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John Perry Barlow: Is Cyberspace Still Anti-Sovereign?

February 12, 2018
by John Perry Barlow
John_Perry_Barlow_Mount_Tamalpais Image source: Emily Allstot

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in April 2006. Last week, John Perry Barlow—poet, Internet phlilosopher and activist, known for an eclectic resume and zest for life— died in his sleep after a period of ill health. California is reposting this story in light of that news

Ten years ago, when hyperbole was the last word, John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was compared by many to Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, which signaled the beginning of the American Revolution. Writing for Wired magazine, Barlow heralded the rise of the digerati. In turn he was trumpeted by them for delivering the seminal pronouncement of the emergent digital age and for declaring war on any institution that would try to control the Internet. His manifesto has since been widely distributed, widely quoted, and is linked to more than 20,000 Internet sites. As a consequence, he has been called “the Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace.” A decade later, as Cyberspace and Real Space have merged, California magazine asked him to reexamine his manifesto, assessing where he was right, where he was sort of right, and where he was overblown. Is Cyberspace still anti-sovereign?


In cyberspace, 10 years is like a geological period. The decade since I got myself into a state and ranted forth A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace has been as epochal as the Cambrian Explosion. And it’s hard to remember now how few conventionally powerful people even knew it existed. In 1996, many of them still believed that it would be blown away by the Information Superhighway, which was their current code phrase for interactive television. They knew the real future of bytes was not conversation but “content,” which they would own, sell, censor, and control as surely as they had broadcast media, commercial music and film.

They viewed the Internet as a hobbyists’ playground, no bigger deal than ham radio. Indeed, in early 1996, I was on a panel in Washington, D.C., with AT&T’s then CEO Bob Allen, during which he called the Internet “a toy.” I predicted that persisting in that belief would cost him his job. It turned out to be worse than that. Today, AT&T barely exists, an outcome that seemed about as likely then as the collapse of the Soviet Union did in 1985.

But, wrong as these forces may have been, they had the money. Like their railroad baron predecessors, they had purchased Congress, seduced the president, and convinced the vice president that the whole nasty project was his idea.

[The Communications Decency Act] attempted to place more restrictive constraints on the conversation in Cyberspace than functionally existed in the Senate cafeteria, where I had dined a few times and overheard many colorful indecencies.

They weren’t dumb, these guys. Indeed, they remain some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But you can only be as smart as the framework of your reality permits. And they—or, more to the point, the organizations, institutions, habits of mind, legal systems, and social practices of which they were manifestations—had created a box that was hard to think themselves out of.

To the extent that they took the Internet seriously, they generally regarded it as a threat—a hot zone of sexual perversion, anarchy, terrorism, and bad manners. And yet they assumed it was also somehow American, like, say, the Panama Canal had been to a previous generation of Big Americans. We built it. It’s ours. We can run it. Our laws apply to all those who use it.

Operating on these two assumptions, Congress created the ironically named Telecommunications Reform Act, which contained within it the Communications Decency Act.

This stunningly dumb bit of legislation had passed in the Senate with only five dissenting votes. It aspired to make it unlawful, and punishable by a $250,000 fine, to say “shit” online. Or, for that matter, to say any of the seven other dirty words prohibited in American broadcast media. Or to discuss abortion openly. Or to talk about bodily functions in any but the most clinical terms.

It attempted to place more restrictive constraints on the conversation in Cyberspace than functionally existed in the Senate cafeteria, where I had dined a few times and overheard many colorful indecencies.

Nonetheless, Congress declared that the American government had the right—not to mention the even more improbable ability—to penalize and erase whatever Internet-distributed human expression some rube from Bug Tussle, Oklahoma, thought might transgress his cultural comfort zone. The fines were heavy. The language was vague. The limits of jurisdiction and procedures for enforcement were unclear at best.

Most of the people who voted for it had never touched a keyboard in their lives; that being something cute lil’ staffers did. Indeed, one of the only wired solons on Capitol Hill, Senator Patrick Leahy, had this to say at the time:

Maybe those who are on the Internet ought to ask their Members of the House or the Senate, do they use it? Do they understand it? Do they understand the computer? I do not want to ask them if they know how to do really technical things, like programming a VCR. Ask them if they can turn on the Internet? Can they actually talk with each other? And if they cannot, maybe Internet users ought to tell their Members, “Then leave us alone. Leave us alone.”

The self-congratulatory arrogance of my hosts irritated me almost as much as Congress’ and Clinton’s. Of course, I failed at that time to have a proper appreciation of my own.

Well, yeah… Still, his colleagues were untroubled by this admonition, and I was not particularly surprised. What did surprise me was that Bill Clinton, a man who certainly should have known better, signed it and defended it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was defeated by a coalition that included the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU.

On the day that Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform Act, February 8, 1996, I was in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. I was surrounded by people who ran the world. While most of these elegantly-suited Alphas were conducting business as usual, convinced as well of their continued ability to do so, enough of them had heard of the Internet that the organizers had thought it hip to invite a small side show of “digerati.” These included the founders of Wired magazine, plus Clifford Stoll, Nicholas Negroponte, and myself. I think we were generally regarded as part of the entertainment. The self-congratulatory arrogance of my hosts irritated me almost as much as Congress’ and Clinton’s. Of course, I failed at that time to have a proper appreciation of my own.

I had been asked to write a piece for the original online project of 24 Hours in Cyberspace, which was later followed up by a book of the same name, and consisted mostly of photographs of people with computers, taken during that particular day. The managing editor, a fellow named Spencer Reiss—who is now a writer for Wired—was driving me hard. He told me that if I didn’t get something written by that night, which was also the night the Forum was concluding with customary fanfare, I would have to hold my fire.

Among the delicious features of the World Economic Forum, of which there are a few, is that the organizers customarily recruit a platoon of comely young graduate students from the University of Geneva to fawn over the attendees. I was feeling particularly well fawned over. So I set my computer up in an office adjacent to the ballroom and dashed back and forth between dancing with these Armani clad geishas and composing my screed. Less distraction might have yielded a more thoughtful document, but things were as they were.

Around midnight, I had something that seemed more or less sufficient to my purpose. It was more a statement of what I believed already existed than a call for liberation. I didn’t mean to set Cyberspace free. It was and, in my view, would be. I meant to explain the natural state of its liberty, or, at the least, the unlikelihood that the human interactions that took place in this new social space would ever become fully compliant to the sovereignty of existing governments.

Having written it, I then submitted it for vetting by an unlikely pair. One of them was Mike Nelson, who was then the Clinton Administration’s primary policy advisor on matters digital. Mike was and is a good guy, though it was then his sorry lot to debate me in international forums where he was always forced by his condition of employment to take positions on censorship, privacy, cryptography, and copyright that were contrary to his own privately held convictions.

The other was Lynn Forrester, a vivid woman who was then my traveling companion and who is now, more appropriately to her purposes, married to Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a billionaire of lengthy provenance. Still, Lynn had some visions in those days that also matched mine. She was setting up telecommunications companies in places like Bosnia in part because she wanted people in troubled places to be able to communicate freely. Better information meant greater understanding.

One magazine in Canada recently declared its release “the most embarrassing moment of the ’90s,” which, given the ’90s, is saying something.

Lynn and Mike offered some suggestions, none of them moderating the rhetoric. Near dawn, it was as finished as I had the patience to make it. After some difficulty obtaining an Internet connection—there being none provided by the World Economic Forum—I zapped it off to both Spencer Reiss and my e-mail list. As it happened, it was too radical for inclusion in the feel-good coffee table book for which it was written, but, as it turned out, I published it anyway. It spread across Cyberspace like kudzu, even though I had neither meant nor expected it to. Even today, one can find it on about 22,000 websites. However casually composed it was, I was stuck with it and so were a lot of other folks, some of whom took sore exception to being represented by it.

I remember an excruciating hour in Madrid in about 1997 when a grumpy audience of post-Marxist, post-modern Europeans had at me for such sins as imitating the style of a slave-owner. One magazine in Canada recently declared its release “the most embarrassing moment of the ’90s,” which, given the ’90s, is saying something.

I was also battered about severely for appearing to claim that Cyberspace was somehow sublimely abstracted from what I later came to call Meatspace. Didn’t I realize that all this liberating discourse was being generated by and transmitted through physical things? Was I unaware that the Internet had been created by the Defense Department of the United States?

That I left myself open to such charges was clearly an error. I regard the relationship between Cyberspace and Meatspace to be as profoundly overlapping as the relationship between mind and body. It is difficult for me to imagine thought without the supporting “squishyware,” and yet I would still maintain there is a pretty fundamental difference between an idea and the flesh where it takes form. Obviously, I ought to have been more precise about my terms.

There are a number of things I’d change about the language of that screed, but, still, a decade later, it feels both impetuous and important. Serious questions remain. Was it accurate? Is Cyberspace naturally anti-sovereign? If so, is that a good thing?

It’s not that difficult to cite examples where local thinking has been acted on globally. The Chinese have done some filtering—ironically using tools which Electronic Frontier Foundation encouraged the development of—but, if one is in China and knows the score, it’s not hard to get around their barriers. (I have received random “calls” from Chinese Skype users wishing to practice their English, who appear comfortable speaking about their government very freely.)

Consider, moreover, the Falun Gong. Using information largely distributed by the Internet, this proscribed spiritual group has managed to recruit, by some estimates, as many as 100 million Chinese to their, um, whatever the hell it is. And if you’re maintaining a Falun Gong website, and your physical organism is in China, the Chinese government will certainly come to your home and make your life much harder. But their leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York. Most of their web servers are in the U.S. As much as the Chinese government would like to stifle their point of view, it doesn’t seem to be making much progress.

I am also aware that the French were able to bully Yahoo into banning the advertisement of Nazi memorabilia. I am aware that pederastic predators have been arrested, that some online frauds have been stopped, that knowledge of various sorts has been forbidden to spread. Indeed, one could write a book about all the ways in which existing governments and multinationals have imposed themselves on the global commons, and, indeed, several people have done so, most recently a couple of Harvard colleagues of mine, Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith, who claim in their recent book Who Controls the Internet? that existing governments and commercial interests are demonstrating effective authority over this zone I declared to be naturally beyond their legal reach. They are right, but only to a degree.

Frankly, there are moments these days when I wish they were more right than I believe they are. On the Internet today we are beset with spam, viruses, international fraud, identity theft, unregulated surveillance, and an ascending spew of increasingly bizarre pornography. And no power of the physical world seems able to stop it.

I was delighted the empowerment of the small against the large. But I was thinking of the likes of myself becoming asymmetrically advantaged against the State. I hadn’t considered the possibility of Osama bin Laden, who used the Internet quite effectively…

Though my spam-filtering system is good, I still receive several hundred spams a week and have weeks when as many as 20,000 are directed at me. This, despite the fact that, in accordance with the CAN-SPAM act of 2003, most of these are illegal in the United States. Computer viruses are illegal just about everywhere, but all my PC-using friends constantly lament how much time and energy they spend dealing with digital infections.

When one is slandered by a technically adept person on the Internet, there isn’t much one can do about it. A company I’ve been working with in England, Amteus, Ltd., was nearly put out of business by what was likely a disgruntled former employee anonymously and falsely claiming on a site called Techdirt that Amteus is a secret spamming operation, a charge this person hugely amplified by linking his posting to thousands of websites so that it would always appear near the top of the Google ranking whenever one searched for “Amteus.” He also linked the company name to a lot of really ugly porn sites. None of this was helpful when the company was recently launching an IPO, but there was nothing they could do about it. The perpetrator was invisible. The links couldn’t be removed. There was no government Amteus could turn to for redress.

Even when I was right in my vision, some of the consequences turned out to be less utopian than I might have wished. Back when I wrote the declaration, I was delighted by what I knew would be its greatest boon, the empowerment of the small against the large. But I was thinking of the likes of myself becoming asymmetrically advantaged against the State. I hadn’t considered the possibility of Osama bin Laden, who used the Internet quite effectively in organizing and defending an attack that turned the most powerful nation on earth into a paranoid child with persuasive justifications for imposing fascism on its citizens. (Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, many of these totalitarian ambitions cannot be realized. Yeah, the NSA is spying on Americans who use digital media, but they’re having no visible luck in turning this surveillance into actual arrests.)

There is also the question of what is still pleased to call itself “intellectual property.” Regardless of one’s position on file sharing, it would be challenging to demonstrate that copyright law is working in Cyberspace. Huge companies, governments, international bodies, and “content” organizations have gone to great and expensive trouble to stop people from exchanging the information they find valuable, whatever its condition of ownership. They are not winning. For every person the Recording Industry Association of America sues for infringement, there are hundreds of thousands who engage in it freely and without penalty. Nor do they seem particularly frightened about getting caught. Their numbers, and the number of copyrighted files they exchange, are growing every day.

(At this point I want to parenthetically insert a note of gratitude to Pam Samuelson, a Berkeley professor with a joint appointment in the School of Information Management and Systems and Boalt Hall. She was the person who converted me, clear back in 1990, to the view that the real battle of Cyberspace would be over copyright. I have been credited for this insight, but I owe it to her. I was only the first person to write about it in a prose environment that didn’t require a lot of footnotes.)

The Internet provides open field running for con artistry. A few years ago, I was in Accra, Ghana, observing activity in an amazingly vast Internet “café” called BusyInternet. Busy as hell, it was. Hundreds of terminals were in use around the clock, often by groups. I happened on a little gang of teenagers who had created a very plausible website that was supposedly selling African artifacts to customers in the U.S. and Europe. They had some great stuff for sale, which is not surprising given that most of their purported offerings were in the National Museum of Ghana. What they were really doing was harvesting Northern credit card numbers, along with all the security information necessary to use those numbers at will. When I considered what to do, the only authority I could invoke was my own—I did give them a sharp lecture about ethics in a self-regulatory environment—but it didn’t seem likely that either the FBI or the Ghanaian authorities were going to be able to do much about it.

Everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening. It’s like poetry. Far more write it than read it.

There are, in addition, areas where I was simply wrong. At least, so far. In 1996, I was convinced that giving everyone a voice would change the balance of political power. But, meanwhile, back in the physical world, which is still armed and dangerous, things continue their own ugly course.

The United States of America is presently under the nominal control of someone who is proud to have never received nor written an email. His éminence grise is someone I know, and he thinks all this cybercrap is irrelevant to the exercise of power. Power is still about money and votes. Howard Dean’s initial successes aside, netizens have shown little capacity to focus either of these in a decisive way. My belief in the virtues of giving all humanity a voice did not take into account what would happen if you gave every one of a billion people his own virtual soapbox and street corner. Everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening. It’s like poetry. Far more write it than read it.

Meanwhile, the folks who are easily seduced by Bill O’Reilly (or whomever else, and there are many, who have mastered demagogic persuasion through broadcast media) are buying ever nastier messages. Perhaps they are no longer the majority, but they are united enough in their beliefs to control the processes of democracy. Meanwhile, the lonely pamphleteers of the Internet preach to audiences too fragmentary to create a voting bloc. I said in 1996 that Cyberspace was unlikely to become a democracy and I was more right than I’d feared.

I could go on. My point is that there are many unforeseen consequences of Internet ubiquity that I would alter if I could. There are many human rights that hubbub alone can’t ensure. But just as laws are hard to enforce in Cyberspace, so are rights.

In other words, my strident and fundamental point about the impotence of those “weary giants” has been demonstrated, but with occasionally different results than I would prefer. Liberty has its downsides; though, considering the alternative, I’ll cast my lot with freedom. Still, you’ll have a hard time proving to me that I was naïve in suggesting that the Internet created a kind of human immunity to official coercion that we had not seen before. That not all of the results have been positive doesn’t alter my essential point in this regard.

If I erred, it was in the implication that some miracle of enlightenment might arise as a result of this. That was naïve. We are as we are. It will take a lot more than TCP/IP to change human nature into something more universally benign.

In the long run, things may improve. We are engaged in a long process. When it comes to profound technological interventions—whether by steam or steel, books or bytes, electricity or elections—we consistently overestimate their transformative power in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. Only when a new technology is mature enough to be almost completely invisible to the majority does it really start to alter society. A lot of the immigrants have to die before the new natives can take over.

I imagine a future where intelligence will be the primary economic resource, and the location of one’s cerebral cavity will be irrelevant to the earning potential of its contents.

And yet… It’s not as if the arising “Civilization of Mind” has yielded no benefits so far.

When, in 1985, I first typed telnet at a command prompt and caused a hard disk a thousand miles away from Wyoming to start spinning, it was like a religious experience. Now, most people click on an icon and neither know nor care about the physical processes they set into motion. It just works.

For me, the dreams inspired by my initial contact with the Internet were already 11 years old when I wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Ten years have passed since then and, despite all the aforementioned disappointments, many of them remain intact.

I still dream of a world where anyone can express anything he or she chooses, no matter how odious or unpopular, without fear of official reprisal. I dream of a world where anyone else can either hear or ignore those expressions as they choose, but will at least be able to make that choice with similar immunity. I dream of a world where anyone who wants to know something will be able to learn the truth about it, regardless of his or her economic status, social standing, or race.

I imagine a future where intelligence will be the primary economic resource, and the location of one’s cerebral cavity will be irrelevant to the earning potential of its contents.

I have not given up on the idea that, as a species, we can be more humane and fair, nor have I forsaken the notion that the greater understanding bred by universal access to knowledge is the key to increasing these qualities in us.

Of course, I will continue to be disappointed in many ways. I’m a libertarian, and libertarians are notorious for overestimating both the virtues of human nature and our capacity to self-regulate on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Our collective failure to rise to that responsibility so far, as set forth in the foregoing, is the sort of thing that would discourage a less obdurate optimist.

But look at what we’ve accomplished since 1996

We’ve continued to expand the Internet exponentially without its becoming directly subject to any particular government or commercial entity. We’ve created search engines that will reliably find all publicly available information in the world. Soon, thanks to Google Print, we will even be able to find out where to look for those products of human knowledge that someone still claims to own, even if we won’t have full access to them for a while.

Skype makes it possible for total strangers all over the planet to call one another at random, forming new bonds that were never possible before. I have received many such whimsical pings from people in such disparate places as China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Qatar, Australia, Iceland, and Russia. I’ve formed some genuine friendships as a result of these magnificently miscellaneous conversations.

There is Wikipedia, which provides astonishingly accurate information on the basis of voluntary efforts by tens of thousands of people. I have yet to read an entry there on any subject I knew about personally that didn’t seem correct as far as it went. (Often there was more to be said, but I was at least in a position to say it myself if I were so moved.)

Literally millions of people in what had heretofore been economic backwaters are now employed in jobs that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The sons and daughters of peasants and street sweepers in places like India, China, Malaysia, and the Philippines are earning what is to them a comfortable wage writing code, entering data, or providing technical support.

We have more general access to the full range of world music than was ever available before. Speaking as a songwriter, I believe this is to the general good, whatever the RIAA might think. The more one knows about music, the more likely it is that he or she will be able to make new music that inspires human awe.

Even while the broadcast media continue to hypnotize large pluralities of the electorate into dumb choices, the Blogosphere is increasingly providing correctives to the official version, often with more credible authority. We don’t know how to sort through all versions yet, but we’re learning.

I appear doomed to live a long time, but I don’t think I’ll live to see the world I dreamed of when I was dashing off my little manifesto 10 years ago. Nevertheless, I believe that world is being born. It won’t be paradise, since it will be full of human beings and all our less noble qualities, but it will be more enlightened and enlightening than anything we have experienced so far.

I’m not sorry I wrote it. One day, I still believe, it will seem true.

John Perry Barlow has been a cattle rancher and lyrics writer for the Grateful Dead. With Mitchell Kapor, he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He has taught at Harvard Law School, consulted for the CIA, and written for a wide diversity of publications ranging from Communications of the ACM to The New York Times to Nerve. He was on the masthead of Wired for many years. His piece for Wired on the future of copyright, “The Economy of Ideas,” is taught in many law schools.

From the March April 2006 Can We Know Everything issue of California.

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