John Perry Barlow: I discovered the Internet, or came to find out that it existed, in 1985 I believe it was. No, perhaps ’84. I mean I actually got online in ’85. And this was because I had been writing songs for a band in the United States called the Grateful Dead, and also because I was thinking about the future of community in America. Because I came from a small agricultural town that…was a real community. I mean when people even use the word now they don’t know what it means I think in many cases. But this was a place where everybody really literally counted on one another in a life and death kind of way. And I thought well you, know this kind of place is going to go away. Because it’s so heavily dependent on family ranching and farming. And I think that it offers kind of spiritual nutrition that people need. So what’s gonna replace this?
And I was looking at the followers of the Grateful Dead who had a…a community-like thing. I mean it actually resembled some of the aspects of life in my little town the way they counted on each other and the way they interacted randomly and knew each other. And I wanted to study them and see how they really operated in a more rigorously anthropological way.
But the problem was that I was kind of a deal as far as they were concerned. They had a somewhat misplaced, slightly religious view of who we in the band or the creative end of things were. And so I’d come around them trying to find out what things were like with them, and immediately alter the thing that I was looking at. And I had a friend who was the founder of the computer music lab at Stanford who said, “Well one way you could probably study the Deadheads without them noticing would be to watch them on the Internet.”
And I said, “What do you mean watch them on the Internet?”
And she said, “Well, there are newsgroups on the Internet where they gather. And they’re continuous. They’re sort of the village square that they use for continuous interaction. You were wondering where that was, well that’s where it is.”
So, I had a computer which I was using mostly because I was writing screenplays and it was a much better form of white-out. If you rewrite a screenplay you have to retype the entire damn thing all over again. And also I was a running cattle ranch and I had some of the ranch accounting that I was doing on it. And I got myself a 300 baud modem, which had a suction cup that fit on a telephone receiver. Didn’t have anything that could easily be called an owner’s manual, it just had a bunch of Hayes command terms that you were supposed to figure out how to enter with your computer.
So it took me a while to get this thing to connect to the TimeNet number that I’d been given to connect to the Internet—and she’d given me an Internet account at Stanford. And I got online and you know, struggled my way to the Grateful Dead newsgroup. But in the process…I had this I think genuinely religious experience of feeling, sensing, seeing, that what I was looking at, thin as it was…just reduced to these little glowing characters on a screen, was this infinitely-expansive social space that every human being on the planet would be in at some point. We would all be there together, simultaneously.
And it resonated with me for another reason because I’d been a big fan in college of the works of a French theologian named Teilhard de Chardin who had written in the ’30s I believe…it wasn’t published until the ’50s, a set of theor— He was an evolutionary theorist and a paleontologist and a Jesuit priest and a number of things. And he’d written this notion that evolution had this teleological thrust, where things were getting more and more advanced, and complex, and sophisticated. Which you know, seems somewhat evident if you compare us to single-cell organisms. But his idea was that very shortly the evolutionary process would take leave of physical matter and become a thing that was evolving out of thought itself. And we would have the next layer of evolution be something he called the noosphere (N O O). And that would be made out of thought and consciousness.
And I had been very intrigued by that notion, it felt right to me. And when I saw the Internet at I thought ha. Here we are. This is the nervous system of the collective organism of mind, already underway in its development. And I decided almost immediately that this was something that I wanted to facilitate in any way that could be open to me, because it just seemed like the great work that humanity was about to embark on, or already had embarked on.
And at that point I don’t suppose there were 200,000 people in the world with an email address. But it already been going on for a while. I mean the Internet had been in existence since 1969, and this was ’85 so you know. It wasn’t like a brand new thing, but it was… I would say it was new enough so that there were—I was the only cattle rancher on it. [laughs]. Just about everybody on it was coming from a completely different angle. Which enabled me to perceive things about it that I think were little harder for some of the folks that were using it at that point to see. Since a lot of them were still just trying to get a packet to go from A to B and trying to figure out why it wouldn’t a lot of the time and dealing with the technical issues and not fully perceiving just how huge this was. I mean I felt then I continue to feel and have taken a certain measure of crap for saying that this is the most important technological event in the history of humanity since the capture of fire.
And you could really say that it’s been going on for longer than people think it has. I mean I would mark the beginning of this—whatever we call this—the Internet, to be that point—and I think it was…1837 when Samuel F.B. Morse tapped out “What Hath God Wrought?” in Washington, DC and someone read it simultaneously in Baltimore. As soon as you could communicate instantaneously at a distance like that, then everything changed. And changes more and more all the time.
But that was what got me interested in it to begin with and you know, I didn’t… For a long time I didn’t know what it was that I was going to be able to do that would be useful outside of learn everything I possibly could about it—how it worked and what was going on it and that kind of thing. But I did depart the cattle business in 1988 and was looking around for what I wanted to do next, and I thought that the most important thing that I could do would be to start thinking and writing about the Internet in terms of the social and political and economic and philosophical and even religious aspects of what this might do in the world, because I could easily imagine it changing everything. I mean, I could easily imagine it causing there to be a fundamental renegotiation of all the existing power relationships on the planet, in a relatively short time. And nobody seemed to be writing or talking about that and so you know, I didn’t have any credentials to speak of. I thought well, I can probably know as much about this as the next guy pretty quickly.
And I got to know the people who had been working on it. Spent a lot of time around them really really appreciating how blessed we had been with the quality of those people who actually were very aware in many cases of what it was that they were doing. And maybe they weren’t writing about it necessarily, but they were certainly thinking about it.
And then, in late ’89… By that time I’d gotten onto something called The WELL, which wasn’t connected to the Internet, it was a bulletin board. And it had been started by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. Stewart Brand had written done the Whole Earth Catalog, had Whole Earth Review magazine, and Kevin Kelly eventually became the editor of Wired. But they’d put together a computer bulletin board that was really the digital salon of its time. I mean there were a lot of extremely articulate, thoughtful, literary people on the WELL. And there was a continuous set of discussions going on there that was very fruitful to be part of.
And Harper’s Magazine— And you know, to this day I don’t know what inspired those guys to do this, but there were a couple of editors at Harper’s, one of them named Paul Tough and the other one named Jack Hitt— Completely misnamed people. I mean…not at all violent. But they had this idea that they wanted to do a Harper’s forum on a bunch of items that were very pertinent particularly at the moment about what is forbidden knowledge, what is a secret, what is hacking, when is it wrong…you know, how do we define barriers for information and digital environments. A whole bunch of these kinds of issues. And they asked me and several other people to be a part of this forum on the WELL.
And there were these kids. They were phone phreaks, or early phone system hackers; what they really were doing was breaking into the telephone system and trying to create their own Internet because they didn’t have access to the real thing. They were all like 14 years old. And they had these fearsome names like Phiber Optik—P H I B E R, O P T I K, and Acid Phreak, and Scorpion. They had an organization called the Legion of Doom. And they spent an awful lot of time strutting around like they were pretty dangerous.
And they were irritating, especially to an old hippie. And at one point I made some slightly insulting remark about how if somebody took away their modems and gave them skateboards it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. And this being true it really irritated them. So they downloaded my entire credit record file into the conference and said that they could change it at will if they felt like it. Which they couldn’t; they were bragging. But the fact remained, it scared me. Because you know, if you don’t have any credit in America you might as well be broke.
So I said, “Look. I think we’ve just exceeded the bandwidth of this medium. I would appreciate it if you’d give me a call and I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you my phone number.” Which was listed anyway but they didn’t know that. And immediately I get this phone call from like six different kids on different phone booths in New York. They’ve all parachuted in through the phone system. And their voices haven’t even changed yet. I mean they’re just kids. And I’m thinking well. Oh I know where these kids are at. I mean they’re like I was when I was that age. They just want to violate the forbidden. And the forbidden they really want to violate you know, is the usual one that teenage boys want to violate, but they haven’t come up with access to that yet so they’re doing stuff to the phone system.
So I got to know ’em pretty well. I just an affinity for ’em. I mean the next thing I knew I was kind of like the scout master to the Legion of Doom. And then one day, one of ’em comes home and finds that his 12 year-old sister has been held at gunpoint for quite awhile by several large men from the Secret Service while they remove every single electronic item from his house. Like his clock radio and his Metallica tapes. I mean they’re just taking it all.
And then I find that several of them have had roughly the same experience. And I’m thinking well maybe these kids are much worse than I thought. I mean this sounds like they must be doing something pretty…bad or they wouldn’t be getting such acute government action all over ’em.
And it was about that time that I got a phone call from Special Agent Richard Baxter from the Rock Springs, Wyoming field office of the FBI. Who was a fella that I knew because he investigated livestock theft and I’d had some cattle stolen at one point. He was pretty good on that stuff. And he was nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. He was just anxious and I… He said he wanted to come up and talk to me but he couldn’t tell me what it was about on the phone.
And I though oh God… I mean, I’m writing songs for the Grateful Dead, I don’t want to have a visit from the FBI where he won’t tell me what it’s about, right. It just… It makes you uneasy.
So he comes up and he’s very nervous and he has a terrible time explaining to me what it is that he’s investigating. ‘Cause he doesn’t understand it very well himself, but gradually I understand that somebody has taken some of the source code from the ROM chip on the Macintosh. All that source code that dealt with the early version of QuickTime. And has sent various bits of it out on floppy disks to people in a protest against Apple’s closed architecture. And has threatened to release the entire body of the source code. And Apple has freaked out and has told the FBI that somebody’s about to go out there giving away the precious Macintosh recipe. And in no time at all they’ll be making ’em in Taiwan and that’ll be the end of it.
All of which is just nonsense, right. But he’s convinced that there’s a major economic crime about to take place, being perpetrated by something that he keeps calling the New Prosthesis League. It’s actual name was the New Prometheus League. But I mean that was just part of what he had wrong—he had everything wrong.
And it was a really…disturbing experience. I mean you never like to see really insecure, highly-armed people in authority wandering around in places they don’t understand. Because trouble will come. And I felt you know, that what I was seeing was the same thing that my friends from the Legion of Doom had been seeing. And I’d also in the meantime, I’d heard about some other stuff like this going on. There’d been a role-playing game company in Austin, Texas that had had these Secret Service come in and just take everything in their office because they were doing a game called [Cyberpunk] that the Secret Service had decided was a handbook for computer crime.
And there was a kid in Indiana—or Illinois I guess it was, who was publishing an online magazine called Phrack where he’d published a stolen document from the phone company about the 911 system. I mean you could buy this document from Bell Corp for twelve bucks but this was just sort of a trophy that he’d put up as being something that he’d hacked out of the system. And he was being charged with the theft of $200,000 in property.
And so…it was like that, you know. And I wrote something about this, which I put on the WELL, called Crime and Puzzlement about the whole experience. And two days later I got a phone call from Mitch Kapor, who had created Lotus 1−2−3. At that time it was the dominant spreadsheet software and it was kind of…Lotus as a company was kind of like Microsoft. I mean, for microcomputers it was a very big deal. And he was flying his private jet over the United States and he had also had a visit from the FBI that he hadn’t told anybody about. And he’d read my piece. And so suddenly he had a support network, kind of. And he wanted to just basically drop out of the sky and come talk to me about this, which he did. And we spent the afternoon and I told him everything I knew about Steve Jackson Games, and the Legion of Doom, etc. And we decided that what we would do was get some civil liberties firm involved, since he could afford that, and reestablish the Constitution in what I had started calling “cyberspace” in that initial piece. I mean, up to that point it didn’t have a name, and I just borrowed Bill Gibson’s name for it and started referring to it is as that—I think that’s the first time anybody started talking about this as that.
And so, we brought suit in several cases. We started to get some publicity. And there were suddenly a lot of people that wanted to get involved. Steve Wozniak came forward and gave us a hundred grand. John Gilmore who is still very much an integral part of EFF came forward. He sent me an email and he… I didn’t know him very well. He sent me an email and he said like, “I don’t have the kind of money that Mitch has but would $100,000 help?” That was all it said. I said yes. [laughs]
But you know, we hadn’t been at this very long before we started to realize that we were… This was not just gonna be a simple matter of clarifying the application of the First Amendment to bits. Or the Fourth Amendment to computer files. And in fact at one point after we’d made a little publicity, I got an email from some kid who had crawled across the border into Finland from what was still the Soviet Union in order to send me an email saying, “Well that’s all great, but what about us? We don’t even have a First Amendment or a Fourth Amendment.”
And I realized that you know, it was another one of those sort of come-to-Jesus moments where I realized that in cyberspace nobody had a First Amendment, really. And never would. Because the thing is, all rights derive naturally from the ability to deny rights. All rights are the flip side of coercive. And you know, if you’ve got an environment where it’s very difficult to impose yourself on human beings, which it is there…I mean for all of their efforts to make it so…it’s very difficult to convey the opposite of that imposition as well.
So we knew that what we could do for a while was to use the law, especially in places like the United States where there was one that we could apply. But ultimately the real thing was going to have to be influencing the architecture of the Internet, as it grew, so that it went on having those interesting characteristics of leaderlessness and practical anarchy that it had had since it was born. And that would convey, to some extent, a lot of those rights. And we also were very aware that the Internet was probably going to grow into something that would be like the most sophisticated tool for surveillance that human beings had ever derived, and we’re now seeing just how true that is.
But we had this faith that if the architecture were preserved in its open state, that it was conceivable to us that the Internet would eventually be something where anybody anywhere could say whatever they wanted. And nobody would be in a position to stop them. And that anybody anywhere could learn as much as could then be known about anything that people studied. And that that, from the standpoint of Teilhard de Chardin’s global organism of mind, would be a pretty significant human development.
So that’s what EFF has done, what I have done, in the twenty-some-odd years since that, is to be continuously at work on keeping chokepoints from forming around the Internet. Keeping legal controls from being imposed. Minding the architecture a lot. I mean I’ve spent a huge amount of time… I realized in about 1993 that the most likely way in which the powers that had been would be able to control information on the Internet was going to be through intellectual property law. The claim that one could own speech would be the means by which people would be able to stop its flow because they would say, “No, that’s my speech. That can’t flow.” Or expression of whatever sort it might be.
So I wrote a piece called The Economy of Ideas for Wired in ’93, and that was, you know… I will immodestly say that I think that was one of the most important things anybody said at that point about the Internet because nobody was thinking about it in those terms. Nobody realized yet that there was…that it— If you had an environment where you could reproduce anything that a human being could create with this mind, infinitely at zero cost, and distributed infinitely at zero cost, the whole notion of copyright was just out the window. And besides, copyright existed in the first place to protect this manufacturing process that had to be there in order to spread ideas since you didn’t have another way to do it besides embedding them in a physical object which was manufactured and had to be— And that cost money and you had to ship the thing around, and that cost money. And so you needed something to protect to people that were making those objects.
But suddenly you didn’t. And the people who’d been making those objects thought that what they were really selling was the wine and not the bottles. They were really in the bottling because, they didn’t know anything about the wine business. And they were gonna get very aggressive about trying to maintain their business model as it became completely irrelevant. Which it has.
And so that’s been a big part of what we’ve done. I mean at the time that I wrote that I think I might’ve been one of four people on planet Earth that thought this was a problem. Now I would say I’ve got entire armies of people who agree with me on this.
What else? I mean I at a certain point popped off and wrote a document called the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which I really did not intend to become some canonical document. I mean, I’d been to the World Economic Forum and I’d seen all this sort of strutting around in the twilight of the nation-state. And the United States government had just signed into law something called the Communications Decency Act which made it a felony to say “fuck” online. And given the fact that I’d heard many of those words that were now felonious to speak in digital media in the Senate dining room, I knew this wasn’t going to go very well.
And so I dashed this thing off in the middle of a party, really. And sent it out to my friends, and it became— I don’t know. I think you can probably find it on several hundred thousand web sites.
And people now pay more attention— And it goes through periods of being laughed at and then taken seriously. There was a time there where people really thought well, governments really are going to…you know, they’re gonna win this thing, they’re going to really take over. But I still have no strong reason to believe that sovereignty in the sense that the nation-state thinks of it is going to ever be successfully imposed on cyberspace. And in fact I would say that more and more people are waking up to the fact that the nation-state doesn’t have a terribly good reason to go on existing, because the main thing that it does is make war.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Barlow: Well I mean there were… I think there were you know, quite a number of moments. There was the time that EFF was trying to deal with the fact that they were trying to basically— Well they had succeeded essentially in outlawing strong cryptography by making cryptographic algorithms the equivalent of machine guns as far as the international trade in arms was concerned. So you couldn’t export the strong crypto piece of strong crypto software, or hardware that contained strong crypto. Which essentially meant that there was no business for the people that would actually be creating such stuff.
And we had this really incredibly clever insight that an encryption algorithm was a form of speech. And that what they were essentially doing was imposing prior restraint on speech, and that was unconstitutional, they couldn’t do that. And we managed to get something called the Bernstein Decision and that stopped the control of strong crypto, which I think was extremely important because if it hadn’t been for that you wouldn’t have any business going on on the net. It’d be impossible to do all the economic stuff that is routinely done if you couldn’t have encrypted things, as the NSA and the FBI wanted it to be. Since they were much more worried about controlling terrorism and child pornography than they were about creating the future. And that’s…always the case.
You know, I would say… I mean there’ve been some moments lately doing… Well setting up an organization which I recently did with Daniel Ellsberg and John Cusack and several others to see to the funding of WikiLeaks and to working out ways of keeping Mr. Snowden out of harm’s way. Which I think has been— And also encouraging him and others like him to come forward. I mean, setting this thing up as being something that would be protective for people like that. So when he decided to come forward he contacted two people from this organization that is only seven or eight months old, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and got Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to come and take his statement. So I mean that’s a more recent thing that’s sort of tied into the first thing.
Oh gosh, what else. I mean Dave Farber, who you’re probably also talking to, and I were instrumental in getting China on the Internet. Which was kind of a big moment. The Chinese Academy of Sciences had us come to Beijing in ’93 to talk about the Internet along with Mitch Kapor. And we thought that was interesting. I mean we didn’t know that they knew anything about it, really. But there were five major research universities in China that were using TCP/IP as their internetworking protocol. And so we talked about how it was here, and we gave kind of an academic talk. We didn’t feel like China was likely to be very interested in getting connected to it.
And then there was a dinner afterwards where was seated with this extraordinary woman named Madame Hu. ([chuckles] Who’s on first?) And she was the vice chair of the academy of sciences and the person who was in charge of the Chinese computer networks. And is still the Chinese representative in the Internet Society to this day. And we were having all these toasts and it was getting harder and harder to think. And I said, “Before we have another toast, Madame Hu, I wanna talk to you about the Internet.”
And she said, “That’s good, that’s why you’re here.”
And I said, “Well, I’ll just cut to the chase. I want China to be connected to the Internet.”
And she said, “That’s good, that’s why you’re here.”
And I said, “China wants to be connected to the Internet?”
She said, “Of course we do.”
And I said, “Well why aren’t you, then?”
And she said, “Because your Department of Energy has the idea that if we get connected to the Internet we’ll steal all your nuclear secrets.”
And I said, “Well I woulda thought 10,000 grad students could do a perfectly fine job of that.”
And she said, “Of course they could, and besides you don’t have that many.”
You know, nuclear weapons are mostly about having the industrial capacity to make that much weapons-grade uranium. And I said, “Well alright. Surely there are some people in your government that—” This was not that long after Tiananmen Square. I said, “Surely there are some people in your government that would be a little uncomfortable about having every student China have a global printing press.”
And she said, “Of course there are, but they wouldn’t know that that was what this is. And I’ve always felt it’s better to apologize than ask permission.”
So we went back and talked to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy and backed them down and got China connected.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Barlow: Well I would say that it is as it almost always is, with a huge thunderhead taking up half the sky on one side and a glorious blue sky on the other, and difficult to figure out which direction the wind’s moving. But you know, the interesting thing about the Internet, and I’ve been fighting these battles all along between the powers of the past and the powers of the future—and this really is the entire industrial period and even…you know, you can even say the entire period of monotheism itself—up against the future.
But so far it’s been what I would call a stalemate. You get more and more and more and more people involved, bigger and bigger and bigger forces engaged. But so far I’d say we’ve been beatin’ ’em pretty much to a draw. Which will suffice, you know. And eventually, I would say that we can take some heart in the idea that most of the people who feel the way I do about this, are young. And most of the people who feel the way that they do about this, are old you know. And some day all you guys will be alive when they’re dead. And then I think the future can truly get underway.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Barlow: Well they haven’t changed all that much. I mean, my greatest hope, and the thing I’ve been working for most of my life now, is that it will realize itself as being something that makes it possible for anybody to know anything that they’re capable of knowing. Which I think is a wonderful thought. Or that it will make it possible for anybody that has something important that other people should hear to say it, without any fear of being shut up or coerced or that sort of thing.
And my fear I think is probably…you know, deeply connected with all of the things that I hope for in the sense that you know, human beings are flawed creatures. And a lot of what we want to say is really kind of awful. And you know, we have economic ambitions that are finding all kinds of ugly new ways to manifest themselves and I think that’s a pity. And it certainly becomes possible to see practically everything in people’s lives when you’re reeling out this digital slime trail all the time now that can be rolled up, you know, and turned into you.
And there’s almost no help for that, ultimately. Now I don’t mind that but— I mean because I come from a small town where everybody knew everything about me anyway. But what’s gotta happen in order for this to be a safe state is that the institutions have to become as transparent as the individuals. We can’t go on having greater and greater secrecy in our institutions and less and less privacy as people. And so that’s I think the biggest question of the moment right now. And if we don’t win that one, I can imagine a very grim future. I think we will.
I mean you know, we are down to— Look at what’s going on with Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. I mean that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s gonna be a lot more of that. Because you know, the governments and the great powers of the industrial period have done a lot of crummy stuff, that is at minimum embarrassing. And they don’t want people to know about this. And suddenly it’s gonna be very difficult to keep people from knowing about this unless they just go out and, you know, torture to death everybody does something about it. So it’s going to be pretty rough on the people that’re trying to change it for a while.
Intertitle: Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Barlow: What needs to happen now is that everybody who knows anything that ought to be known by the rest of humanity should reveal it. As hard as that will be. What needs to happen now is that everybody should realize that we have, as a human right, the right to know, about everything that is humanly applicable in any larger sense. About our government, about science, about anything. That this is something that has never been promulgated before because it was never before possible but it is now possible. And it’s a right that we need to develop and assert. That’s the most important thing for us to be doing, I think.
Intertitle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Barlow: Well you know, I fully expect that it’s gonna go on being basically the same contest for quite a while. Like you know, it’s been the same contest as long as I’ve been engaged in it. And it will go on being that contest. And maybe that’s just the human contest, is you know, the…control freaks versus the anarchists. Or the Apollonians versus the Dionysians. It’s people who love liberty versus people who fear it. It may just be actually love versus fear, in the final analysis.
So there will always be that sort of thing. It’s a very powerful thing, the Internet. It’s certainly capable of doing a lot of harm and good at the same time. I mean, I like to say that I’ve been dealing with the Internet now long enough so that has actually realized all of my dreams, and with them my worst nightmares.
John Perry Barlow profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013