Does Cyberspace Exist? Is It Free? Reflections, 20 years Later, on
"A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"
John Perry Barlow, Board Member,
Freedom of the Press Foundation
February 8, 2016

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[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.

[Wikipedia: "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 networks."]

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 understood it.

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.

First, 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,
     --prior restraint,
     --unreasonable search and seizure, etc.

[few governments] were ready to cede to the United States [either the] moral authority [or the] legal standing [to assert those controls itself].

Second, ...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.

Eventually, I 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].

EDITOR'S 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 . . .

The packets 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.

However, John 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

Actually, things 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.

[Paraphrasing: 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.
-- end

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)

The Electronic 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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