COLUMN TWENTY-TWO, JUNE 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: ANOTHER ONE OF MY PERSONAL HEROES
JOHN PERRY BARLOW
[The following was commissioned by editor Emmanuel Parody as a piece for the April, 1997, issue of PLANETE INTERNET, a Paris-based French magazine with a website at http://www.netpress.fr. I use it here as an introduction to links to PLANETE INTERNET, to the story of Phiber Optik's imprisonment, to John Perry Barlow's Crime and Puzzlement, to John Perry Barlow's homepage and to his Electronic Frontiers Foundation website.]
You've heard of rich kids gone wrong. John Perry Barlow's saga is the story of a rich kid gone right. Except, those on the right would say he's gone left.
Like both extremes of left and right, John Perry Barlow hates government. On his Email "letterhead," he identifies himself as a "Cognitive Dissident." His homepage bio declares him to be the only former Republican County Chairman in America willing to call himself a hippie mystic without lowering his voice.
"The reason I'm a Republican is that I happen to be born in a one-party state," he told me. "I came from a political family, and it was just more expedient for me to be a Republican as long as the election was held in the primary rather than the general. And then, I went on being a Republican largely because there is that small and generally invisible faction of the Republican Party which just hates government. And it was a lot easier to make changes from within the 'old boy' network than to be like somebody from the Sierra Club pounding on the gates from the outside."
Because Barlow is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and campaigns for free speech on the Internet, does that make him a flaming liberal?
"The term liberal or conservative, either of those terms, don't mean a lot to me, especially in the way they get used now," John Perry told me. "Most of the liberals that I know are the most obdurate conservatives of my present acquaintances. Most of the so-called conservatives are the real radicals. But I have always been a strong believer in the rights of the unpopular. John Stewart Mills said that liberty resides in the views of that person you find most odious, and I think he was right about that. If you can defend the people you can't stand, then your own freedoms are better protected."
A rich kid? His father was Wyoming State Senator Norman Barlow, who ran a "pretty good sized cow-calf operation" and who was also head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, at the time a position more powerful than governor, according to John Perry.
John Perry Barlow was born in 1947 in Cora, Wyoming, site of his father's Bar Cross Land and Livestock Company, the management of which John Perry eventually inherited in 1971. A rancher until he sold the operation in 1988, John Perry otherwise was graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1969 with an honors degree in comparative religion.
"When I was a kid, like a lot of hick kids, I started to resent hell out of my hick town," John Perry told me, "and I got into a lot of trouble and I got sent away to prep school, mostly to save my father's political career. Once I got sent away to school, I met Bob Weir, who, as you know, was going to become rhythm guitar player for the Grateful Dead."
The story of another rich kid gone right? Bob and John Perry were both 14 at the time. This was at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs and at that point, according to John Perry, they became best friends "and have been ever since." For Weir's Grateful Dead tunes, Barlow has written the lyrics. When I told him that I liked listening to his songs, he said:
"I actually don't think much of them, to tell you the truth. That's not work that I'm as proud of as other things that I've done."
"I'm proud of the work that I've done trying to keep cyberspace free. I'm proud of having actually named the place, to begin with. Prior to my calling the place cyberspace, it didn't have a name and nobody thought of it as a place."
John Perry admits he copped the term from sci-fi writer Bill Gibson. Cyber, he said, is Greek for helmsman and computer systems generally are based on the ability of the systems to regulate themselves in increasingly complex ways.
"I started out at 40 without knowing a damn thing about computer technology and having no established audience whatsoever except for rock and roll songs and I managed to get on the Internet and turn myself into some kind of a cyber authority in about five years, so it's open-field running as far as I'm concerned."
John Perry's beliefs stem partly from the fact that he has always considered himself an "outsider, ranging back from when I was raised way out in the sticks on a cattle ranch without any other kids around and, finally, had to start coming into town to school and was completely desocialized. I went to a one-room schoolhouse for the first five years of my schooling and suddenly was thrown into a situation where there were a lot of kids. I always felt like I was the odd man out. And so I had a lot of affinity for the voices that tended to get silenced."
I asked John Perry how Electronic Frontiers Foundation evolved.
"I originally got online because I was thinking about what happens to little communities like the one I still live in here in Wyoming after agriculture died. Because I could see that it WAS gonna die. We just got too damn good at our own job. It takes so few people to produce food now, that there's nothing to support these little agricultural towns. And I look around the rest of America and I see that we've pretty well abolished community, everyplace but, say, the island of Manhattan and little towns like Pinedale. And I think community is essential. So I started looking at other kinds of communities and one that obviously came to mind were the Deadheads. They were a new form of community that didn't require a physical locus. But by virtue of the fact that I was who I was, it was hard for me to really study the Deadheads because I would alter the observation by my own presence. And then somebody told me that the Deadheads often convened on this bulletin board called 'The Well' and that would be a good place to find out what they were really thinking.
"So I got into that and suddenly thought, 'Hey! Wait a second! This is like a small town. This IS a community!' And maybe this is the future of communities. So, I started exploring that possibility and became more and more of an advocate for that kind of society and started associating with the folks who were there. And then I got out of the cattle business and I didn't know what I was gonna do next. So I thought that writing about these issues and writing about technology would be possibilities. And , as a consequence, I got to know some computer crackers and not too long after I got to know them, the secret service started coming down on them like storm troopers.
"When I first encountered these kids, I thought they might be dangerous, too. I got into a discussion with them online at one point where I said they were no better than skateboarders and they retaliated by taking my TRW credit record file and downloading it into the conference and telling me that they were going to permanently eliminate my credit if I didn't pipe down. And that's pretty scary! So I Emailed one of them and I said, 'Look, we've exceeded the band with this medium and I'd appreciate it if you give me a phone call. I'm not going to insult your intelligence by giving you my phone number.' And he called me up---in about 15 minutes. And I realized he was just a pencil-necked geek kid, like 15 or 16 years old and he was doing what kids ALWAYS do, which is try to violate the forbidden! He was no major threat. So, I got to know him and the rest of his pals and I was impressed, actually, at what a strong sense of ethics they have about NOT damaging systems, being very careful about where they went and what they did there, not using their technical skills for larcenous purposes. They had developed a strong ethical code completely in the absence
The Secret Service came into the house and held he kid's 12-year-old sister at gunpoint
of adult supervision, since their parents didn't have the slightest idea of where they were or what they were doing.
"And so after I had developed something of an affinity for them, all of a sudden things started to happen, like the Secret Service came into one of their houses and held this kid's 12-year-old sister at gunpoint for a couple of hours until he came home. In the meantime, they'd removed every single electronic item in the house, all the magnetic media they could find, including his music cassettes.
"And I heard about this and I thought, 'That sounds pretty intense! But maybe these kids are as the government claims they are. Maybe I don't understand the damage that they're doing.' But not too long after that, I got a visit from the FBI myself and this agent was so completely clueless about the crime that he was trying to investigate that I had to spend several hours explaining to him what the crime was before I started explaining to him why I hadn't done it.
"Somebody had taken some of the source code from the ROM chips in the Macintosh computer and had distributed it on the Net in a protest against Apple's proprietary policies towards their intellectual property. It's a long and complex tale as to why they thought that I might know anything about this, but basically they were completely in the dark and I could see that I was looking at the tip of the iceberg really of massive governmental ignorance. And it's never a good thing when you see a lot of well-armed ignorant people wandering around places they don't understand.
"So I wrote something about this and I put it on The Well. There it was read by Mitch Kapor, who is the guy who started Lotus Development Company and wrote Lotus 1-2-3. Nowadays, he's sort of gone offline. He's focused on Buddhism at the moment and he's in general retreat in a religious sense of the term. In any case, he was flying in his business jet over Wyoming the day after he read the posting and he called me up from the air and wanted to know if he could come and talk to me about what I'd written because he'd also had a visit from the FBI in the same case, which he found profoundly disturbing and hadn't talked about with anybody. He just basically dropped out of the sky and we spent an afternoon talking about various things that I knew that were going on with these hacker kids and decided that we would start some initiative to investigate the situation and find out if the government was operating constitutionally because it appeared to us the Bill of Rights was in jeopardy in cyberspace. We didn't even think of it as cyberspace yet but we knew that wherever it was, the government was not observing its usual constraints. So that was how we got started. At the time we just thought we were going to take the government to court in a few cases and that would be the end of it. But what we were also looking at was a fundamental shift that is world-wide where basically all of the power relationships that have been developed over the industrial period are gonna get renegotiated. And the border between the virtual and the physical world is going to be a hot place for the foreseeable future."
John Perry differentiates between the virtual and the physical worlds as meatspace and cyberspace. In meatspace, I found him very elusive before I could nail him down for this interview. He is always so busy traveling to give talks, speeches and lectures. In cyberspace, he can always be reached at email@example.com. He told me that he has a distrust of telephones, although he eventually told me what his telephone numbers are. When I offered the opinion that the world has always been ruled by charlatans and assholes, he said:
"Yes, but they're running in a new batch at the moment and there's liable to be a lot of friction between the old ones and the new ones. We've been pretty successful. We've taken the government to court in different instances and won. We have definitely gotten them to be more careful in the way in which they do electronic search and seizure. We have revised a lot of their codes and standards of conduct regarding electronic matters. We just won in a case regarding cryptography where we demonstrated in court that the ban on exporting strong cryptography from the U.S. is a violation of the First Amendment. We're trying to get people to understand that the whole notion of copyright as it existed is not going to apply very well in a virtual economy and is actually economically counterproductive and, if pursued, will compromise the opportunity for freedom of expression in cyberspace. We are trying to get various organizations to recognize the consequences of their information practices on peoples' privacy.
"It's a long list of things that we involve ourselves in, mostly having to do with civil liberties in the digital world. There are Electronic Frontier Foundation chapters in a lot of different countries and states that are more or less autonomous from us but pursue the same general agenda."
When I asked John Perry to explain more about what he meant concerning copyrights, he said:
"If you've got an economy where the principle article of commerce looks so much like speech to be indistinguishable from it and you're trying to regulate that economy on the basis of the old physical principle that there's a relationship between scarcity and value, what you're going to do is fundamentally compromise freedom of expression. You can't help it. And trying to 'own' speech---it's one thing to 'own' books and newspapers and CDs and to sell them as articles of commerce, but to 'own' speech itself is another matter. It's the
had any success
in battling Scientology?
wrong economic model and it's going to be used to stifle freedom of expression . It already has been. The Church of Scientology has been somewhat effective in trying to stifle critical discussions of Scientology by taking people to court who were involved in cyberspace discussions and charging them with violation of the Trade Secrets law for having quoted parts of Scientological scripture in newscript postings."
Has EFF had any success in battling the church?
"Somewhat. That's all still ongoing. So far, so good. There are a lot of issues that we've gotta deal with. But they all come down to liberty in cyberspace."
What happened to that kid whose sister was held at gunpoint?
"He went to jail."
"For having entered a computer system of federal interest. He didn't do any damage to it. It was actually NYNEX's computers. He was interested in the phone network. And he'd done no harm at all. He'd just been IN there. He stayed in prison for about six months. For 'entering a computer of federal interest.' He was 19. A lot of those kids went to jail. You can find out more about it by doing any kind of search on 'Phiber Optik' or 'Acid Phreak.' If you want to read the whole story on this, in my library on my home page,, there's a piece called Crime and Puzzlement, which sort of tells about the beginning of EFF, the events that led to the creation of the organization and the events surrounding the arrest of the kids."
In other words, a 19-year-old kid was sent to a year in jail for the equivalent of nothing more than trespassing, something kids do by their very nature. I looked up Phiber Optik and was kept riveted reading the account of his trip to prison [http://virtualschool.edu/mon/Outlaws/GoldsteinPhiberPrison.html]. I also was kept riveted reading Crime and Puzzlement [http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/HTML/crime_and_puzzlement_1.html]. Although he jumps around a lot in meat space, John Perry can always be found at his homepage http://www.eff.org/~barlow/ or at his Email address. Otherwise, you can visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation homepage [http://www.eff.org/~barlow/], which claims to be "one of the 6 most-linked-to sites on the entire World Wide Web." As I said, I had to chase Barlow for months before I finally nailed him down to this interview. He emerges from it as another one of my personal heroes. ##
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