier of cyber space opened up to us. Again we had before us a seemingly endless and uncharted territory where we could go and range free. Just as in the 1800's the frontier is being populated and is playing a significant role in the shaping of our society. But just as history repeats itself (or at least rhymes) we are again faced with the barbed wire of our age. It is coming in many forms, and most recently it has made an appearance in the form of two bills before the American Congress.

Some people are staunchly opposed to these bills (or any form of control, for that matter), while others are concerned about the apparent lawlessness of the Internet and think that something must be done. I have seen some comments about how people are just over reacting and that this will not actually change the face of the Internet since the same powers that be that are pushing these bill have an interest in keeping it the way it is. It is hard to say how these bills, or any other approach would change the Internet, but if history is any clue then we are in the midst of a modern day electronic range war. The question is, will the Internet remain open range land or will we accept and keep some form of electronic barbed wire. The are benefits to both, but it is debatable if the American psyche will allow the barbed wire to happen or if it will force the frontier to remain how it is.

Now I must admit that there important differences between the range wars and barbed wire of the 1800's and the issues of Internet freedom but as I mentioned before, even if history does not repeat itself it will at least rhyme. Still, we are perhaps in a pivotal moment in history where our last immediately available frontier may be closing and we are left to wonder how that will affect our lives, our society and our future. Or this may not be the pivotal moment in history, but we won't know until the history books are written.


  1. Excellent post. The analogy to the fencing in of the American West is apt. One of my previous professors and mentors, James Boyle, has similarly compared modern intellectual property policy to England's Enclosure Movement.

    We already have "digital barbed wire" (borrowing Boyle's words) in the form of technological protection measures (e.g., digital rights management, or DRM). These devices can effectually fence off content (including content in the public domain), preventing even lawful uses (such as fair use). TPMs were given legal backing in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the draconian legislation that Congress passed in 1998. Circumventing TPMs now gives rise to legal liability, even when it is done for otherwise lawful purposes. For instance, if I circumvent the digital encryption on a DVD in order to excerpt a few scenes from a film for a school project, or in order to play the DVD on a computer running Linux, I am breaking the law.

    SOPA and PIPA are the latest in a long line of heavy-handed bills pushed by the content industry. I expect we'll see more of these in the future.

  2. Excellent post.  I really love the analogy.  Honestly, I think the "Frontier Mentality" is more deeply ingrained in the American psyche than most of us realize.  I think we've seen a lot of that in this recent debate. 


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