John Perry Barlow sees the Internet not so much as a product of technology or as a communication tool, but rather as a living organism, capable of tremendous and productive growth, and in need of protection from evil forces.
Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), former cattle rancher, and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, spoke to attendees of The Santa Cruz Operation's Eighth Annual SCO Forum last month on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. His iconoclastic and visionary perspective included these major points:
Barlow contends the information superhighway will not succeed because of complexity and cost. Communications planners and architects can't impose a successful communications system from the top down, he declared. "We've reached a level of technical complexity that can no longer be understood by any central planner or architect. We have to start doing it the way life does it, which is from the edges and the middle. Life comes up from the bottom and not down from the top, and that's kind of the way the Internet works."
And he adds, "Are American people really willing to pay that kind of money to get a bad version of pay TV? I think they're not."
But he urged listeners not to tell the phone and cable companies that their idea will never come about "because I think the good thing is that before they discover this, they're going to lay a lot of fiber-optic cable. The street finds its own uses for things. I want them to put all the infrastructure that they can out there before they decide they need to haul in their horns."
The more sinister side of the information superhighway proposal is tied into government efforts to wire surveillance systems into all information infrastructure, via things like the Clipper Chip, which would specifically allow government eavesdropping. "These surveillance systems will be more pervasive than anything any government has been able to plan before," Barlow said. "And people should become much more aware of questions related to encryption, digital telephony, and a host of those kinds of issues. The government is quite serious about wiring the Internet for sound. And they're actually clueless enough about the technology that they are innocent of the evil they propose. They don't realize the extent to which they are empowering a lot of transactional analysis that will make it possible for the entire American population to be studied at once. And patterns that emerge will be mapped to behavioral patterns that whatever government is in charge happens to like, which is not an outcome that will be pretty to anyone that has a heterodox point of view like me, or, I would guess, many of you."
Another bothersome aspect of global communications on the Internet is the question of censorship. "When Mitch Kapor and I founded EFF, one of our objectives was to make certain that the First Amendment applied to cyberspace," Barlow said, "that it applied to bits as well as ink. We hadn't been at this very long before we realized that the First Amendment was a local ordinance, and that we were going to have to come up with a better way of protecting freedom of expression that wasn't legally based on one precinct or another on the planet. But the American government hasn't figured this out at all. As far as they are concerned, they own the whole thing, somehow. Fortunately, the Internet has ways of dealing with this. The Internet deals with censorship as though it were a malfunction."
On the other hand, governments have a reason to fear encryption of commercial data, he pointed out. "It's not kiddie porn or nuclear terrorists. It's that if you have a widely deployed system of digital cash, it's not inconceivable that taxation becomes voluntary. Government will not like that. I'm not sure that I do."
Although government control could stifle American economic benefits, Barlow said he thinks they're going to have a very difficult time imposing control on it, but could "screw up" a lot of things in the process of trying. "They are going to seriously hobble American commerce and they already have to a greater extent than they know. If anybody who is trying to do virtual business with the United States knows that every bit that is transacted is going to be read by the National Security Agency, that person is probably not going to do very much business with the United States or anybody in it. You have to go to your own governments and try to make them aware of the issues. Canada is one of the governments that's hovering on the edge here and it would be helpful to get them involved."
Barlow's EFF was founded in 1990 following government action against hackers during the May 1990 Operation Sun Devil raids by the Secret Service. EFF, headquartered in Washington, D.C., aims to educate and inform computer users of changes in the industry, and guard against infringement of First Amendment rights due to investigation and arrest of hackers.