Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace?


by John Perry Barlow (USA)

Foreword by Michael G. Leube (ES/A)

I am responsible for bringing one of the most eccentric personalities to the International Gottfried von Haberler Conference in Liechtenstein in 2017, and proud of convincing the organizers of this prestigious conference. John Perry Barlow was not a banker or economist, he was not schooled in the Austrian School of Economics and as far as I know did not even know much about it. Instead, he was a cowboy, poet, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution. I had four motivations for suggesting and inviting him as a speaker.

First and foremost, I was aware of Barlow´s brilliance and importance as the author of essays such as ‘The Economy of Ideas’ (1993) and ‘Manifesto of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (2006), for which he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2013. He was also founding fellow at Harvard University Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org), a civil liberties organization that has been protecting the free flow of information on the Internet since 1990. I find his ideas fundamental for an internet plagued by censorship and data mining through free-ware.

Secondly, I am proud to call Barlow a friend after meeting him about ten years prior to the conference. His daughter was my undergraduate student, he sat in one of my classes and afterwards I had the privilege to listen to stories of his wild life. In 2017, at the conference welcome dinner, I moved fast to sit at his table along with Hans Adam II, the reigning Prince of Lichtenstein, ex-president of the Czech republic Vaclav Klaus, and others to make the most memorable dinners I ever had.

Thirdly, I was convinced that Barlow, born in Sublette County, Wyoming in 1947, would shake up the conference with his counter-cultural attitude and demeanor. I simply wanted to see what a maverick whose heart and not mind was with the Austrian school would do to the spirit of this conference. Barlow has been writing about Cyberspace and its society since the late 1980s and indeed he was the first to apply that term. The world is no longer imaginable without an internet and thus I saw one of its premier thinkers a welcome addition to a conference on economic philosophy. He was also an entrepreneur as cofounder and executive vice president of Algae Systems, a revolutionary enterprise that transforms atmospheric CO2 into drinking water and carbon-negative transportation fuel, at lower costs than fuel and water produced by conventional systems and without competing for agricultural land and water.

Finally, I have to admit to a last, more egocentric reason for inviting Barlow. He was one of the chief lyricists of the Grateful Dead, a rock band that I near obsessively love. I always believed that this musical group´s approach of spontaneity, improvisation and open-mindedness fits well into a group cherishing liberty and freedom. Standing as one of the most important bands in the history of contemporary music, they also revolutionized the entire music industry through the creation of brand-loyalty by decriminalizing all recordings of their concerts and the creation of one of the most memorable logos. It is hard to say if Barlow, who sadly passed away in 2018, will be remembered more for penning classic songs such as Cassady or Estimated Prophet or for writing a manifesto of a free internet. When John Perry Barlow walked through the aisles and climbed up to the main stage, the room was silent. Here was a man proudly wearing cowboy boots, a leather jacket and Native American jade jewelry about to take the microphone at this prestigious conference. And by all means, he delivered one of the most exciting and remarkable statements in favor of individual freedom, self-responsibility and entrepreneurship. It was a plaidoyer for the freedom of the Internet.
All four of my motivations paid off when he delivered this brilliant paper that you can read here.


Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace?


by John Perry Barlow

In February of 1996, I spent five days at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, watching the most powerful representatives of the most powerful nations and institutions on the planet collectively (though parenthetically) acknowledge for the first time that, yes, there was something called the Internet and that, at minimum, it might be something to worry about.

Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace? Essay by John Perry Barlow ...
John Perry Barlow at the European Graduate School of Leuk, Switzerland in 2006. Source: wikipedia

Meanwhile, on the last day of the World Economic Forum, February 8, 1996, Americas pious President Bill Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act. This law imposed criminal sanctions, with stiff fines and jail terms up to ten years long on anyone who transmitted over the Internet any of a short list of words I’d heard frequently in the U.S. Senate Dining Room.

The folly of this legislation, in both its breathtaking hubris and unenforceability, moved me to write A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace .

It was something of a whim which I indulged while attending the closing ball of the WEF. I didn’t mean it to become a canonical document at all. Had I thought it might become that, I probably would not have imitated the rhetorical style of a famous slave-owner and chosen a moment when I was both sober and not chasing Geisha-like graduate students from the University of Geneva.

I meant to distribute it to my friends and put myself on record as believing that Cyberspace was a kind of permanently anti-sovereign but nonetheless political social environment. Moreover, I stated, Cyberspace would ever remain a wild frontier “land” and would eventually grow to include every thinking being on the planet.

I intentionally created a document that was somewhat more optimistic than I was, emphasizing my sense that Cyberspace might come to be a zone of completely free expression… indeed, a social space in which expression which could not be suppressed because the architecture of the network would patch around censorship like any other malfunction.

I didn’t mention that I also knew that all the rights human beings had previously assured themselves by legal means depended on the abilities of a government powerful enough to deny them those right, nor that I doubted such capacity for sanction would ever exist in Cyberspace, nor did I acknowledge my already firm terror Internet was likely to become the most penetrating surveillance tool ever imagined and therefore itself a massive threat to free speech.

Indeed, there were a number of fears I already harbored regarding the future of liberty in Cyberspace that were paradoxically based on its very un-governability. I feared, for example, that the infrastructure of the Internet would be privately held by corporations who had no greater method for guaranteeing human rights than their Terms of Service Agreements. And even less incentive to do so.

I also believed that one could not own free speech, though many, in the service of short-term greed, would give it a serious try, using search tools that would be like copyright enforcement on steroids. Before it was all over with, “The Content Industries” would become more powerful enemies of free expression, than Hitler, Stalin or Pope Clement VIII ever dreamed of being..

Nevertheless… I believed then, as I believe now, that the human desire to both find and speak the truth would ultimately be stronger that the forces of ignorance and silence. And that what I laid out in my declaration was not a shout of truth to power, like Jefferson’s, but a statement of what I considered natural fact. And I still do.

Whatever I might have intended for that document, it found a much larger audience than the two or three hundred friends I sent it to. Indeed, at one point, Google found over fifty thousand copies of it scattered around the Web in, I believe, some thirty different languages.

But for years, it has also hung around my neck like a combination albatross and dunce cap. For almost 20 years it has been famously popular fun for various writers and speakers who represent the Nation States, the Industrial Multinationals, and Global NGOs, to “exhume” my “giddily optimistic” declaration as an example of the wonderfully goofy things they used to think before the Cyberworld grew up, became militarized, and drove out the hippie mystics who created it.

And this has pained me. But it has not pained me as much as it might have were I not pretty sure that I remain right about this as it becomes increasingly clear they are wrong.

For while the liberty of Cyberspace remains a contest between very evenly balanced forces of oppression and liberation, I continue to believe the The Right to Know, which is the heart of what I declared, will be conveyed to every human mind within my lifetime.

It will be possible for anyone, anywhere to find out as much as is presently known about any subject of generally useful human inquiry. It will be possible to satisfy all curiosities to the extent they can be collectively satisfied. And neither will any government be able to prevent this, as it will also be unable to prevent its citizens from examining its own inner workings despite all the efforts that are currently underway to make government invisible to the governed.

In my talk on June 27, at the University of Liechtenstein in Vaduz, I will defend this proposition along with a wider declaration that the Internet directly threatens Monotheism, the Nation State, and, indeed most of the vertical systems of authority that have governed human affairs for the last 2000 years. I didn’t expect institutions of such duration to go down quickly and we can all be grateful, I suppose, that they haven’t. But I believe strongly, as I believed on that cold night in February 1996, that the creation of Cyberspace has and will require the renegotiation of every existing power relationship on earth.

And it has already realized most of my wildest dreams and with them, unfortunately, most of my worst nightmares as well.