EFF Doubles Down on Barlow Declaration

In December of 1775, the text of King George III’s October speech to parliament regarding rebellion in the American colonies arrived on this continent and was distributed among a people toying with idea of independence. Prior to this revelation, many citizens, members of Congress, and even Washington himself were not entirely sure that a new nation would or should be the desired outcome of hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts earlier that year. According to historian David McCullough, it was the paternalistic and heavy-handed tone of the king’s speech that galvanized American commitment to sever their colonies from England, write The Declaration of Independence, fight a long and bloody revolution, and then form a democratic republic unlike any nation that had ever existed.

221 years later, the Congress of that same nation passed a law called The Telecommunications Reform Act, and it was this law that supposedly inspired former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Perry Barlow to write and deliver his own Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on February 8, 1996. The Declaration begins…

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. 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.”

To the cyber-utopian, Barlow’s declaration remains a seminal work — so much so that the Electronic Frontier Foundation earlier this month announced that the “Department of Records” has newly released a limited edition, vinyl recording of Barlow reciting his words. The album is beautifully packaged with a signed, printed copy of Barlow’s pronouncement, and is available to purchase for fifty bucks. I clicked on the link to the Department of Records, and near as I can tell, this “organization” consists of a three-page website boasting a stated mission to “preserve cultural artifacts for the collective memory in both the physical and digital worlds.” So far, the collection belonging to the DOR appears to comprise a single artifact, that being the limited edition, vinyl album of Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. And despite the fact that the Declaration implies a rejection of intellectual property…

“In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.”

I can’t help but notice that the acronym DOR on the site bears a registered trademark symbol, and there is an affirmation of copyright at the bottom of the page. Then, again both the hubris and the hypocrisy of the whole package are consistent with the Declaration itself. Barlow continues…

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

Like a cybernetic Lorax, Barlow sows the seeds of ultra-libertarianism, which more honestly describes the ideology that connects both Silicon Valley’s wealthiest oligarchs and social media’s lowliest trolls. In fact, had Barlow borrowed from Dr. Seuss…

I’m JP Barlow, and I speak for the Tubes,
And I’m telling you folks that we are not Rubes!

I might actually buy the album. But possessing neither the moral authority nor the clarity nor the poetry of either Jefferson or Geisel, Barlow’s Declaration is more political stump speech than a work deserving white-glove custodianship. Like any rouser of rabble, the Declaration is typically vague as it strings together emotionally-charged phrases adding up to unfulfillable promises like the following:

“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Unless of course you are a woman and a feminist, in which case, we are very likely to violate your privacy and your personal safety and to Photoshop your likeness as though it is being raped by an angry baboon. The gullibility of Barlow’s words and those who find inspiration in them proceeds from the premise that the rule of law itself is not the expression of an enlightened society but is rather the means by which our better angels are corrupted. This is a refutation of the Framers upon whose shoulders Barlow presumes to be standing.

Had this speech been a clear criticism of particular aspects of the Telecommunications Reform Act, then we could debate the merits of that criticism in context to what has transpired since that law’s passage, but to enter into such debate is to accept that law has any role to play at all, and that idea remains anathema to cyber-utopians swooning at the altar of Barlow. He doesn’t want to criticize a law, he wants to reject the notion of statehood in favor of mob rule while espousing an astonishing faith that mobs left to their own devices are ethical…

“Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.”

Indeed. With Marxian naiveté, Barlow makes the case that the unfettered design of cyberspace fosters a natural, ethical order among people just as the removal of private property would foster peaceful coexistence in a communist society. He cynically implies that order is only established in the physical world through the threat of physical coercion, as though IRL, we are incapable of altruistic morality. Ask yourself whether you’ve experienced more rudeness in the physical world or in cyberspace; whether or not everyone who expresses ideas through social media is treated with respect; whether or not, prior to our networked world, some asshole with a keyboard could have done the kind of damage to free speech, privacy, and civil rights that the Sony hacker(s) managed to do this month. The Golden Rule? I don’t think so.

Cyberspace, like physical space, is a world in which people act like people; and unfortunately, this includes criminal, morally depraved, or just plain dumb behaviors, some of which were not possible prior to the opening of this new frontier. Human trafficking, identity theft, intellectual property theft, cyberstalking, the expansion of yellow journalism, terrorist propaganda, and child abuse are all beneficiaries of Barlow’s sacred “home of Mind.” We have to accept that and deal with it; and absent our participation in society through government, I am at a loss to know what realistic alternative might exist. Letting the six guys who own the most popular sites make all the decisions? Because that’s what’s happening now. Governance of cyberspace exists; it’s written in the Terms of Service, and you didn’t vote for anyone who wrote those terms.

In truth, I think Barlow’s too hip, too vague, and too naive speech ought to be titled The Declaration of Indyness. Because indyness is kind of like independence, but would be an appropriately fuzzy neologism that expresses the attitude of the individual narcissist, rather than the sovereignty of a society that must construct systems in an imperfect attempt to achieve prosperity for as many citizens as possible. Still, I imagine the record jacket is just as useful as any for separating the seeds from the stems, and with Christmas just around the corner, it might be the perfect gift for someone you know.

© 2014 – 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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12 comments

  • Nice piece. I think the most salient point is implication of a new oligarchy on the web, or what Lanier referred to as the “elite network presences” that operate the largest sites and services and accumulate vast wealth while destroying jobs in the “real” world. The cyberutopia isn’t dead exactly, but it certainly isn’t free of the vices of capital.

    • Thanks, Mike. And no. Far from free of said vices. I think the only way to be “free” of the vices of capital are to keep those vices as evenly distributed as possible.

  • Remember the “Information Superhighway” analogy? I think that 20 years on the Internet resembles the US highway system at 20 years on – dangerous, ugly and riddled with ads.

    The really naive part of Barlow’s declaration is that the thrust of big tech these days is to dominate the physical world. If the Internet had remained the habitat of Dukes of hazzard fan pages nobody would have any problem with it. But bezos, Zuckerberg and the Google guys want it both ways.

  • No matter what the gist of Barlow’s frazzled idealism, you really only have to look at who the ultimate beneficiaries of his scheme are to figure it all out. Regular people don’t benefit from a scrambled identity or having their stuff remain perpetually insecure – but corporations sure do, by providing lame half-measures that they can sell and/or preying on the vulnerabilities of Internet users.

    • Yep, its not that much different from the Gilded Age. Yes, there were improvements to everyone’s lives, but there was also massive economic inequality and appalling labor conditions. The difference, of course, was who owned the means of production.

    • Exactly. If the Web started out as the wild west, it’s since passed into its Gilded Age. The parallels are there not just in the massive inequality but in the reverential tone afforded ‘disruptive” business models and the tendency towards sensationalism in both entertainment and journalism.

  • I’ve heard just seven hits of LSD is enough to make one legally insane…
    The sad thing is he has followers just as blind as Manson did, albeit with a different bend.

  • Human trafficking, identity theft, intellectual property theft, cyberstalking, the expansion of yellow journalism, terrorist propaganda, and child abuse are all beneficiaries of Barlow’s sacred “home of Mind.”

    And it’s three days ride from Bakersfield and I don’t know why I came.
    I guess I came to keep from payin’ dues.
    So instead I’ve got a bottle and a girl who’s just fourteen,
    And a damn good case of the Mexicali Blues. Yeh!
    Mexicali Blues – John Perry Barlow

  • There’s a great (but terrifying) article in this month’s Harper’s about some of the more… devoted techno Utopians. I have a feeling we’ll be fighting these guys into the future.

    I keep thinking of more parallels to the Gilded Age, and it’s pretty fascinating. In addition to all the stuff already mentioned, there was this tendency to think of everything in mechanized terms. There were people who were convinced that Utopia would come if we got the machines right. Even the loftier tropes – immortality, world peace – were already there. There were also, of course, anonymous vigilantes and civic unrest and paranoia.

    The difference between then and now is that we have 6 billion people and dwindling resources. Should be fun.

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