And unlike almost every other global resource in history, the Internet largely escaped government regulation at first -- probably because no one could figure out how to make money from it. From the outset, it was managed not by governments, but by an ad hoc coalition of volunteer standards bodies and civil society groups composed of engineers, academics, and passionate geeks -- awkwardly dubbed the multistakeholder system.
So lawmakers and politicians wrung their hands over the Internet's lawlessness, gnashed their teeth at the moral decay of porn and downloads, and despaired at their inability to legislate a place without a geography. In the popular consciousness, the Internet was simultaneously a place of possibility and danger. In 1993, Time magazine warned, "People who use … the Net may be in for a shock.… Anybody can start a discussion on any topic and say anything."
It was precisely this structural independence that transformed the Internet from a mere tool for information-sharing to the world's open forum.
The rise of self-publishing tools like Blogger transformed the "third space" of cyberspace into a modern speaker's corner, offering any motivated writer a platform for his or her political views. Initially, this online free expression was often marginalized or dismissed -- the term "blogosphere" was originally a joke. But bloggers kept plugging away. In liberal democracies their free expression was guaranteed, and in closed societies connectivity was often too limited to draw any real attention.
In the past decade, however, all this has changed. Roughly 2 billion people use the Internet, in nearly every country in the world (North Korea is perhaps the last holdout). Blogs are now mainstream, and social networks have pushed self-publishing even closer to ordinary users, enabling instantaneous political and personal expression. And the Internet -- this global resource, this wild space independent of states -- has made its mark on our neatly ordered world of nations.
Information has always been power, and governments have long sought to control it. So for countries where power is a tightly controlled narrative, parsed by state television and radio stations, the Internet has been catastrophic. Its global, decentralized networks of information-sharing have routed around censorship -- just as Gilmore promised they would. It gives people an outlet to publish what the media cannot, organize where organizing is forbidden, and revolt where protest is unknown.
And the Internet isn't only threatening dictatorships. It has created new forms of political participation and protest in democracies, where it has been used to demand the decentralization of power to the people, facilitate radical transparency and information-sharing, demand responsive government, unseat corrupt authorities, organize marginalized minorities, and challenge the hegemony of traditional political heavyweights.
Naturally, systems of power have finally taken notice.