A prominent champion of civil liberties in cyberspace, John Perry
Barlow is best known to thousands of netizens as co-founder of
the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org/). The EFF, which was founded in July of 1990, garnered particular
attention after legally challenging the Communications Decency
Act, a law passed by Congress in February of 1996 which outlawed
the dissemination of "indecent material" over the Net. The non-profit
organization aims to protect Internet users' privacy, freedom
of speech and access to public information, and to ensure that
the "new media" of the digital age aren't excessively restricted
by existing copyright and intellectual property laws.
In response to the CDA, Barlow, who's had stints as a songwriter
with the Grateful Dead and as a Republican county chairman, wrote
a widely circulated essay titled "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." He continues to write and lecture on the virtualization of society,
as well as serving as vice chairman of the EFF.
With the Supreme Court set to hear a legal challenge to the CDA,
Net users and free-speech activists have been speculating on just
how narrow the bridge to the 21st century might turn out to be--and
how the free flow of information can best be preserved. Internet Underground recently talked with Barlow about the future of individual liberties.
Todd Brendan Fahey:
To the best of your knowledge, what is the current legal status
concerning freedom of speech on the Net?
John Perry Barlow:
Well, that's a terribly long question, or potentially. Let me
put it this way: With regard to the most immediate threat to freedom
of expression, which is the Communications Decency Act, we're
in pretty good shape, because even though it was passed by a large
majority of Congress and signed by the president, they were all
acting out of such a political expediency that I think they violated
their oaths of office. Nevertheless, as soon as it got before
court, which was less vulnerable to political whim, they cast
it down with extreme prejudice--it was as angry a ruling as I've
ever heard. They called the bill "an insult." And it now goes
before the Supreme Court. Now, I'm reasonably confident that it
will not prevail in the Supreme Court; the problem is, you don't
know that, because they don't know anything about the online world.
They're probably going to assume this is like broadcast. They're
not going to have an opportunity like the judges in Philadelphia
to find out that it's not like broadcast.
Well, what kinds of lobbying efforts, then, can the Electronic
Frontier Foundation [EFF]...
Well, you can't exactly lobby the Supreme Court.
I don't know if you can or can't; I've never worked that high
up in the food chain before.
There's not much you can do but pray, because there's only really
one higher authority, and God doesn't always take your case either.
But I'm reasonably confident. I think what just happened in Geneva,
with the International Copyright Treaty being signed, is in the
long run going to constitute a much greater threat, because that's
going to be used primarily to control expressions that various
institutions are uncomfortable with, under the guise of intellectual
property law--in the same way the Church of Scientology used trade
secret law to shut down conversations on the Net regarding the
Church of Scientology, claiming that by quoting passages of Scientological
scripture in some of these critical newsgroups, they were passing
out trade secrets and violating copyright laws. So, that kind
of tactic is going to get used a lot. It's a rare expression on
the Net that you can't find some kind of copyright infringement
contained in there somehow--especially when you've completely
eliminated [the] Fair Use [statute], which is what this treaty
It seems to me that this tendency that the U.S. is falling into,
in terms of international entanglements, as George Washington
would have put it, is increasingly not in our best interests.
at what point do we draw the line and say, it is not in the best
interest of a sovereign United States to be involved in these
things, like GATT, like the World Trade Organization, the U.N.
Well, I personally don't believe in the nation-state; so, frankly,
I'm not a very strong supporter of the sovereignty of the United
States or any other nation- state. I am not certain that I think
there is another authority that should be developing at a higher
level. I think that we're moving into a world where authority
emerges from the collective, rather than being deposited on the
this could wind up in a direction that I don't think would be
fruitful for Internet Underground.
Well, Internet Underground, as a cultural institution, is certainly part of the culture
that is staking a bet on the ability of huge-scale anarchy to
go on functioning. And that's really where we're at here--we're
hoping it's going to work based on the model of the Internet.
And I certainly don't think it's a good idea to bow to conventional
Industrial Age authority for any of the many new problems and
opportunities that are arising on the Internet.
To which authority then does one bow? I mean...
We gotta get over bowing to authority.
Well, I was gonna get to that...
The ultimate authority is one's own conscience. And one's conscience
is formed in part by the society he lives in and his willingness
to be in that society and participate in its culture. And I think
if you take a look at the history of authority, you'll find that
the authority we've [America] been using the past 300 or 400 years
is an anomaly in the history of humanity. Now, I will admit that
the rule of law had some virtues; I'm not convinced that it's
impossible for those virtues to be manifest by other means. I'm
skeptical about anarchy. I believe you have to have some kind
of hybrid of the old system and the one that's developing to maintain
order. But, by the same token, I'm not for fixing anything until
it's demonstrably broken. Much of what's going on, regarding trying
to establish authority on the Internet, is going on purportedly
to solve problems that I don't see any evidence of.
Getting back to the sense that, in many ways, this country started
out as the most free of existing "civilized" countries, it doesn't
seem that it would behoove your case or EFF's or the case for
a manageable anarchy on the Internet, to get too far away from
the idea of a Constitution with a first, not a 10th, but a First
amendment which is...
The problem is, the First Amendment is a local ordinance. And
before I'm willing to let the United States of America impose
the First Amendment on cyberspace for the rest of the world, I
would have to be also willing for the government of Saudi Arabia
to have the same rights. And I think they would exercise those
rights in a very different way. I just think by assuming we can
take refuge in the Constitution in this area, we are also giving
up a lot and are creating a lot of long-term problems for ourselves.
Playing devil's advocate, You, John Barlow, pay taxes, vote and
live in the United States of America...
I have probably spent less time in the United States this year
than outside of it, which seems to be increasingly my pattern.
But, the bottom line is, America is part of the Internet, the
world is part of the Internet, but we abide by the laws of the
United States. And this country, at least as codified in its Constitution,
has some pretty incredible freedoms that aren't afforded to other
Oh, actually, in my travels at the moment, I would say that the
most repressive police state that I've visited in the past two
years is the United States of America.
I'm not disagreeing in the slightest--but that's not Constitutional.
I think it was William O. Douglas who said: "The Constitution
might not be perfect, but it's a lot better than what we have
now." And that's absolutely right. The Constitution, especially
the Bill of Rights, has been so damaged by, primarily, the War
On Some Drugs, but also by a general assault over the course of
this century, that I don't take much refuge in it. I would say
that the First Amendment is still relatively strong, but I think
the rest of the amendments have basically been gutted.
Is it not then better to bring to the American public's awareness
and to politicians' awareness that we want desperately to return
to the Constitution...
But I don't think that's what the public wants, frankly. The reason
why the Communications Decency Act did as well as it did, was
because Congress was responding to market demands. What that percentage
of the public that still votes in the United States is calling
for, desperately, is shorter chains and smaller cages. And there's
no question about that. In a sense, I have lost faith in democracy.
Any time you have a democracy that is completely hallucinating,
which this one is...
I hear you saying that a lot. Why don't you elaborate just a tiny
Well, hallucinatory democracy is what you've got when you've got
persons forming opinions almost exclusively on the basis of media
that are motivated dysfunctionally to paint a completely distorted
picture of the world. And I'm not talking about a massive conspiracy;
I'm talking about the fact that there is a simple, natural algorithm
at work here--which is, that the broadcast media live on the attention
of the audience and sell the attention of the audience to the
advertisers. And, if you're trying to harvest attention, you have
a strong interest in fertilizing it; if you're trying to fertilize
attention, you have a strong interest in presenting a picture
of the world that is going to be quite different from the one
that most people experience. So, you've got a large percentage
of society who are in a state of panic about problems they've
never experienced and which do not actually exist.
Yes. And if you hear politicians, in a democracy, you have no
choice but to respond to the wishes of the people, even when the
people have gone nuts. Otherwise, you're going to get defeated.
OK, we can't trust the politicians and the people have gone mad.
Let me press you to a hypothetical extreme, that might not be
too extreme after the April Court ruling. Let's say that the Court
comes down in favor of Net censorship, and let's say the stipulations
are fairly rigid, and that they affect more than just a preventative
measure against minors accessing porn. Where does that leave the
active, engaged anarchist such as yourself?
Well, that leaves us in a position of considerable moral responsibility.
This will require some courage, but we have to focus our energies
on making sure the Net stays open by technical and cultural means
that are within our own making. We have to make certain that if
there is material that may be proscribed by any government, anywhere,
that there are other ways of storing that material that are without
the jurisdiction of that government; we have to start using encryption
for a lot of our communications; but, more than anything else,
we have to be brave. I've always felt that liberty is a matter
of its own exercise. You are as free as you're willing to be.
You can do whatever your conscience will permit, until somebody
stops you. And I think we have to think hard about our conscience,
and then we have to do what we feel is right. And if we become
fearful, if we play into the hands of these authoritarians, we'll
destroy, I think, the future of humanity in a fundamental way.
Because the future of humanity depends, and this is not an exaggeration,
on the Internet remaining an open environment for discourse.
It seems that the conscience, it can be argued, of the public,
whether they're hallucinating or whether they're seeing something
you don't see...
Well, it's not simply a matter of seeing things that I don't see.
They have, for example, a perception that a terrible crime wave
is sweeping this country. And in addition to the fact that I don't
experience it--and I go to places where I might--the statistics
from the FBI and local police departments don't bear it out.
On the flip side, as a representative democracy, at least in theory,
people of this country were able to challenge the constitutionality
of the CDA. There is a perception that morals, with a capital
"M" prevail over liberty. I mean, what do we do about this perception?
Well, we take what little refuge the Constitution still provides;
We spend a lot of time in court. We...well...
It's a tough one, huh?
And we take our freedom into our own hands. I mean, we behave
like free people until somebody comes along and stops us. And
if the entire society declares its own liberty, it makes it very
difficult for the persons in control to tell it otherwise. I also
think there is something inherently liberating about getting on
the Internet. There has been demonstrated a cultural infection
in Internet use that is more powerful than the infections that
others bring to it. And I place a great deal of faith in what's
going to happen in society when more people are online and fewer
people are watching television.
This interview originally appeared in Internet Underground, February 3rd, 1997.