In 1996, in the midst of the Clinton administration's attack on the Internet and cryptography, Grateful Dead lyricist and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow sat down in Davos, Switzerland, where he'd been addressing world leaders on the subject of the Internet and human rights, and wrote one of net-culture's formative documents: The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind," read the document's first words. "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.
Barlow has never let up on his vision. 20 years later, the Declaration lives on, both as inspiration and as a straw man for lazy arguments about "techno-utopianism." It's a record album and a McGuffin in apocalyptic fiction.
In an interview with Wired's Andy Greenberg, Barlow explains where the Declaration and the Internet stand today:
In essence, Barlow argues that the arc of the Internet's history is long, but bends towards independence. His strongest example, perhaps, is found in the copyright wars: Yes, Napster and Megaupload can be sued into oblivion or shut down. But the file-sharing protocol bittorrent has thrived in spite of Hollywood and the recording industry's best efforts. "I said this whole notion of property [in cyberspace] is going to get hammered," Barlow says. "It has been hammered."
Barlow admits that what he describes as the "immune system" of the Internet isn't exactly automatic. It requires effort on the part of activists like himself. "It wasn't a slam dunk and it isn't now. I wouldn't have started the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation" if it were, he says. But he nonetheless believes that there is a kind of inexorable direction of the Internet's political influence toward individual liberty. "I do have a kind of Marxist sense of the inevitability of this shift taking place, that there will be a global commons that includes all of humanity. And that it will not be particularly subservient to governments in any way."
It's Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cyberspace Independence [Andy Greenberg/Wired]