On the Net With...John Perry Barlow



J. P. Barlow A prominent champion of civil liberties in cyberspace, John Perry Barlow is best known to thousands of netizens as co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org/). The EFF, which was founded in July of 1990, garnered particular attention after legally challenging the Communications Decency Act, a law passed by Congress in February of 1996 which outlawed the dissemination of "indecent material" over the Net. The non-profit organization aims to protect Internet users' privacy, freedom of speech and access to public information, and to ensure that the "new media" of the digital age aren't excessively restricted by existing copyright and intellectual property laws.

In response to the CDA, Barlow, who's had stints as a songwriter with the Grateful Dead and as a Republican county chairman, wrote a widely circulated essay titled "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." He continues to write and lecture on the virtualization of society, as well as serving as vice chairman of the EFF.

With the Supreme Court set to hear a legal challenge to the CDA, Net users and free-speech activists have been speculating on just how narrow the bridge to the 21st century might turn out to be--and how the free flow of information can best be preserved. Internet Underground recently talked with Barlow about the future of individual liberties.


Internet Underground:
To the best of your knowledge, what is the current legal status concerning freedom of speech on the Net?

John Perry Barlow:
Well, that's a terribly long question, or potentially. Let me put it this way: With regard to the most immediate threat to freedom of expression, which is the Communications Decency Act, we're in pretty good shape, because even though it was passed by a large majority of Congress and signed by the president, they were all acting out of such a political expediency that I think they violated their oaths of office. Nevertheless, as soon as it got before court, which was less vulnerable to political whim, they cast it down with extreme prejudice--it was as angry a ruling as I've ever heard. They called the bill "an insult." And it now goes before the Supreme Court. Now, I'm reasonably confident that it will not prevail in the Supreme Court; the problem is, you don't know that, because they don't know anything about the online world. They're probably going to assume this is like broadcast. They're not going to have an opportunity like the judges in Philadelphia to find out that it's not like broadcast.


IU:
Well, what kinds of lobbying efforts, then, can the Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF]...

JPB:
Well, you can't exactly lobby the Supreme Court.


IU:
I don't know if you can or can't; I've never worked that high up in the food chain before.

JPB:
There's not much you can do but pray, because there's only really one higher authority, and God doesn't always take your case either. But I'm reasonably confident. I think what just happened in Geneva, with the International Copyright Treaty being signed, is in the long run going to constitute a much greater threat, because that's going to be used primarily to control expressions that various institutions are uncomfortable with, under the guise of intellectual property law--in the same way the Church of Scientology used trade secret law to shut down conversations on the Net regarding the Church of Scientology, claiming that by quoting passages of Scientological scripture in some of these critical newsgroups, they were passing out trade secrets and violating copyright laws. So, that kind of tactic is going to get used a lot. It's a rare expression on the Net that you can't find some kind of copyright infringement contained in there somehow--especially when you've completely eliminated [the] Fair Use [statute], which is what this treaty does.


IU:
It seems to me that this tendency that the U.S. is falling into, in terms of international entanglements, as George Washington would have put it, is increasingly not in our best interests. at what point do we draw the line and say, it is not in the best interest of a sovereign United States to be involved in these things, like GATT, like the World Trade Organization, the U.N.

JPB:
Well, I personally don't believe in the nation-state; so, frankly, I'm not a very strong supporter of the sovereignty of the United States or any other nation- state. I am not certain that I think there is another authority that should be developing at a higher level. I think that we're moving into a world where authority emerges from the collective, rather than being deposited on the whole.


IU:
this could wind up in a direction that I don't think would be fruitful for Internet Underground.

JPB:
Well, Internet Underground, as a cultural institution, is certainly part of the culture that is staking a bet on the ability of huge-scale anarchy to go on functioning. And that's really where we're at here--we're hoping it's going to work based on the model of the Internet. And I certainly don't think it's a good idea to bow to conventional Industrial Age authority for any of the many new problems and opportunities that are arising on the Internet.


IU:
To which authority then does one bow? I mean...

JPB:
We gotta get over bowing to authority.


IU:
Well, I was gonna get to that...

JPB:
The ultimate authority is one's own conscience. And one's conscience is formed in part by the society he lives in and his willingness to be in that society and participate in its culture. And I think if you take a look at the history of authority, you'll find that the authority we've [America] been using the past 300 or 400 years is an anomaly in the history of humanity. Now, I will admit that the rule of law had some virtues; I'm not convinced that it's impossible for those virtues to be manifest by other means. I'm skeptical about anarchy. I believe you have to have some kind of hybrid of the old system and the one that's developing to maintain order. But, by the same token, I'm not for fixing anything until it's demonstrably broken. Much of what's going on, regarding trying to establish authority on the Internet, is going on purportedly to solve problems that I don't see any evidence of.


IU:
Getting back to the sense that, in many ways, this country started out as the most free of existing "civilized" countries, it doesn't seem that it would behoove your case or EFF's or the case for a manageable anarchy on the Internet, to get too far away from the idea of a Constitution with a first, not a 10th, but a First amendment which is...

JPB:
The problem is, the First Amendment is a local ordinance. And before I'm willing to let the United States of America impose the First Amendment on cyberspace for the rest of the world, I would have to be also willing for the government of Saudi Arabia to have the same rights. And I think they would exercise those rights in a very different way. I just think by assuming we can take refuge in the Constitution in this area, we are also giving up a lot and are creating a lot of long-term problems for ourselves.


IU:
Playing devil's advocate, You, John Barlow, pay taxes, vote and live in the United States of America...

JPB:
I have probably spent less time in the United States this year than outside of it, which seems to be increasingly my pattern.


IU:
But, the bottom line is, America is part of the Internet, the world is part of the Internet, but we abide by the laws of the United States. And this country, at least as codified in its Constitution, has some pretty incredible freedoms that aren't afforded to other places.

JPB:
Oh, actually, in my travels at the moment, I would say that the most repressive police state that I've visited in the past two years is the United States of America.


IU:
I'm not disagreeing in the slightest--but that's not Constitutional.

JPB:
I think it was William O. Douglas who said: "The Constitution might not be perfect, but it's a lot better than what we have now." And that's absolutely right. The Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, has been so damaged by, primarily, the War On Some Drugs, but also by a general assault over the course of this century, that I don't take much refuge in it. I would say that the First Amendment is still relatively strong, but I think the rest of the amendments have basically been gutted.


IU:
Is it not then better to bring to the American public's awareness and to politicians' awareness that we want desperately to return to the Constitution...

JPB:
But I don't think that's what the public wants, frankly. The reason why the Communications Decency Act did as well as it did, was because Congress was responding to market demands. What that percentage of the public that still votes in the United States is calling for, desperately, is shorter chains and smaller cages. And there's no question about that. In a sense, I have lost faith in democracy. Any time you have a democracy that is completely hallucinating, which this one is...


IU:
I hear you saying that a lot. Why don't you elaborate just a tiny bit?

JPB:
Well, hallucinatory democracy is what you've got when you've got persons forming opinions almost exclusively on the basis of media that are motivated dysfunctionally to paint a completely distorted picture of the world. And I'm not talking about a massive conspiracy; I'm talking about the fact that there is a simple, natural algorithm at work here--which is, that the broadcast media live on the attention of the audience and sell the attention of the audience to the advertisers. And, if you're trying to harvest attention, you have a strong interest in fertilizing it; if you're trying to fertilize attention, you have a strong interest in presenting a picture of the world that is going to be quite different from the one that most people experience. So, you've got a large percentage of society who are in a state of panic about problems they've never experienced and which do not actually exist.


IU:
Kiddie porn?

JPB:
Yes. And if you hear politicians, in a democracy, you have no choice but to respond to the wishes of the people, even when the people have gone nuts. Otherwise, you're going to get defeated.


IU:
OK, we can't trust the politicians and the people have gone mad.

JPB:
Yes!


IU:
Let me press you to a hypothetical extreme, that might not be too extreme after the April Court ruling. Let's say that the Court comes down in favor of Net censorship, and let's say the stipulations are fairly rigid, and that they affect more than just a preventative measure against minors accessing porn. Where does that leave the active, engaged anarchist such as yourself?

JPB:
Well, that leaves us in a position of considerable moral responsibility. This will require some courage, but we have to focus our energies on making sure the Net stays open by technical and cultural means that are within our own making. We have to make certain that if there is material that may be proscribed by any government, anywhere, that there are other ways of storing that material that are without the jurisdiction of that government; we have to start using encryption for a lot of our communications; but, more than anything else, we have to be brave. I've always felt that liberty is a matter of its own exercise. You are as free as you're willing to be. You can do whatever your conscience will permit, until somebody stops you. And I think we have to think hard about our conscience, and then we have to do what we feel is right. And if we become fearful, if we play into the hands of these authoritarians, we'll destroy, I think, the future of humanity in a fundamental way. Because the future of humanity depends, and this is not an exaggeration, on the Internet remaining an open environment for discourse.


IU:
It seems that the conscience, it can be argued, of the public, whether they're hallucinating or whether they're seeing something you don't see...

JPB:
Well, it's not simply a matter of seeing things that I don't see. They have, for example, a perception that a terrible crime wave is sweeping this country. And in addition to the fact that I don't experience it--and I go to places where I might--the statistics from the FBI and local police departments don't bear it out.


IU:
On the flip side, as a representative democracy, at least in theory, people of this country were able to challenge the constitutionality of the CDA. There is a perception that morals, with a capital "M" prevail over liberty. I mean, what do we do about this perception?

JPB:
Well, we take what little refuge the Constitution still provides; We spend a lot of time in court. We...well...


IU:
It's a tough one, huh?

JPB:
And we take our freedom into our own hands. I mean, we behave like free people until somebody comes along and stops us. And if the entire society declares its own liberty, it makes it very difficult for the persons in control to tell it otherwise. I also think there is something inherently liberating about getting on the Internet. There has been demonstrated a cultural infection in Internet use that is more powerful than the infections that others bring to it. And I place a great deal of faith in what's going to happen in society when more people are online and fewer people are watching television.
 

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