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Notes From a Father of the Open Internet, 15 Years On

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 10 2011

Part 1 of Personal Democracy Forum's Social Media Week event, "Wikileaks and Civil Disobedience." Watch Part 2 here.
John Perry Barlow. Photo: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Forum

As a revolution that was in many ways organized on Facebook continued in Egypt, John Perry Barlow said Wednesday that the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that he wrote 15 years ago Tuesday is still as relevant now as it was when he penned it.

Speaking at Personal Democracy Forum's Wednesday Social Media Week event on Wikileaks and civil disobedience, Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reiterated that activity on the Internet exists in large part beyond the reach of individual governments — a core tenet of his declaration. It's also the reason why transnational organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous — or, in an alternative viewing, Internet communities like Anonymous and a transnational brand like Wikileaks, marketed by one tech-savvy, globally couch-surfing radical — are able to function. At the event, Barlow, "Share This!" author Deanna Zandt, "Net Delusion" author Evgeny Morozov, and PdF co-founder Micah Sifry discussed how civil disobedience in the real world translates to the web and back again.

National laws are a set of "local ordinances in cyberspace," Barlow said.

"In the absence of law," he continued, "ethics and responsibility is what you have to have."

Barlow's 1996 manifesto was written partially in response to the signing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included provisions that attempted to regulate obscenity on the Internet. Those provisions, collectively called the Communications Decency Act, were largely overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. He declared that it was beyond the government's scope or ability to regulate speech on the Internet then, and he still declares it now. That said, he makes an exception for the kind of massive shutdown that not only muzzled protesters in Egypt for several days recently, but also contributed to the crippling of that country's economy.

In the context of the discussion on Wednesday, Barlow's argument was, essentially, that governments should leave the Internet tribes well enough alone. And for the part of the Internet peoples, he said, just because transnational networks of political dissenters can go online and clog up the websites of opponents like Visa and Mastercard — in the case of members of Anonymous, who assembled their Internet connections into a weapon called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon to take down the credit card companies' websites as retribution for their refusal to process donations to Wikileaks — doesn't mean they should.

"If your objective is to get a rise out of media that are fear-based media," he said, "of course, doing something destructive is always a great way to go. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's right."

Later, he added, "I don't really care about what's legal anymore because there are so many different versions of that. I care about what's right."

For his role as a leading thinker and polemicist so early in the Internet's formative years, Barlow is considered by many to be one of the web's founding fathers. He describes himself, though, as just a guy from small-town Wyoming with a penchant for grandiose language.

If you're going to write a manifesto that will have staying power for 15 years, he said, "It's best not to imitate the style of Thomas Jefferson."

Also, he said, "It's probably best not to do it while drinking, which I certainly was."

Video of the entire event is available in two parts: here and here.