Future Tense

The Incomplete Vision of John Perry Barlow

He inspired activists to fight for personal liberty on the internet. He left out fighting for justice.

John Perry Barlow
John Perry Barlow, who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, died Wednesday at 70.* Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nader Khouri for the Washington Post via Getty Images.

It was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, of all places, where John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996. That might have been an odd place for a poet and former Grateful Dead lyricist to pen a foundational document of internet activism, but it was also an apt one: Barlow’s manifesto, and the movement it undergirds, helped give us the dynamic—but also often deleteriously corporatized—internet we have today.

Barlow died on Wednesday at the age of 70.* The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the cyber civil liberties organization that he co-founded in 1990—where I used to work—shared in a blog post that he passed quietly in his sleep. He leaves us a legacy that has shaped the mission of the people fighting for the open internet. That mission is an incomplete one.

Barlow was legendary for his charisma and for the elbows with which he rubbed. He did LSD with Tim Leary, was a rancher in Wyoming, and in the 1970s campaigned for Dick Cheney for Congress, though he renounced the politician after he shared a ticket with George W. Bush.* He was an admitted “ladies’ man” and “womanizer.” If Barlow was anything, he was hard to define. He passed over an opportunity to attend Harvard Law School, choosing instead to travel around India, only to become an emeritus fellow at the law school’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society many years later.

Barlow was a self-proclaimed libertarian, but in starting EFF, he showed he understood the utility of needing to work with the government, even if he didn’t like it very much. Perhaps attempting to clarify those seemingly opposed positions, he wrote his famous declaration six years later, and it became a north star for countless activists, engineers, and others hoping to build a new and boundless digital future whose inhabitants could craft their own rules, free from the confines of government control. It famously begins:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

That was a provocation and a taunt of law enforcement and policymakers, and it contained the EFF’s central insight: that these powerful people fundamentally didn’t understand cyberspace, so there needed to be an organization that could advocate for the protection of constitutional rights online. He was correct. Information moves online in ways that belie traditional forms of communication: Reproducing a digital file is free, a group of people can build massive new enterprises without ever speaking or meeting in person, new worlds can be constructed and old ones hacked and destroyed, all without anyone ever leaving their office chair. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours,” Barlow wrote. “We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”

Barlow’s focus was on harms that the government would pose to the openness of the internet, not on the harms that corporations would pose, free from government regulation. And it has been this underlying framework that has largely shaped internet activism over the past 20 years.

Many of those fighting digital surveillance in the United States have for decades primarily focused on government surveillance, not corporate surveillance, though they are intertwined. Meanwhile, as digital rights activists have pressed for decades, rather unsuccessfully, to reduce the scope and size of the national security state, internet companies have grown into tremendous surveillance superpowers of their own, free from much regulation or government oversight, and free to manipulate what we know, how we feel, and exacerbate inequities for the benefit of their stereotype-driven ad platforms.

While there has been petition after petition calling on the government to rein in its surveillance powers, there’s not been anything even close to the same level of advocacy demanding governments regulate internet corporations to collect less data and protect the privacy of the people who depend on their platforms to stay politically informed, do business, and communicate with their friends and loved ones without dangerous corporate manipulation and unfair experimentation. This is the result of a vision of the open web that holds some, but not all, of the world’s greatest powers accountable.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed details of the secretive spying programs of the National Security Agency, bringing unprecedented attention to the digital mass-surveillance powers of the U.S. government, which were only possible through collaboration with American tech companies. Following his disclosures, U.S. internet rights activists largely focused their attention on reforming the NSA. They leveraged important and valid complaints that the agency’s digital-data dragnet violated the Constitution. Though many tried to shift the focus on how some communities were more prone to mass surveillance than others, the concern generally centered on how government surveillance harms basic constitutional rights, and less focused on how state spying can harm vulnerable communities. And although Snowden put digital surveillance in the headlines and offered the opportunity to build what could have been a robust movement for digital privacy, the laws that internet activists have fought to repeal and reform haven’t really changed since his disclosure, and Americans seem no more invested in fighting surveillance than they were before he blew the whistle on his previous employer’s spy craft. A widespread movement never fully blossomed, and now the moment may be lost. Looking back, I have to wonder whether this was because of its abstract priorities, which gave secondary prominence to the travails of threatened populations and comparatively minuscule emphasis to the surveillance excesses of corporations. The advocates who had been fighting for internet reforms before Snowden took their cue from Barlow, rarely veering from that path.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t some important wins, like when internet giants like Google and Facebook joined their users to successfully fight the anti-piracy and copyright legislation, known as SOPA and PIPA, that powerful entertainment companies wanted to pass; it could have shut down whole websites on obtuse copyright charges and likely would have completely changed the nature of the internet as we know it. And just a couple of years ago there was the net neutrality victory, in which, once again, powerful internet companies like Netflix and Pornhub raised the alarm with their users to prevent internet service providers from being able to charge websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds. Though the Federal Communications Commission recently undid that victory, it was still a massive win for internet activism. Notably, it pushed for more government regulation over the internet, not less, as Barlow so steadfastly advocated for.

It’s always sad to lose a visionary, which Barlow certainly was. He was among the first to successfully argue that the internet was worth fighting for. And even if his conception of a stateless cyberspace—where, as he put it, “all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth” and “where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”—never actually came to fruition, it still animates anyone who fights for a better web today.

At the same time, Barlow’s distaste for regulation combined with an early sense that the internet would change the world (and thus should be defended from the government by the people who use it) likely helped lay the groundwork for the unhinged growth of the corporate walled gardens we have today—places where journalism has gotten lost in the weeds of fake news and new startups have diminishing chances of competing. I can’t help but ask what might have happened had the pioneers of the open web given us a different vision—one that paired the insistence that we must defend cyberspace with a concern for justice, human rights, and open creativity, and not primarily personal liberty. What kind of internet would we have today?

Correction, Feb. 10, 2018: This article originally misstated John Perry Barlow’s age and that he supported Dick Cheney’s presidential campaign. He supported Cheney’s congressional campaign and died at age 70.