It’s Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cyberspace Independence
When digital dystopians and critics of Internet libertarians need a rhetorical dart board, they often pull out a document written by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, a former cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist. On this day in 1996, Barlow sat down in front of a clunky Apple laptop and typed out one very controversial email, now known as the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a manifesto with a simple message: Governments don’t—and can’t—govern the Internet.
“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.”
In the modern era of global NSA surveillance, China’s Great Firewall, and FBI agents trawling the dark Web, it’s easy to write off Barlow’s declaration as early dotcom-era hubris. But on his document’s 20th anniversary, Barlow himself wants to be clear: He stands by his words just as much today as he did when he clicked “send” in 1996. “The main thing I was declaring was that cyberspace is naturally immune to sovereignty and always would be,” Barlow, now 68, said in an interview over the weekend with WIRED. “I believed that was true then, and I believe it’s true now.”
Barlow laid out that thesis with a kind of unblinking confidence in his original message: “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us,” he told the world’s governments. “You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
That heady language may have been a result in part of Barlow’s circumstances when he sat down to write his declaration. It was six years since he’d cofounded the Internet digital rights group EFF, and now Barlow found himself at the 1996 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In the middle of a party on the last night he realized had an impending deadline for a contribution to a compendium called “24 Hours In Cyberspace.” Barlow had spent the previous four days in Davos listening, as he describes it, to world leaders pretend to understand an Internet they had hardly used themselves. And he was incensed at President Bill Clinton’s decision the same day to sign the Communications Decency Act into law, empowering the FCC to ban the transmission of “obscene” material on the Internet just as it did on radio and network television. So after a “fair amount of champagne” he left the dance floor and banged out the statement on his laptop in one of the hotel’s side rooms.
Barlow was pleased enough with the results to email it to about 600 friends. Soon, he says, the declaration had been copied to tens of thousands of websites, and Barlow was “getting megabytes of email from all over the planet.” The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace became part of a successful EFF campaign that helped overturn parts of the Communications Decency Act on First Amendment grounds. And it became a rallying cry for a certain kind of digital civil libertarianism that’s defied partisan politics and carried through to the present.
Governments Play Catch-Up
But in recent years, Barlow admits his ideas have become less commonly used as a call to arms than as a political punching bag. He points to the speech of French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 at the G8 conference calling for the Internet to be “civilized,” which many contrasted directly with Barlow’s words: “The universe that you represent,” Sarkozy said, addressing tech firms, “is not a parallel universe which is free of rules of law or ethics or of any of the fundamental principles that must govern and do govern the social lives of our democratic states.” In a speech in 2013, Google general counsel David Drummond contrasted the reality of governments’ Internet filtering, censorship and surveillance with Barlow’s declaration. “Like the Spice Girls, that idea was right for its time, but I think it needs to be updated to fit the world we’re in now,” he told a Google Ideas conference audience. “Governments have learned in what might be the steepest learning curve in history that they can shape this global phenomenon called the Internet and in ways that often go beyond what they can do in the physical world, and they’re doing so at an alarming pace.”
Just ahead of today’s anniversary of the declaration, the Internet-focused think tank the ITIF wrote in a press release that Barlow’s document should be replaced with its own more moderate “Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace” that counsels cooperation with governments. “Barlow’s original declaration that the Internet and activity on it cannot and should not be governed has proved false time and again,” it reads. “Even he has backed away from his statements, as the potential negative consequences of turning the Internet over to Anonymous, 4chan, ISIL, and other online miscreants have become clear.”
But Barlow says, to the contrary, that he hasn’t backed away from his declaration at all. He maintains that its central thesis holds, whether the ITIF likes it or not: That the Internet is a separate, global place without the physical boundaries that define states and give them their power. “Cyberspace is something that happens independently of the physical world in exactly the same way as the mind and body,” Barlow says. “It depends on the physical world and can’t exist without it, but to a fairly large extent, it’s another thing, unprecedented in world history: An environment where people across the planet could come together and have a sense of political constituency.”
“It’s very simple,” he concludes. “They don’t have jurisdiction.”
Bending Toward Independence
The Internet’s dependence on physical infrastructure—and the fundamental fact it’s made up of people who live inside governed states—Barlow concedes, means that a government can of course intrude in cyberspace and even imprison or torture any Internet enemy it tracks down in the real world. But the digital terrain, he maintains, doesn’t favor that sort of control. He points to the advent before his 1996 manifesto of free encryption, proxy services and remailers that could hide users’ locations as they emailed. Today he refers to more sophisticated tools like Tor and Signal designed to hide people and their communications. (Never mind that both software projects receive at least part of their funding from the U.S. government agency the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)
“I’m able to speak absolutely freely with Ed Snowden any time I want to, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the folks at the NSA would…like to know when I did or what we were saying,” says Barlow, who helped to found the Freedom of the Press Foundation where Snowden serves on the board of directors. “There’s a huge surge towards encrypting everything on an end-to-end basis.”
Barlow points to unlikely examples, including WikiLeaks and the online black market Silk Road, as illustrations of the government’s inability to control the Internet long term: Yes, Julian Assange may be confined to the Ecuadorian embassy, but WikiLeaks lives on and has inspired dozens of media organizations to adopt its methods through tools like the SecureDrop anonymous upload system. Sure, Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht was caught by the FBI and sentenced to life in prison, but new Silk-Road-style markets have replaced it and continue to generate close to $100 million a year in illicit online drug sales.
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.”
Read Barlow’s full Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace here, and watch him deliver it himself in the video below: