Does Cyberspace Exist? Is It Free? Reflections, 20 years Later, on
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"A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"
John Perry Barlow, Board Member,
Freedom of the Press Foundation
February 8, 2016
[NOTE: This is
an edited, compressed text -- the original is here, and all JNelson
comments are in square brackets. --Jerry Nelson, 8February2018]
Twenty years ago
tonight, I was at a staff party for the closing of the World Economic
Forum, lured there by a coven of [lovely young women who] staffed the
Forum in those days,...largely doctoral students in Foreign Affairs at
the University of Geneva. But I had also agreed to write something ...
for a book called '24 Hours in Cyberspace', ...a silly proposition,
given that it was largely a book of photographs, and a photograph has
yet to be taken of anything in Cyberspace.
... one of the
photographs ... was taken on a primitive digital camera by Tipper Gore
as Bill Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act, a
wholly futile piece of legislation that proposed a $250,000 fine on
anyone uttering online any of seven words I [had] never failed to hear
every time I was a guest in the Senate Members Dining Room.
The bill was a sweeping assertion of powers that were unconstitutional in the U.S. [or] anywhere else in the world.
So, facing a
deadline, and filled with ... indignation not only at the
Communications Decency Act, but at the many bland assertions I’d heard
at the World Economic Forum about regulating and controlling the
Internet, I [wrote] a manifesto declaring the natural anti-sovereignty
of ... Cyberspace.
"Cyberspace" has become synonymous with "the Internet".
Author Bruce Sterling credits John Perry Barlow as the first to use it
to refer to "the present-day nexus of computer and telecommunications
Like [those] who
had passed the Communications Decency Act, few of the powerful men at
the World Economic Forum had ever been online... They had secretaries
who typed. It wasn’t just that they were clueless,...They were
dynamically anti-clueful, [it was] a badge of honor.
1996 was the
first year the Internet became a topic of interest [in Davos], and
they’d brought in a few wired types like myself, mostly as curiosities
and certainly as part of the entertainment. Dancing bears would
have been cheaper... [but] I wanted to write [my broadside] because it
needed to be said, whether anyone from the “weary giants” ever read or
So,... in the
middle of this fabulous, glittering party, ...I would use the
opportunity to declare – on my own authority, representing no one but
myself – my conviction that Cyberspace . . . was already free and
already independent. It was not a freedom we had to wrest from
some King. It was a freedom we’d had all along, based on the simple
lack of enforceable jurisdiction [over "place"] and the [Internet's]
inherently open architectural design [for entry].
[It's] pretty simple really.
government, neither ours nor Saudi Arabia’s, had the authority, much
less the ability, to tell the 'people of Cyberspace' ... what they
might express online. Even [if another government] ... didn’t share
America’s purported values regarding
--freedom of expression,
--unreasonable search and seizure, etc.
governments] were ready to cede to the United States [either the] moral
authority [or the] legal standing [to assert those controls itself].
...Authority, heretofore God-given down a long white column with the
Almighty on top and you on the bottom, was about become something ...
derived from a horizontally networked consensus, [with almost] no
practical way to impose it hierarchically.
I admit that,
coming from Wyoming, where unwritten social contracts seem to work
pretty well, [it seemed] that...absent...credible law, such “organic”
methods of self-regulation [might work] online... To some degree,
they have. In most ways, they have not. As the entire Human Race
came online, including the very worst of us, it was naïve of me to
think that the Russian Mob (or the Russian Government, for that matter)
was going to have much truck with consensus systems aimed at the
[common good of us all, the] commonweal.
But it was late,
I was in a hurry, and there always seemed to be a pretty girl next to
me pouring another glass of champagne. So I wrote a number of
things I might not have written [on the] cold, gray dawn [that
followed]. This probably also accounts for my decision to imitate
the grandiloquent literary style of a notorious slave-holder like
Thomas Jefferson. (For which I took endless grief from Post-Modernists
all over Europe.)
Third, ... the
whole notion one could own free speech was going to be very hard to
perpetuate, [since] anybody could perfectly reproduce anything humans
make with their minds and distribute it infinitely at zero cost.
Since the desire to share cool stuff is a human impulse just this side
of sex, it didn’t seem likely to me that harsh laws... were going to
keep people from sharing everything... songs ... mathematical theorems.
[Even in 1996,]
I could see that the primary tool of censorship was going to be
copyright law -- [copyright, not calls to shut the Internet down to
stop] kiddy porn, [not to open up everything to surveillance, to outlaw
encryption and unmask every action to stop] terrorism.
As I wrote the
piece between dances, I received substantive help from Mike Nelson,
which was ironic in that Mike was at the time the Clinton
Administration’s Main Man on Internet matters. Finally, he was getting
a chance to support me rather than debate me over positions with which
he secretly agreed.
just hit “send” and dispatched the piece to the editors of '24 Hours in
Cyberspace' (who found it too controversial to include in their coffee
table book). In addition, I sent it out the next day to the 600 or so
friends [for whom] I had e-mail addresses [with me].
And then I had
my first experience with online virality, [with "going viral"]....
[Within days,] I was receiving supportive e-mails by the megabyte from
all over the planet. At the end of a month [it was] on at least
10,000 Internet sites. I had apparently spoken for somebody.
And then my
Declaration largely faded from general consciousness, though it has
been perennially fashionable for representatives of the Old Order to
trot it out as an example of ... wooly-headed hippie thinking [that's
untenable in the age of terrorism]. Most of the excellent personages
who hold it up for ridicule have either not read it or still failed to
understand it when they did....
... And while
there were things I might have done differently had I thought I was
going have to defend it to the end of my days, nonetheless, I will
stand by it still.
I do not believe that the Nation State, for all its efforts to bring the Net to heel, has really succeeded.
... if one is
reasonably savvy technically, he or she can express whatever they wish
without fear of reprisal [EDITOR: using tools developed and then
distributed to journalists first at the New Yorker, and then across the
nation by The Freedom of the Press Foundation, where John Perry Barlow
was a founding Board member; without fear of reprisal, protected by an
organization which is to discrimination in cyberspace what the NAACP is
to black America, and which is to injustice and curtailed freedom on
the Internet what the ACLU is to injustice and curtailed freedoms in
society; namely, protected by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where
John Perry Barlow was a founder with John Gilmore (employee #5 at Sun
Microsystems), Mitch Kapor (inventor, Lotus 1-2-3), and Steve Wozniak
(Apple), and long-time Board member.]
But what about
China, you will sputter? Well, in my experience, the actual
relationship between China and the Internet is much more nuanced and
complex than appears through our media. The Chinese government isn’t
stupid. They don’t want to deny their smartest people access to our
smartest people, even as they attempt to insert enough [delay, or
"capacitance”, as it were] into their version of the Internet to
prevent the [formation of protests in real-time, and the] formation of
another Great Cultural Revolution online.
What about NSA
surveillance, you ask? Even the NSA is now calling for more powerful
and generalized use of encryption to protect American systems from
foreign mischief. And the State Department is one of the most effective
proponents of distributing tools to assure anonymity to dissidents in
the Middle East and elsewhere [such as TOR, The Onion Router, an
identity anonymizer whose development was long supported by the
Department of Defense].
BACKGROUND ON TOR & THE NSA In 1995 three programmers at the Naval
Research Laboratory were looking for a way for soldiers and spies to
communicate via the civilian internet without revealing their location
or identity. They developed a technique called onion routing, which
conceals the origin and destination of individual packets of
information by routing them randomly through participating users’
computers . . .
could still be tracked back to the network as a whole, though, and the
Navy developers soon realized that their network would be more secure
with more users. So in 2006, the TOR project launched as a nonprofit
and the program became available to the public as a free download.
Perry Barlow is writing 2 1/2 years post-Snowden, and is misleading
himself and us about the National Security Agency. The NSA taps
and bleeds the network massively, and the storage facilities to hold it
all -- for which Utah's $2B Bluffdale is only the flagship -- are
vast. And TOR in particular? The NSA never conquered the
Navy's TOR anonymizing concept, so NSA just identifies who's using it,
and gains permanent access to her computer instead. The search
term here is "TAO - Tailored Access Operations". IMHO, our
nation's emphasis on subverting the nation's Internet technology
instead of defending it will prove to be the nation's undoing, and
Trump in the White House is only the beginning. END EDITOR'S BACKGROUND
ON TOR & THE NSA
have turned out rather as I expected... The War between the Control
Freaks and the Forces of Openness — whether of [program] code,
government, or expression - remains in the same dead heat it’s been
stuck on all these years.
The Internet does "convey to every human mind the Right to Know" and
the Internet is the pathway to reach all which curiosity propels us to
understand. So the Internet continues to propel the world's
people toward a “world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her
beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into
silence or conformity.” ]
Please read 'A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,' and judge for yourself. It holds up.
This concludes an edited version of John Perry Barlow's 2016 reminiscences about the paper that made him famous.
Does Cyberspace Exist? Is It Free? Reflections, 20 years Later, on
"A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" (original, not edited)
Frontier Foundation, whose name he invented after creating it with
friends and colleagues, carries
the paper that started it all in 1996 "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"
For lawyers and economists, Perry's milestone paper is
"The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age.
(Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong.)"
parent page: John Perry Barlow Tried to Save the Internet for the Century that Needs it Most
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