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<nettime> It’s Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cybers
nettime's nostalic historian on Tue, 9 Feb 2016 14:55:02 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> It’s Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cybers

Andy Greenberg, 02.08.16.

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 believes the Internet is a separate, global place without the
physical boundaries that define states and give them their power.

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

“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

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

ve 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.”

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