Urban pathology. The death of creativity. These are the fears that
keep John Perry Barlow awake at night.
The co-founder of the 12-year-old Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF) tries not to be bleak. But
he sincerely worries that Microsoft will usurp e-commerce and AOL
Time Warner will seize media, and the two forces will extinguish
dissenting voices in a "diabolical" plot to own the
economy and the human mind.
But Barlow, perhaps best known as a lyricist for the Grateful
Dead, isn't entirely forlorn. He's optimistic that courts will soon
strike down the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998
agreement that banned unauthorized online distribution of companies'
intellectual property. And he's hopeful that Microsoft Chairman Bill
Gates--the smartest man Barlow says he's ever met--will hatch a plan
to control the Internet that is so ridiculous that it will spark a
public boycott that ultimately will topple the software giant.
The 54-year-old owner of an Apple PowerBook--festooned with
Grateful Dead bumper stickers--sat down to chai tea in his
rent-controlled apartment overlooking San Francisco. Donning black
leather pants, cowboy boots, a turquoise necklace and a cell phone
earplug, the self-declared "techno hippie" talked to CNET
News.com about dot-communism, cattle ranching and the hallucinations
of the masses.
Q: What does a self-titled "cognitive dissident" do
A: I'm spending an enormous amount of my time stopping content
industries from taking over the world--literally. I feel like we're
in a condition where private totalitarianism is not out of the
question because of the increasingly thickening matrix of channels
of communication owned by the same companies that own content, that
own Web properties, that own traditional media.
In essence, they're in a position to own the human mind itself.
The possibility of getting a dissident voice through their channels
is increasingly scarce, and the use of copyright as a means of
suppressing freedom of expression is becoming more and more
fashionable. You've got these interlocking systems of technology and
law, where merely quoting something from a copyrighted piece is
enough to bring down the system on you.
Which companies or organizations constitute this totalitarian
Microsoft, AOL, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and
the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), not to
mention...Panasonic, Intel--basically, large corporate capitalism in
a completely unregulated environment.
I'm a free marketer and I'm not a fan of regulation. But I'm very
concerned about what happens when you have these large organisms
with no conscience. And why should they have a conscience? They're
not human, and they can operate globally without any constraints.
What dissenting stories aren't getting published? What
communities aren't being built because of corporate totalitarianism?
That's just it: We don't know. We've reached a point where the media
are so owned by the large corporations and they live in this tight
loop where practically all they can convey is what is already
believed. I believe that mass media exists to confirm the
hallucinations of the masses. If you want to get a story through
that doesn't sync up with the dominant belief system, it's just not
going to happen. So who the hell knows what else is going on out
After totalitarianism, what's the next biggest battle brewing
There are a lot of things connected to totalitarianism, such as the
ability to affect the technical architecture of the Net and the
increasing number of standards and protocols that are being passed
down by the likes of Microsoft. I worry that the Net is closing. I
would say that (Microsoft e-commerce initiatives) .Net and HailStorm
are huge threats and really diabolical. The problem is that hardly
anybody recognizes it because they don't know what .Net is or how it
works. They don't know that Microsoft is trying to own all of your
To play devil's advocate, isn't Microsoft simply selling a
product that millions of people are willing to purchase at their own
Oh, come on. People aren't willing. Microsoft is giving people what
Microsoft wants because it has a monopoly, which isn't based on the
value of the product but rather a positive feedback loop in the
information economy: Everything is compatible with Windows, ergo,
Windows prevails and continues to prevail regardless of its
liabilities. It's No. 1 because it's No. 1, period, not because it's
valuable. In fact, it's become totally diabolical.
If Windows is so bad, why does Apple have a meager 4 percent
Four? Really? Jesus. They really blew that one.
You've been heavily involved in wiring Africa for Internet
access. But increasingly, it seems, a new digital divide has
emerged--not between the rich and the poor, but between the people
who give their consumer data, such as credit card numbers, to
corporations, and the privacy zealots who refuse. If this is true,
what's the future for the zealots?
That's the new divide, and it's not pretty. I have old hippie
friends who refuse to have a credit card and pay for everything in
cash and are not essentially engaged in the modern terms of
society--and they're living accordingly. They live in shacks in Humboldt
County (on the rugged Northern California coast), which is all
they can handle because there's so much friction and overhead in
their economy that they can't live on a competitive basis with the
rest of us. The people who don't opt in will basically have similar
lives, be similarly disengaged from society.
Presumably, you'll do more and more purchases online, and
presumably, Microsoft will make it more inconvenient for you--unless
you provide your consumer data to Passport (the company's database
of customer information). At some point, are you going to cave and
provide Microsoft your credit card and other data?
I don't know. (Long pause. Heavy sigh.)
I'm really worried about this, and I keep praying for guidance.
These are really dark times. On practically every front that I care
about, the voices of the foes are winning. I have a beleaguered
optimism that this isn't going to continue to be the case, but this
is a time to have your faith tested, that's for sure.
You paint a pretty gloomy picture. How can we stop Big Brother
People could simply boycott the products. Frankly, I think anybody's
a fool to put (Microsoft operating system Windows) XP on their
computer. It's like installing a continuous, 24-hour monitor on your
mind. But people are doing it like crazy because they don't know any
But again, if this is so nefarious, how do we stop it?
In some respects, I've had to rein in my horns a bit to figure out
what to say that's constructive--as opposed to saying the sky is
falling, even though it is. Basically, I just can't come up with a
plan to keep the sky up there. I hope that enough people will become
aware of what's going on.
And one thing I've noticed about monopoly in the information
world is that while this arena is extremely favorable to growing
monopolies very quickly, it's also favorable to disintegrating them.
I remember a time not that long ago, when 80 percent of all
computers on the planet were dedicated WordPerfect servers. Unless
you go to a law firm, you aren't going to find any of those now. So
I have some faith that, at some point, Microsoft would do something
that is so outrageous that they simply alienate the marketplace, and
at some point, Linux or some substitute will take over.
Let's talk about copyright laws, which you hate. How would
musicians and other artists make a living if, in your perfect world,
copyright law was abolished?
You as a journalist produce copyrighted material for a living. You
don't make your living on the basis of royalties--and there are very
few human beings who do. Royalties are things that get paid to
organizations and institutions that have thieved royalties from
human beings. The idea that royalties need to be there to "incentivize"
creativity is pretty abstract these days.
What you get paid for is the delivery of service. If you're
talking about services, it's best not to view what is being served
as a form of property.
So should the music industry adopt a publishing model, in
which companies give away a newspaper for 25 cents or publish on the
open Web but collect revenue from advertisers, referrals or other
In the case of the music industry, the model is already well
established: If you're a performing group, you make your money off
of performance primarily, but not exclusively.
The Grateful Dead invented viral marketing without really meaning
to...We gave our music away. At the time, we did it because we felt
there was no way to stop Deadheads from taping it, and besides, we
weren't in it for the money, because we weren't making any. But
those tapes became the androgen of our success. They spread that
virus all over the damn place, and by the time we died, we were the
largest-grossing entertainment act in the business because of
performances, but not exclusively.
The interesting thing is that our records weren't nearly as good
as the tapes that a lot of Deadheads made, but they all went
platinum. There is a desire on the part of the fan base to actually
own the physical objects, in addition to having the music to play.
But I've been to a bunch of Dead shows and know that no other
band conducts concerts like the Dead. How do talented musicians who
can't tour as well or as often make money?
Most bands perform. If you allow your music to freely circulate and
use it as advertising, it's a big help. Paradoxically, you can allow
your music to freely circulate and still sell it if people are
willing to pay for your encapsulation of it and for convenience.
I'm writing now for String
Cheese Incident, which is like Grateful Dead 2.0, and they're
getting big very fast. Their audience has quadrupled in the past
year...They've been making their board tapes available online for
some time. At the same time, they have a system where they'll ship
you CDs of the concert. People are buying them--in spite of the fact
that they can download the music.
You lived in San Francisco in the late '60s and '70s when the
Dead were giving free concerts in Golden Gate Park and it was all
about free love and be-ins. How has the Bay Area
changed--particularly in light of the late 1990s dot-com invasion?
San Francisco is one of the most pathological cities on earth. The
people who live here lost their sense of human connection (in the
'90s). The city was completely emptied of diversity at a certain
point, and the entire population that came in were suburban kids who
had never lived in any city or town or community in their whole
lives. They had no sense of community. It's now a place where if you
give eye contact, you get maced.
The culture that has come up around the economy--and I admit I've
personally tried to build this economy--is a culture that I can't
stand. It's a good thing I have a sense of paradox. But I really
don't like the society that has grown up around the dot-communists,
who are all products of suburbia and television.
So when the tech industry imploded and all the dot-communists
lost their jobs, returned to business school or groveled in
blue-collar jobs, you gloated?
Hey, it hurt me too. Being an Internet guru isn't what it used to
be. I lost probably 95 percent of my net worth. But it's been good
for the Internet, and in the long term it's going to be very good
for the dot-communists. Never has there been a time when there are
so many young
people who have been poor and then rich and then poor
again. I think it's an educational experience that teaches you
what's valuable in life. To have a whole bunch of money at a really
young age and see how completely useless it is--it trains a lot of
folks in the real value of things.
What was the big economic lesson you learned from the tech
The whole dot-com thing was an effort to use 19th and 20th century
concepts of economy in an environment where they didn't exist, and
the Internet essentially shrugged them off. This was an assault by
an alien force that was repelled by the natural forces of the
So through the Internet we're creating a new economic
paradigm--like the 15th century transition from feudalism to
We're transitioning from capitalism to what?
It's more of a gift or barter economy than we're used to, and it's
much more decentralized--a place where the buyer and seller are much
more obscure. In the early '90s, people were saying, "This
Internet isn't going to go anywhere because there's no economy
there, no way to make money there." I would say, "Wait a
minute. There are people entering trillions of keystrokes into this
database. There's an economy there--but it just happens not to be
There was this belief that you made money from market cap, and
there was no difference between a venture capitalist and a
customer--that if you sold your product to a VC you were one step
further toward your final goal, which was a ridiculous IPO,
following which you'd liquidate and spend the rest of your life
chasing starlets on the Riviera. This is not a good reason to start
a business. Business should be about the simple proposition of
creating a product or service that costs you less than you can sell
it for. For a long time, we forgot that.
Do you blame yourself at all for fueling the Internet bubble?
Well, yes. I'm doing a piece now for Forbes about the
economics of humility and admitting my own errors in all of this,
and trying to evaluate where to go because we've so massively
In fairness, I've always claimed that the long-term effects are
going to be far more profound than the short-term effects. At the
same time, I was certainly one of the primary promoters that this
was the biggest thing that had happened since the capture of fire. I
still believe that. But I take a slightly longer-term view of it.
The capture of fire didn't revolutionize human society in five
years. It took thousands. In this case it's going to take a minimum
of a century. These initial exuberances were probably
counter-productive, and I fully confess to having fueled those
How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as someone who did everything he could to
keep the Net open and build an architecture for the future that has
as its foundation principles of openness and free flow. I want a
future where anyone can say anything they want.
You co-founded EFF for that purpose. Is there still a need for
Absolutely. More than ever. I don't know who would be fighting these
fights if not for the EFF. We need to get
rid of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--that is one of the
principal tools of repression. That has to be removed from law, as
well as its European equivalents. The EFF is the primary force to
make that happen.
I'm convinced that liberty exists in the public's willingness to
exercise it. And if people are timid, they're not going to exercise
their liberties, and they'll lose them. We have an extremely
important function in making people feel there's an organization for
them if they want to be brave.
Do a series of mounting attacks on the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act give you confidence that copyright laws will someday
be struck down?
Yeah. They'll get rid of the DMCA because it's unconstitutional. And
at some point, we'll get to a level where the courts agree with us.
It's clearly a violation of the First Amendment, and it's being used
to create all kinds of secondary violations. I just can't believe
that a court could continue counting putting a link to a text file
as a criminal act in the United States of America.
You've been a Wyoming cattle rancher, a Grateful Dead lyricist
and an Internet guru. Which career did you enjoy most?
I liked being a rancher more than anything else. I'd still be doing
it if there were any conceivable way to afford it.