The current state of the Internet parallels the call found in The Federalist Papers to reject authoritarianism by championing an open exchange among diverse peoples and regions. This analysis defends connectivity as a positive, particularly when highlighting the democratic roots of the platform.
At a time when US democracy buckles under pressures and fissures straining the body politic, The Federalist Papers offers a foundation to help reassert norms and practices consistent with the American ideals of fair government. Impeachment, representation, separation of powers, presidential pardons, and supreme court appointees all receive considered judgment in a series of ‘papers’ defending the US Constitution of 1787. The authors—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—responded to criticism of the proposed new government by publishing their support of the document in a series of essays under the pseudonym of Publius. The dialogue skillfully weighed the choice before the nation, and the thirteen states voted to scrap the existing government, the Articles of Confederation, in large part thanks to the writings of these men. A more centralized authority emerged in the United States to establish the principal intent of The Federalist Papers: rebuking authoritarianism.
Surprisingly, the Papers also redeem cyberspace as a valued platform of democracy since the writing offers key, timeless principles of governance that serve as a means of checking authoritarianism in the realm of cyberspace. When asking how the United States goes forward today and achieves a democratic standing in the cyber domain, The Federalist Papers helps assure that the Internet remains a platform for advancing democratic norms. It may appear unusual to set the Internet alongside The Federalist Papers. However, in the papers, these founding fathers of the American republican government are in many ways the fathers of the Internet when the platform functions as a vehicle of exchange among diverse peoples inhabiting expansive lands. These wise statesmen attempted to encourage the open sharing of knowledge in order to hold government accountable. In the same way, cyberspace and its outgrowth of the Internet reveal timeless principles of governance found today as was the expectation in 1787.
The Federalist Papers asserts that a world-wide exchange of goods and ideas among differing populations is the goal of establishing a republic. The premise of the Papers is that the United States is modeling republican government that the world can then emulate. By advancing an open Internet and rejecting cyber sovereignty—each nation declaring what can be exchanged online within its borders—the United States is in step with the original intent of the founding fathers as expressed in The Federalist Papers. It is a shame that defending that basic principle must be done today; but to advance the aim of democracy globally will always be contested, as was expected in the papers, and as is the case in cyberspace.
Defending cyberspace as a vehicle for republican government is a noticeable change in tone from other scholars assessing the current state of the Internet. Experts such as Ronald Deibert warn that the dangers and vulnerabilities that lurk there increase every day to the point that the Internet stands accused of threatening the very fabric of democratic government. Many weigh in and declare the platform as no more than a warzone. Those directly taking on governance, including Milton Mueller inNetworks and States and Michael Schmidt from a legal standpoint in The Tallinn Manual, decry the inability to apply familiar standards to the new domain and the troubling consequences of that failure. The bleak prognosis by some experts suggests a drastic rearrangement or militarization of the Internet in the near future given its disruptive and menacing qualities.
Looming changes in cyberspace to make the user “safe” online would tilt the United States decidedly in step with authoritarian leaders who seek to censor this medium to better control their populations. A retreat from defending access to the domain gives relief to authoritarian regimes that currently endure popular dissent bolstered by online interaction internally and reaching beyond the state. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempted crackdown on user access to VPNs highlights his unease with fissures in his nation that have resurfaced the past few months as anti-Kremlin protests rage in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk. China’s “great firewall” purports a similar purpose and with only partial success. Better security in cyberspace that functions as a tool of censorship diminishes the threat of “cyber rebellions” and compromises the ability of the United States to champion the universal appeal of democracy worldwide.
It would be tragic and unnecessary for the United States to lose its standing as a model for democracy. Experts correctly point out the difficulty of governing cyberspace but undervalue how governance is achieved on the Internet. Online existence eliminates borders, overcomes physical differences and separation among people by allowing instant global communication, turns online interaction into something greater than merely financial profit, and blurs our understanding of war by eliminating violence from cyberspace. This ‘openness’ of the Internet was only dreamed of by the founding fathers. Madison looked to act on behalf of “the whole human race” (No. 14). Both writers addressed the need for the American Revolution to fulfill the “wish prompted by humanity” (No. 20). Hamilton triumphantly declared that a federal government will be “most honorable for human nature if we have wisdom and virtue enough to set so glorious an example to mankind!” (No. 36)
The feat of preserving an open internet rejects the idea that war should be the foremost concern of a government, a conviction espoused in theories of war such as Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War, Niccolò Machiavelli’s, Arte della Guerra (Art of War), and Carl von Clausewitz’s, On War. The Federalist Papers make the same point in Paper No. 3 when John Jay writes, “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direction their attention, that of providing for their safety [Jay’s emphasis] seems to be the first.” On the contrary, embracing a moral imperative, not war, remains the foremost purpose of protecting a free and open internet. Cyberspace helps us make real a moral sovereignty that exceeds one nation or region. That standing is something our founders would have envied. We now stand at a crossroads in cyberspace, a platform which can benefit all of humanity. Fear can lead us to forfeit this technological marvel. Indeed, the threats are assumed so pronounced that government oversight to protect users will function as an instrument of control. Such censorship is an impossibility in cyberspace without perverting its very nature. For this reason, The Federalist Papers offers a way to reassess American sensibilities and cast these aspirations of openness as universal goals. Again, here is the heart of the Internet, a platform benefiting all of humanity. This online federalism will strive to find answers to what lies beyond ones and zeros in cyberspace to embrace the duality of decentralized internet access and oversight, thereby checking tyranny. Openness going forward rests on a clear foundation of an exchange of information free of government controls across the entirety of cyberspace, all the while expecting a reaction denying that very impulse. This assertion invites rejoinders and rebuttals, much like that unfolding at the founding of the United States when federalists crossed intellectual swords with anti-federalists. This struggle is welcomed online. An Internet Federalist Papers can emerge to remind us that the future of connectivity is what it is at present.
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Matthew J. Flynn, PhD., serves as Professor of War Studies at Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA. He specializes in the evolution of warfare and has written on topics such as preemptive war, revolutionary war, borders and frontiers, and militarization in the cyber domain. Dr. Flynn runs the website Newconflict.org, which is dedicated to examining the new conditions shaping global conflict. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Marine Corps or the US Department of Defense.
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