Internet, Yea; Superhighway, Nay

Co-Founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation warns

against top-down control

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:

"The information superhighway is the mother of all bad metaphors because what they propose is nothing at all like a highway," Barlow said. "The telephone companies and the cable companies cooked it up because they wanted to compete. The phone companies want to get into pay-per-view." But they don't understand how the Internet works, philosophically, and why it has been successful, he said. "Their information superhighway would be too much a one-way thoroughfare. The Internet works because it allows interaction with another human being, which is what everybody wants-not 150 lanes in one direction and a footpath in the other."

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."

The Internet-A Life Form

In Barlow's view, the Internet is a new thing on this planet, with all the attributes of life itself-in effect, a life form. He sees it as ironic that the Internet was started by the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) as ARPANET, a way of linking U.S. defense forces together during a nuclear attack. "These people who wanted to do nuclear war created the largest anarchy in the world. And if you don't enjoy irony like that, you're not going to like the 21st century at all," Barlow said. He predicted that the Internet will have the largest effect of anything since the invention of fire.

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."

Making Money

Although few have made money off the Internet yet, compared to the potential, Barlow suspects that they will and that they are now in a lot of indirect ways. "You have to start thinking about what value is in a different way. The Internet is a giant volunteer project at this point. Why are people spending so much time entering so much stuff? It's because information has value in and of itself, and people want to barter and exchange it. Right now you go to work, you get some money and go down to Waldenbooks, and you buy some information. There are two points in the process that don't need to be there-getting the money and spending the money. I think there's a lot of that demonitarized transaction taking place that people can't quite fit into their economic model because we don't have one that incorporates that. Eventually, I think we will."

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.