Cypherpunks and Cryptoanarchy, oh my!

Introduction. We’ve got another post from our friend and colleague, Kalie Mayberry. Read more about her at her website.

In the beginning, there was anarchy. Well, more like a vision of one – cryptoanarchy, led by internet coders and philosophers, the cypherpunks.

The story of Web3, Bitcoin, and an idealized decentralized internet foundation began with cryptoanarchy and cypherpunks in the late 1980s. These early internet pioneers created their own vision of how the internet could – and ideally should – work as a utility for everyone, rather than controlled by governments or corporations, as it largely took shape during the Web 2.0 era. Recently, with the rise of Web3 theorizing and building, cypherpunks and cryptoanarchy have made their way into the media stream yet again and could use a revisit back into their historical foundations.

Who are the cypherpunks?

In 1992, a retired businessman, mathematician, and computer scientist hosted a meeting in Oakland, California, inviting their friends and colleagues for a discussion about the future of modern-day computing. This became the first meeting of the cypherpunks – a term formed largely in irony by member Jude Milhon as a combination of cipher and “cyberpunk” – a scene not directly related to this group’s own movement but rather one more based in science fictional uses of technology.

The original founding members – Timothy May, who retired at 34 after building computer memory chips at Intel; Eric Hughes, meeting host, and mathematical wizard; and John Gilmore, computer extraordinaire from Sun Microsystems – laid out a vision of a new internet, combining their joint interests of privacy, technology, and politics to assert the use of math and physics to overcome any potential government or corporate obstruction of liberty. The group was intrigued, and dedicated to form themselves into a movement, meeting monthly at John Gilmore’s Cygnus Solutions in San Francisco and connecting through an email list set up by Eric Hughes.

The Cypherpunk Mailing List soon had hundreds of subscribers, reaching about 700 in 1994, and acting as an active forum for sharing code, technical discussions, political issues, and anything else the group came across forwarded their mission for over a decade (finally being booted from the host site in 2001). On March 9, 1993, Eric Hughes sent around “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, a declaration of what the group stood for and was working actively to build. Within it, the foundational lines of how the group felt the internet should function, without control from the government, corporations, or other “faceless organizations”: “Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” Importantly, the cypherpunks were doers, stated as “cypherpunks write code” and were not only theorizing about this potential online world but actively working to create it. Their actions, largely done without asking for permission and built outside of formal institutions, mirrored a punk-like mentality.

What did they believe in?

In the simplest form, the cypherpunks were coders focused on the pursuit of privacy online through the use of cryptography. What they aimed to build dated back almost 15 years before their first meeting in 1992. Applying cryptography in technological systems had not been widely adopted before the 1980s, but then the most important cryptography technology of the modern day was published in the MIT paper in 1976 by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman – showcasing the public-private key encryption that made it possible for data to be shared between parties without actually identifying either. The Diffie-Hellman-Merkle key exchange (adding in Ralph Merkle for his contribution to the technology) is foundational to establishing secure, private transactions on the web – and this algorithm became widely known and adopted thanks to another cypherpunk Mark Miller, who found the paper and anonymously mailed copies to dozens of publications to ensure the technology wasn’t buried by the government.

This revolutionary key exchange algorithm, alongside other scholars’ work such as Dr. David Chaum and his focus on anonymity and pseudonyms within transaction systems, helped to explode the use of cryptography on the internet, therefore building toward the type of internet the cypherpunks had envisioned. Their philosophy states “writing functional code is the best route towards bringing more liberty and privacy into the world via cryptography.” They believed online privacy was essential to the growing functionality of the internet, and the more autonomous the encryption, the better.

Additionally, the Cypherpunk Manifesto actually sets the stage for cryptocurrency, mentioning the need for an “autonomous transaction system” separate from the cash-based system we are all familiar with. There is so much more to be said about the cypherpunks, and more can be read about the cypherpunks’ theories and philosophy in Chapter 3 of the Cyphernomicon.

What is cryptoanarchy?

Therefore, cryptoanarchy is the realization of that cryptographic technology being activated toward the cypherpunks’ philosophy. Essentially, the cypherpunks are the creators and doers, and cryptoanarchy is the tool to reach their vision. Coined by one of those original cypherpunks Timothy May in his “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” (written in 1988, widely distributed in 1992 through the previously mentioned Cypherpunk Mailing List), cryptoanarchy aims to “subvert the power of the state” and protect individual’s privacy as well as political and economic freedoms using cryptographic software. The basis of the manifesto, and the overall movement of cryptoanarchy, is essentially to disrupt current economic and political markets by using secure online encryption technologies to focus on decentralization and autonomy. More specifically, cryptoanarchy touts privacy both online and offline, especially in communications, and largely against censorship and monitoring of individuals, from the government or other corporations, thus leading them toward further explorations of anonymity and pseudonyms to be used in place of identifying mechanisms, as a means of alleviating these issues.

To better understand the genesis of the word, and how the cypherpunks’ philosophy fits into it, it is helpful to dive further back into the history before the technologies were invented. The ‘crypto’ prefix of cryptoanarchy is taken from cryptography, which had been well-understood as the practice of encryption; i.e. the taking something from a readable format (plaintext) to that of an unintelligible nonsense text (ciphertext) that can only be read by the reverse process of decryption. Early examples before computers focused on the written word encoded into ciphers, with the earliest known examples of encrypting text going back to Egypt 1900 BCE.

Additionally, ‘anarchy’ as a suffix was chosen as the best representation of the movement because of the organizational structure (or lack thereof) of anarchies having no leader. The movement was not directly focused on creating chaos (although Tim May’s signature in the manifesto does happen to mention “collapse of governments”), but rather dissociating and building structures outside of the reach of the nation-state.

In this way, cryptoanarchy can also attract those who share a libertarian-focused political standing. Specifically, the cryptoanarchy and cypherpunks bordered on the cyberlibertarian movement occurring around the same time in the early 1990s, led in part by John Perry Barlow. Barlow summed up cyber-libertarians as “identifiable by their adherence to the belief that the incorporeal and borderless nature of the digital environment would render traditional law-makers powerless, and would empower the community within cyberspace to elect its own law-makers and to design its own laws tailored to that environment.” The cyber-libertarians wanted to have the opportunity to set their own limits within the internet because the state doesn’t have any say in cyberspace. So while the cypherpunks do not identify with cyber-libertarianism, there are overlaps in philosophies that might aim to integrate the two together, when they are otherwise distinct sets of ideologies as a whole. Overall, the movement members of cryptoanarchy (those previously introduced cypherpunks) come from all different backgrounds, interests, and experiences.

Have we reached cryptoanarchy?

We certainly haven’t reached cryptoanarchy, but the movement’s philosophy is foundational to the recent web3 surge – privacy, anonymity, decentralization, without censorship or identification. However, much of the conversation about web3, including, in part, the immense focus on the financial aspect, has both reenergized the cryptoanarchy movement and also brought in an entirely new audience with different motivations and interests. While the creation of blockchain and cryptocurrency is in line with realizing the cryptoanarchy mission of privacy away from state and corporate actors, the core values of the cypherpunks are largely lost within the wave of most recent waves of crypto-fanatics looking for the next get-rich-quick opportunity.

It is in large part due to the cypherpunks that much of the web3 technology can be furthered, as the community has been hard at work around the globe incorporating new autonomous ways of interacting online, such as sending anonymous emails and strengthening encryptions for being anonymous in forums and other online spaces. And much of their work was stalled without any means of a truly anonymous and state-unaffiliated digital cash system, which made Bitcoin and the blockchain important aspects of furthering the movement. But where web3 has taken off, cypherpunks are not all along for the ride.

Where are they now?

The cypherpunks are dedicated to continuing to work away at this goal to build a web that models their philosophy of use. The movement might not feel as strong as it once was – especially since the disbanding of the Cypherpunk Mailing List – but mainly due to the complete ubiquitousness of the internet over the past three decades that has allowed for unprecedented use, companies, and technologies to be built on, for, and around it. However, many cypherpunk communities still exist throughout the web, and these communities are actively working to build their vision of the web that was dreamt about 50 years ago. Inventions and iterations of new tools have continued to be created and shared for the purpose of realizing this vision. In essence, the philosophy of cryptoanarchy is still very much alive and well, and finding a footing within the web3 communities.

Disclaimer: This article is by no means a fully comprehensive history, but rather a snapshot. If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few places to get started: Cryptoanarchy wiki page, Cryptonomicon, and Cypherpunks Write Code in American Scientist.