John Perry Barlow is revered as the guru who works to keep the Internet free and open for us all, but not long ago he was the lyricist behind one of the most popular, followed bands in the world — the Grateful Dead. He wrote Dead staples such as “Looks Like Rain,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Cassidy” along with founding Dead member Bob Weir. But throughout the freewheeling days of Dead tours, he’s been known for more than just penning some of the most-popular rock anthems ever heard.
He co-founded the Electronic Freedom Foundation, an effort instrumental in working to protect the freedoms that we take for granted every time we go online and leave a comment, share a video or photograph, or write an article. Ever heard of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace? Barlow wrote it.
He’s still working through the EFF, and his fight isn’t over when it comes to protecting individual online freedoms. He’ll talk about that when he takes the stage at CES 2013.
An Unlikely Internet Guru
Nobody thought Barlow would end up so involved in Internet freedom. While he gained fame working with the Grateful Dead, he wasn’t always part of rock and roll culture. Born in Wyoming in 1947, he received his early education in a one-room school before heading off to study comparative religion at Wesleyan University. But what do you do with comparative religion major, if you don’t become a minister?
If you’re Barlow, you move back to Wyoming and begin operating a large cow-calf operation. That began in 1971 — when he also started co-writing songs with the Grateful Dead. Neither occupation was just a whim. He operated his ranch until he sold it in 1988. And, during that time, he was co-writing songs, until the band’s run ended in 1995, when leader Jerry Garcia died. But even though Barlow retired in the 90s, his creativity and imagination didn’t, and there was a new challenge ahead: the Internet.
In the early 90s, not many people knew about the Internet. Few homes had computers, and most people didn’t know the Web even existed. Phrases like “going online” weren’t part of the lingo. But Barlow and co-founder Mitchell Kapor, troubled by the lack of freedom of expression on digital media, founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, to blend the expertise of lawyers, policy analysts, activists and technologists to fight for freedom in courts — and bring lawsuits to corporations and the government.
The EFF has been involved in hundreds of significant cases in tech. In Apple v. Does, for example, it won the fight to protect the rights of online journalists to keep sources confidential. In Bernstein vs. the U.S. Department of Justice, another famous case, the EFF established that computer code is speech, shielding developers from government censorship.
Just last month, the EFF joined with the ACLU to fight for the right to keep Twitter accounts private. The San Francisco District Attorney’s office had subpoenaed Twitter, seeking tweets, photos and account information of two activists, Robert Donohoe and Lauren Smith, who were charged with offenses in a Columbus Day anti-capitalist protest. The DA violated the federal Stored Communications Act, the EFF noted, asserting it wasn’t legally allowed to subpoena the content of communications.
The Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace
Barlow also helped popularized ideas and terms about technology that you take for granted. At the time he co-founded the EFF, he borrowed a phrase “cyberspace” from science fiction to describe what was rapidly happening online. Author William Gibson, years earlier, used the phrase to describe the electronic medium of computer networks, in which online communication takes place. Barlow adopted the name to describe the early global social space emerging through computer networks.
The lyricist-turned-advocate also evolved into a writer for many publications, including The New York Times and Nerve — and was on the masthead of Wired for many years. But it was his manifestos and legal writings that led Yahoo to dub him the “Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace.” For example, law schools often teach “The Economy of Ideas,” a piece he wrote. In it, he discusses the dilemmas of copyrighting intellectual property in the digital age.
“The protections that we will develop will rely far more on ethics and technology than on law,” he wrote, according to Wired. “The economy of the future will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential.”
The manifesto, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” is also widely distributed online — found on more than 20,000 sites. In it, he boldly declared, “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. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Looking to the Future
While Barlow wrote many of his better-known pieces in the early days of the Internet, that doesn’t mean he’s taking any time to rest from fighting. He remains a top commentator and consultant on legal issues, information economics, cyber liberties and privacy. At CES, in fact, he’ll appear with a panel of experts to discuss life beyond the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” also known as SOPA. The cause is near and dear to his heart. He once famously said, “Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping Tom to install your window blinds,” according to Philly.com.
In 2012, millions contacted Congress to protest restrictive copyright proposals, and intellectual property issues were at the forefront of Washington and presidential campaign talks. At CES, Barlow and other experts, moderated by Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET, will discuss the challenges of protecting online privacy while maintaining a strong Internet.
But all of his pursuits aren’t online. In 2010, he became a managing partner at Algae Systems, a company researching ways to convert sewage into fuel and fertilizer. The company, which asserts its technology will affordably replace fossil fuels within a generation, aims to create a cost competitive oil-alternative in just three years. It claims its next-generation biofuels offer renewable carbon negative fossil fuels, clean water and fertilizer using only sunlight, CO2 from the air and wastewater as inputs.
Algae has come under criticism due to Barlow’s involvement. He isn’t associated with biotech fuels, but by linking himself to the company, he’s continuing his love affair with emerging technologies. In other words, this Deadhead is not ready to roll over and play Dead yet — not by a long shot. ♦