The stirring, prescient, amazingly naive Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, 20 years on

“Why don’t you just cut and paste?”
“Why don’t you just cut and paste?”
Image: Cropped from image by Mike Licht on Flickr/CC BY 2.0
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It begins with a birth cry—a ringing assertion of selfhood that is equal parts pride, defiance, and frankly unbelievable hubris:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.

Thus opens the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, published 20 years ago tomorrow (Feb. 8) by John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the online civil-liberties group.

Barlow, a rugged, rough-voiced Wyoming ex-rancher, is also a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, making him the EFF’s natural wordsmith. His manifesto, written while he was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, rapidly went viral and was copied on to tens of thousands of websites. It’s still revered in some circles nearly as much as the US Declaration of Independence on which it was partly modeled.

To read it today is to marvel at how clearly cyber-libertarians like Barlow predicted some things, how wildly they missed others, and in general, just how remarkably different the world looked a mere two decades ago.

I. “…to dissolve the political bonds…”

On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

This second sentence of the declaration hints at its genesis.

Like the founding of EFF itself six years earlier, Barlow’s screed was a response to a heavy-handed attempt by the US government to police the online realm. Congress had just passed the Communications Decency Act, “which would have made it a felony and up to a $100,000 fine using such words that I had heard used many times in the Senate cafeteria,” as Barlow told Paper magazine last year. He wrote the declaration in fits and starts during a party in Davos, surrounded no doubt by the leaders of the same ”weary giants of flesh and steel” he was addressing (though also, according to Paper, by “a lot of hot women.”)

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.

That much is true: Cyberspace still has no elected government. But now it’s effectively run by a series of unelected bodies—from ICANN, the nonprofit that supervises internet addresses, to the internet service providers that set data speeds and prices; and from the self-appointed stewards of Wikipedia to the search engines and social networks that determine what you see and what you don’t.

You can still speak with liberty, but your authority depends a great deal on how well you game these systems. I’m old enough to remember the chaotic, scrappy internet of the mid-1990s, when it felt as if any voice could be equally heard. Those days are long gone.

I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

How hollow that sounds now. As Edward Snowden revealed, governments can monitor almost all our communications. They can prosecute software and music pirates, shut down service providers, and extradite and imprison leakers of secrets. These days, it’s arguably easier to find physical refuges from government than digital ones.

II. ”…separate and equal station…”

Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

This is where we hit peak hubris. Cyberspace, “an act of nature”?

For all the drugs he admits having taken, Barlow clearly wasn’t so detached from reality as to think that the internet literally required nothing but the willpower of its denizens to flourish. But while it might not have been a “public construction project,” those other weary giants of flesh and steel, the huge telcos, were the ones that built the servers and cables on which it lived. And they had a lot more in common with government than with the new cyber-communards.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.

All true: At the time, governments were strangers to the internet’s way of thinking. But there’s a certain snobbery here. Was government to be denied a seat at the table just because it hadn’t had one at the outset?

There’s a short-sightedness, too. How long could you sustain an alternate reality in which people could cross over from the material world, but their institutions could not? What about a generation or two hence, when the people in government were also children of cyberspace? Could you really believe they would forever be separate dominions?

Implausible as it seems today, apparently, he did:

We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.

You can almost hear the petulant utopian stamping his foot: Our world is different.

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications.

And, wow, yes—that’s pretty different. Stop for a moment to contemplate this world of unearthly mathematical purity, in which thought itself is just an emergent property of the pinging back and forth of signals in the global networks of information exchange.

For all its weird abstraction, though, this was a remarkably far-sighted sketch of the future. Back in the mid-1990s, most of what you could find out about a person online was what she herself had put there. Today, people and entities are defined online as much, if not more, by their relationships to one another—the “social graph,” as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dubbed it—and the transactions between them, whether monetary, informational, or otherwise. Who we are and what we think—thought itself—are revealed as patterns in these networks.

A brief aside: A “standing wave” was an oddly specific metaphor for Barlow to have chosen. In physics, it’s what happens when a wave is confined within a space and reflects off the walls, and the reflections combine to create a stationary pattern of peaks and troughs. (Imagine the ripples on the surface of a pond remaining fixed in place instead of dissipating.) We can guess at the metaphor’s origin from the Paper interview: Barlow says that after he first took LSD he became intent on studying physics, giving up only when he “ran aground on arithmetic.”

That said, the metaphor is also oddly apt. A standing wave emerges from the collisions of more ephemeral things, just as our online identities emerge from the mixing of our connections and communications.

III. ”…that all men are created equal…”

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

I have two words for you: digital divide. Again, even in this heady haze of idealism, the fact that an awful lot of the people in cyberspace in 1996 were Caucasian males with the money to pay for computers and internet connections could hardly have escaped Barlow’s notice. (Or maybe it could have; to adapt a common saying of the time, ”on the internet, nobody knows you’re a rich white dude.”)

Today it is, increasingly, a world that all may enter. But “race, economic power, and station of birth” still play a big role in what you can do once you’re there. The digital divide is largely gone; instead there is what Henry Jenkins, an MIT media studies professor, called the participation gap.

And it’s kinda remarkable, in hindsight, to think that anyone seriously believed otherwise. Technology, as we now know much better, has a habit of perpetuating existing inequalities, rather than wiping them out.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

I have one word for you this time: Gamergate. And a bunch of other words if that isn’t enough.

IV. The new rules of cyberspace

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Not true, of course; those legal concepts are not all based on matter. A lot of them—from intellectual property rights to free-speech guarantees—deal with intangible information and ideas, the lifeblood of the internet.

But this seemingly careless move is actually pivotal to Barlow’s document, whether or not he consciously meant it to be. It’s a rhetorical parlor trick: By claiming that meatspace laws apply only to meatspace things, he draws a brighter line between the two realms than really exists. And this allows him to sneak in a more profound claim under the radar. He’s saying not just that traditional legal concepts don’t apply in cyberspace, but that no legal concepts should apply in cyberspace. There should be no laws at all; there should be only…

…well, what?

We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge…The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.

An entire society governed by one rule! It would be easy to dismiss this part as just more lazy idealism. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The Golden Rule is basically the maxim, “do as you would be done by,” or more pithily, “don’t screw people over.” As an algorithmic rule-of-thumb for designing systems of human interaction, it’s not bad—it’s the basis of the world’s major religions, after all. In the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory, people are usually more successful in the long run when they don’t screw each other over. But it’s hardly enough to base a whole system of governance on. (And in fact, recent research in game theory suggests screwing people over is sometimes a very good strategy.)

And yet. Think of Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, all the major platforms of the “gig economy” (or whatever you choose to call it). They all use two-way rating systems that rely on the Golden Rule. Behave nicely, you get five stars. Behave badly, you get two or three stars, and pretty soon Uber is calling you in for expensive re-education if you’re a driver, or you wait forever in the rain if you’re a passenger.

In the real world, the Golden Rule broke down as societies grew too large, which is why we invented laws. In the virtual world, the power of technology to spread information—in this case, about people’s reputations—far and wide at near-zero cost makes the Golden Rule enforceable again.

And Barlow, in some dim and rose-tinted way, long before modern social networks and the gig economy were invented, grasped this.

What he either did not grasp or chose to leave out, on the other hand, is that other things besides laws and game theory shape the online world and the limits of personal freedom. Three years after the declaration came out, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, published the influential Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, in which he argued that four main factors drive what happens online: laws and social norms, yes, but also market forces and “architecture”—the structures of the internet, determined largely by the software code it runs on.

It is code or architecture, not laws or the absence of them, that gives the tech giants their outsized power. Facebook’s architecture dictates that you can only have one identity and it must be your real-world one. That has a huge effect on how people form networks. Google’s architecture says you see 10 results per page. What choices might you make differently if you saw 20, or five, or two?

The declaration did not see architecture, and barely saw markets. It saw laws and norms, and saw them as diametrically opposed. Conceptually, that may be its biggest weakness.

In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

To regulate means to separate; to distinguish between good and bad, legitimate and illicit, safe and dangerous, seemly and sleazy.

In the physical world, this is easy to do. You can sequester criminals and cover up garbage and build gated communities to keep out people you don’t like. But the “global conversation of bits,” Barlow was asserting, is simply too thoroughly mixed to disentangle. Instead you must embrace it all, the philosophy and the porn together.

And for a long time, that was the dream. But look at the internet today. People—often the ones who’ve been online the longest—bemoan its descent into anger, trolling and doxxing. In some cases it’s governments that have come to the rescue, by passing laws against harassment or invasion of privacy. More often, it’s algorithms—spam filters, porn filters, and social networks that only show you things you’re going to like.

The “seamless whole” has become more and more balkanized. And it has happened with remarkably little, if any, help from government.

V. Information wants to be free

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron.

Copyright has been one of the internet’s main legal battlegrounds. The information industries, from music to journalism, have been gutted. Yet on the whole, the idea of paying for ideas and intellectual property has not gone away—e-books and streaming music and movies are thriving businesses.

And once again, it’s not really thanks to government. Rather, the tech giants, run by Silicon Valley libertarians, figured out how to make paying for content effortless, unobtrusive, and cheap. When you can buy a book for a few bucks with one click, who can be bothered with torrenting? (OK, quite a lot of people, but still.)

In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

So lofty. Except there’d be no global conveyance of thought without gigantic factories churning out computers and smartphones and servers and game consoles and what-all else to convey it on. Reality sucks.

VI. An exceptionally American dream

These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers.

Here, close to the declaration’s end, we come to its most explicit reference to American history. It chimes with Barlow’s free-spirited past, as a Deadhead and as a cattle rancher under the wide Wyoming skies.

But it also betrays something the early internauts were loath to acknowledge. An unfettered cyberspace was not a universal human aspiration. It was, rather, an atavistically American narrative. An empty territory, just waiting to be discovered and staked out. A new world separated from the old by a gulf as unbridgeable as the Atlantic. A land that bows its head to no one. A land where all are created equal (and where white men are nonetheless more equal than others). The new home of Mind, indeed.

Finally, it’s also a very American narrative that in the struggle between liberty and colonialism, liberty wins. But oppressive governments can learn new tricks, too—just ask the online activists in China, Egypt, Russia. Whether it’s white privilege or military dictatorship, the power dynamics of the physical world have a habit of being reproduced in the virtual sphere with uncanny precision.

Epilogue: 20 years later

For all this, the declaration is a still a stirring, inspiring read. And perhaps we shouldn’t judge it too literally. Barlow wrote it not only under the influence of the altitude, jet lag, and Davos hospitality, but in a white heat of rage about the new US telecoms law. As he wrote to the friends to whom he emailed his text:

This bill was enacted upon us by people who haven’t the slightest idea who we are or where our conversation is being conducted. It is, as my good friend and Wired Editor Louis Rossetto put it, as though “the illiterate could tell you what to read.”

Well, fuck them.

But his document has not aged well. It failed to acknowledge that government would quickly learn the tricks of the online world and turn them to its own ends. It failed to foresee that some of the biggest threats to liberty would come not from government but from the very libertarians and tech pioneers who wanted to get away from government in the first place. (“They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings,” wrote the internet scholar danah boyd, reflecting on the anniversary recently.) And it peddled the impossibly idealistic hope that physical space and cyberspace could stay both distinct and radically different, despite having the same people living in both.

The internet still needs its Barlows. There is much to rage about: overweening copyright protection, government snooping, censorship, encryption backdoors, assaults on net neutrality, the unaccountable power of tech giants. But the new activists navigate a more complex terrain of pragmatism and compromise. Gone for good is any notion that cyberspace can ward off these threats by remaining somehow pure and sovereign.

All this is clearly not lost on Barlow himself. In 2014 a recording was made of him reading the declaration out loud. A special edition was released as a vinyl record, as if to underline the document’s timelessness. But listen (video below) to the diffident wryness with which he reads the bombastic opening sentence, as if to say “Ah, how innocent and idealistic we were back then!”