John Perry Barlow and the struggle for the independence of cyberspace

  • Themes: The Lost Decade – 1990s Week on Engelsberg Ideas

In 1996 John Perry Barlow penned his 'Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace'. The war between politicians and tech-idealists had just begun.

John Perry Barlow (centre, with beard) speaks with Bill Gates at the Annual PC Forum, 1991.
John Perry Barlow (centre, with beard) speaks with Bill Gates at the Annual PC Forum, 1991. Credit: Ann E. Yow-Dyson / Getty Images.

The past, sometimes even the recent past, is a foreign land. They do things differently there. Take, for example, the recent history of the internet, the digital network now used by nearly 5 billion connected souls around the world. A quarter of a century ago, however, rather than being the home of more than half of humanity, the internet was settler territory, akin to the lawless and sparsely populated American West of the nineteenth century. 

Yes, they did things very differently in those prehistoric digital days. Online access, marshalled by ‘Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) such as American Online (AOL), Prodigy, and Compuserve, was slow and clunky. In January 1996, there were only around 16 million people online, mostly American geeks who, like their analogue cowboy forbearers, were fiercely hostile toward traditional authorities. Twenty-five years ago, today’s internet – dominated by trillion-dollar leviathans like Amazon and Google and by ubiquitous social networks like Facebook – was in the process of being born. 

In January 1996, for example, two Stanford University computer science graduate students, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, launched a research project for an internet search engine called Page Rank which would eventually become known as Google.  Another geeky entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos, a former Wall Street analyst with a Princeton degree in computer science, had just opened an online bookstore named after a major Latin American river which, in early 1996, was making the princely sum of $20,000 in monthly sales. Meanwhile, a fourth geek, a technically precocious kid from the New Jersey suburbs called Mark Zuckerberg, wasn’t even in high school, let alone Harvard, where he would, eight years later, launch a social network called ‘The Facebook.’ 

But, like the nineteenth century American West, things were changing fast in the digital world which, by 1996, was mostly centred in Silicon Valley – the northern California peninsula of land between San Francisco and San Jose. The internet’s first commercial browser, Marc Andreessen’s Netscape, had only gone public in August 1995, triggering the beginning of a five year dot-com stock market boom in which AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve were quickly eclipsed by high flying Silicon Valley start-ups like Netflix, Yahoo! and eBay. Internet usage was growing exponentially, with 20 million new users coming online in 1996, many drawn to its bawdy chatrooms and explosion of titillating websites. By February 1996, traditional media had discovered the internet and were crowning start-up entrepreneurs such as Andreessen and Bezos the pin-ups of what they coined the ‘new economy.’ Even the federal government, located 2,000 miles east of San Francisco in the decidedly analog town of Washington DC, was beginning to wake up to the new economy, realising that the digital cowboys and their unregulated online content may require a new kind of governance. 

Like the struggles between the federal government and western settlers in the 1800s, the issue was of power and authority. The great question was how new this new economy really was and whether it should fall under the same laws as traditional media companies like television stations, movie studios, book publishers and telecommunications providers. It was the first shot in an ongoing twenty-five year legislative war between Washington DC and cyberspace.

Back in 1996, the American vice-president was a geeky former Senator called Al Gore who coined the term ‘information superhighway’ and had, half-jokingly, claimed to have invented the internet. Gore and his boss, Bill Clinton, had been working on a major bill with Congress called the Telecommunications Act of 1996, designed to radically deregulate the American telephone system. And Title V of this Act was something known as the Communications Decency Act which, for the first time, attempted to both regulate and carve out the internet as an online space with unique legal rights and responsibilities. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was passed by Congress on 1 February, 1996 and signed by President Clinton a week later, affected the internet in two equally profound but radically opposite ways. First, this was an act determined to clean up the internet by criminalizing both online ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ content. The act discriminated against internet companies by establishing  much stricter censorship rules for online content. Secondly, attached to the Decency Act was some additional legislation, known as Section 230, which provided legal protection for internet service providers and users from actions against them based on third-party content. In contrast with the stricter libel laws associated with traditional media, Section 230 gave internet companies a legal loophole for avoiding responsibility for user content. The Act was a double-edged sword; it both gave and it took away from the young internet companies of cyberspace. 

The early internet settlers, particularly the ‘free-speech’ crowd obsessed with upholding the First Amendment of the US Constitution, were outraged by this Communications Decency Act. And the organisation that lead the fight against it was the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit group set up in Boston in 1990 by four leading internet civil libertarians: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, technologists John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, and a unique spirit named John Perry Barlow. 

‘This stunningly dumb bit of legislation 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,’  Barlow later wrote about the Act. ‘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,’ he added.

It was appropriate that John Perry Barlow should co-found a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He was very much a frontier man: born in a Wyoming family of Mormon cattle ranchers and ending his life in San Francisco, merging the Jeffersonian optimism of the nineteenth-century settler with the equally innocent idealism of late twentieth-century cyber-libertarianism. Best known as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow lived his entire life on one frontier or another, leaving his uniquely Western counter-cultural signature on his cattle-ranching, his writing, his drug taking, his carousing and, above all, his commitment to the open space of the internet.

As it happened, Barlow found himself in the Swiss village of Davos on 8 February, 1996, the day Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act, at the World Economic Forum. Like the American media, the world’s business leaders had ‘discovered’ the internet by 1996 and invited Barlow and some other digiterati to their annual retreat. 

‘I was surrounded by people who ran the world. The self-congratulatory arrogance of my hosts irritated me almost as much as Congress’ and Clinton’s,’ the then 50 year-old Barlow wrote with his characteristic irreverence about this Davos crowd. 

Barlow had been commissioned by the San Francisco-based tech journalist Spencer Reiss to write a piece for an online project entitled 24 Hours in Cyberspace, a Kodak-sponsored collection from luminaries like Al Gore designed to create a digital capsule of online life. So, in addition to hobnobbing with the annoying people who ran the world, Barlow was also on deadline. 

‘Reiss drove me hard,’ Barlow explained about the evening of 8 February. ‘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.’

The one thing John Perry Barlow had never done throughout his colourful life was hold his fire. And so the cowboy-booted rancher from Wyoming pulled an all-nighter in the Swiss mountains, combining dancing with Davos’ ‘Armani clad geishas’ at the closing party with writing his screed against Bill Clinton’s Communications Decency Act. 

The result of Barlow’s hard labour up in the Swiss mountains was an 850-word manifesto, equally brilliant and absurd, which articulated the principles of a radically autonomous internet. Modelled loosely on Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, it was entitled ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.’

‘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,’ the Wyoming rancher began his defence of the internet’s wide open-space. 

‘We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,’ he described the simultaneously egalitarian and libertarian promise of the internet. ‘We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.’

Everyone was welcome in Cyberspace, Barlow wrote, everyone, that is, except the government of conventional politicians like Bill Clinton. ‘Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here,’ he concluded with a symphonic fanfare more suitable, perhaps, for a hallucinogenic Grateful Dead song than a conventional political manifesto. 

‘We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.’

One irony was that, the following morning, Barlow had trouble finding an internet connection in Davos so he could e-mail his finished document to Spencer Reiss in San Francisco.  In fact, when I spoke to Reiss he suggested that Barlow might have even had to fax the piece to beat the publishing deadline. So, irony of ironies, the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace might have been originally sent on that most archaic of communications devices: an analogue telefascimile machine that scanned the words before noisily relaying it to Silicon Valley as a single fixed graphic image. 

There was no social media, no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn back then, so Barlow had to rely on his own e-mail list of a thousand friends to build buzz for the Declaration, once it went live on the 24 Hours in Cyberspace website. But buzz, which Barlow had been cultivating throughout his colourful life, he certainly built. 

‘It spread across Cyberspace like kudzu, even though I had neither meant nor expected it to,’ Barlow wrote. By May, 5,000 websites were displaying the Declaration and by the end of 1996 it was up on at least 40,000 sites – an astonishing number for an internet that was still in its relative infancy. Within a few months, then, Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace had arrived in the broader public consciousness. It became the Jeffersonian document of our digital age. 

That’s another of the myriad ironies about this story. Barlow’s skill in articulating the promise of the internet in the utopian language of the Western settler had unintentionally captured the spirit of the times. The Grateful Dead lyricist had created a kind of political Woodstock for the late nineties of the dot-com stock market bubble – a spellbinding performance that captured the zeitgeist, in which the promise of the virtual world dramatically outweighed its reality. 

But there are many other ironies too. The first is that, for all its viral success, the manifesto wasn’t really necessary at all. Bill Clinton, the most sagacious of politicians, probably knew the anti-decency provisions in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) infringed on free speech law and would be overturned by the courts. And that’s exactly what happened when, in June 1996, federal judges in Philadelphia and New York blocked the bill, a decision supported by the US Supreme Court (Reno v. Shea) on 27 June, 1996. Now nobody remembers this failed attempt to censor the internet; but we are still all-too-familiar with Barlow’s 1996 manifesto which one Canadian magazine later described as ‘the most embarrassing moment of the 90s.’

But the biggest irony of all is that back in February 1996 everyone missed the real story – Section 230 of the CDA – that seemingly obscure part of the bill which provided legal protection for internet service providers from actions against them based on third-party content. At the time, it really didn’t seem a big deal because the dominant internet providers of 1996, AOL, Prodigy, & Compuserve, didn’t have the technology to enable users to publish third-party content on the internet. Back then, publishing content on a website required teams of programmers; back then, nobody had ever heard of the term ‘social media.’

That changed with the so-called Web 2.0 of the early 2000s which allowed anyone to easily publish internet content on new platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and later Instagram, Tiktok and today’s darling of Silicon Valley, Clubhouse. As Larry Downes, the author of the first bestselling book about the internet, Unleashing The Killer App, told me: ‘there would have been no social media without Section 230 of the CDA.’ This caveat gave these new platforms the legal cover to allow anyone to publish anything without a fear of being sued or criminalised. It also allowed American companies to pioneer social media because their European competitors were constrained by tighter libel laws. 

Today, Section 230 is back in the news. As the cost of social media – particularly its corrosive impact on democracy and on the truth – becomes clearer, more and more critics of Big Tech are calling for its reversal. That’s the ultimate irony. Unfortunately, John Perry Barlow is no longer around to cause mayhem. The legendary Wyoming rancher died peacefully in his sleep in San Francisco in February 2018. But I suspect that some activists today who shared Barlow’s passionate commitment to freedom would want to get rid of Section 230 which has enabled trillion dollar companies like Facebook or Google to dominate the internet and help erode both freedom and truth.  

So perhaps the past, and the 1990s in particular, is not quite as foreign as we would like to think. Yes, they do things differently there. But when it comes to the digital revolution, the great historical law is one of unintentional consequences. Everybody confused the signal with the noise. Everyone missed the real story. In February 1996, everyone was wrong.


Andrew Keen