Monday, April 9, 2018

John Perry Barlow RIP

By Mohamed Nanabhay
from Qatar CC BY 2.0
Vicky Reich and I were both acquainted with John Perry Barlow in the 90s; we met at one of the parties he threw at the DNA Lounge. He was perhaps the most charismatic person I've ever encountered. So we were anxious to attend the symposium the EFF and the Internet Archive organized last Saturday to honor one aspect of his life, his writing and activism around civil liberties in cyberspace.

The Economist, The Guardian and the New York Times had good obituaries, but they mentioned only his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace among his writings. It was undoubtedly an important rallying-cry at the time, but it should not be allowed to overshadow his other cyberspace-related writings, thankfully collected by the EFF in the John Perry Barlow Library. Below the fold, the one I would have chosen.

I'd like to single out instead The Economy of Ideas, published in Wired 24 years ago last month. It isn't an academic article, but Google Scholar lists 556 citations to it from books and papers. In the symposium Prof. Pamela Samuelson stated it had 728 citations and, as an expert in copyright law, I'm inclined to trust her count. But whether its 556 or 728 citations, it has clearly been a huge influence on the field of intellectual property in cyberspace. Very few academics can claim their best paper got over 500 citations; my best paper counts less than half that. After a quote from Thomas Jefferson, Barlow starts:
Throughout the time I've been groping around cyberspace, an immense, unsolved conundrum has remained at the root of nearly every legal, ethical, governmental, and social vexation to be found in the Virtual World. I refer to the problem of digitized property. The enigma is this: If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can't get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?
Back in 1994, before the Web as we know it took off, he understood the fundamental conflict we face between intellectual property and free speech:
when the primary articles of commerce in a society look so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it, and when the traditional methods of protecting their ownership have become ineffectual, attempting to fix the problem with broader and more vigorous enforcement will inevitably threaten freedom of speech. The greatest constraint on your future liberties may come not from government but from corporate legal departments laboring to protect by force what can no longer be protected by practical efficiency or general social consent.
Read the whole thing, it is truly prophetic.

He will be sorely missed. If you appreciate his work, please donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or (preferably and) to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, both of which he co-founded. And buy his forth-coming memoir, Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times.

1 comment:

David. said...

Cory Doctorow's Barlow's Legacy is his contribution to the Duke Law and Tech Review’s special edition, THE PAST AND FUTURE OF THE INTERNET: Symposium for John Perry Barlow. Doctorow starts:

"And now we are come to the great techlash, long overdue and desperately needed. With the techlash comes the political contest to assemble the narrative of What Just Happened and How We Got Here, because “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Barlow is a key figure in that narrative, and so defining his legacy is key to the project of seizing the future. As we contest over that legacy, I will here set out my view on it."

Here's what I think is the key paragraph, which matches my memories of Barlow:

"When Barlow advocated for a free internet––“free” in all the usefully overlapping and ambiguous senses of that word––he wasn’t doing so because he lacked an appreciation of the risks of a monopolized internet, or an internet that was under the thumb of a repressive state. Rather, he did so precisely because he feared that a globe-spanning network of ubiquitous, sensor-studded, actuating devices that were designed and governed without some kind of ethical commitment, without the pioneering spirit of the early internet and its yeoman smallholders who defended it from those who sought to dominate or pervert it, that we would arrive at a dystopian future where the entertainment industry’s Huxelyism was the means for realizing the nightmares of Orwell."