Will John Perry Barlow's vision of an open internet last? Only if we make it

Barlow's techno-utopian dream has given way to Orwellian reality. But with effort we can salvage a fairer internet for all. Image: @Kmeron for LeWeb13

Derek O'Halloran
Head of Product Portfolio and Growth; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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John Perry Barlow, founding father of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, died in February 2018, almost 22 years to the day since he first wrote this defining piece of internet history. Potent, inspiring and anti-establishment, the short poetic piece reads like a cross between the American Declaration of Independence and Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will not Be Televised. It wasn’t nailed to a church door and spread through the power of newly invented printing press. It was emailed to 600 people and then “went viral” through very medium and community it declared independence for.

Much will be written be about Barlow’s legacy, and rightly so. But like many events of historical import, we do not yet know how we will look back and remember this moment in time. The Guardian asked if the dream of an open internet will die with its founding father. This is a significant question. It is significant because it will shape the world we leave to our children and all future generations.

There are historical parallels. In the afternoon of 9th June 1762, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citizen and resident of Geneva, Switzerland, packed up his papers and fled the city of his birth. A judgment of the court of parliament had that day issued an “arret” for Rousseau, that he be “taken and apprehended by the body, and brought to the Bachelors’ prisons of the Conciergerie du Palais”, and that all copies of his book Emile be “lacerated and burned”. Rousseau left Geneva and found protection under Prussian ruler Frederick the Great – an admirer, despite having never read any of Rousseau’s works.

While Rousseau wrote the eponymous book on the “social contract”, his treatise was in fact just one contribution to an ongoing debate and development of ideas across Europe over several years – debates and ideas that were informed by and shaped the social and political events of the day. Debates and ideas that eventually led to revolutions and the establishment of modern democracies. Progressive as he was, when Frederick later read The Social Contract, he was reportedly not impressed.

Two and a half centuries later, the birth of the internet has thrown the debate about the relationship of the individual to the collective wide open again. John Perry Barlow was a leading light in how we shaped this debate. But exactly how will history remember him? Just as there were different perspectives on Rousseau in his time, John Perry Barlow’s legacy may take decades for history to fully process.

Barlow’s defining contribution to the subject was to breathe poetic, emotional and political life into something that most people didn’t think of being any of those things.

Have you read?

The genesis of the internet was not particularly exciting to those not directly involved in it. There was no Falcon Heavy launch sequence, with roomfuls of whooping astrophysicists celebrating a rocket’s takeoff. Protocols for sharing files and “switching packets” across networks were developed by a range of computer scientists over a period of several years. The internet was quietly “born” when ARPANET developed protocols that could allow two networks to communicate. It took another five years for the baby to get its name, “the internet”. Some years later, as university students, we all received email accounts for the first time. Flatmates sat next to each other in the college library and sent each other messages to try it out. “Hi. Message from me.” It was about as interesting as a pager. People giggled, got up and went about their day. No epic videos, no dank memes, no Twitterstorm.

Barlow, however, saw that the core concepts of the internet are inherently revolutionary to the social contracts that we had accepted and adopted through the past 250 years. As a horizontal network of networks, it renders hierarchical structures of information flow – and associated power – irrelevant. And being born out of a common wish for resource sharing, it challenges traditional concepts of property ownership. (We can argue all day about “Who owns my data?” – but in an internet world, as data is an infinitely replicable, non-exclusive good, does the question even make sense?)

Most importantly of all, being “everywhere and nowhere”, the internet exists on a different plane to our world of sovereign states.

Like Rousseau, Barlow was not the first person nor the only person to see this, or to talk about the central questions of his day. But like Rousseau’s work, his Declaration for Independence became a touchstone and amplifier for the core internet principle of liberty, in its fullest sense.

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

“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.”

The declaration was emblematic of the first major wave of internet proliferation: community-based, open-source and driven by optimism. It embodied the hope for a step change in the fate of humankind by empowering individuals – by putting all the knowledge in the world at the fingertips of every man, woman and child.

Bold words, and inspirational. However – as the Guardian reminded us yesterday – this is not the internet we see today.

“Twenty-two years on and his techno-utopian vision has not materialised. In its place we have widespread government surveillance, a concentration of power into the hands of a few large multinational companies, widespread online harassment and increasingly polarised echo chambers.”

The cold reality they describe feels more dystopian than utopian. Less Barlow, more Orwell.

Perhaps inevitably, perhaps sadly, a second phase of internet proliferation began – driven by commercial interests and increasingly of interest to governments for a range of uses. Geeks are cool, startups are cool and we all chase the next unicorn. Governments have fully understood the power such a ubiquitous medium offers – both in terms of gathering intelligence and exerting influence. As individuals – primarily as consumers – we have all enthusiastically embraced the wide range of services and benefits that innovators and entrepreneurs have built on and around the internet. Our reality is reflective of our collective, individual choices.

Gradually, but inexorably, secular concerns of commerce and power have edged out human-centric principles of openness, freedom and empowerment as the driving forces for how we shape and use the internet. Under a rubric of clear-eyed, adult realism, it has become easier to treat early internet principles as youthful exuberance or pollyannish idealism. Cindy Cohn, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a long-time co-worker of Barlow’s, accepts he was “sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the internet could solve all of humanity's problems”.

So is Barlow’s dream fated to die with him?

In my opinion, no. While there are powerful incentives at play, there are also clear signs that our current trajectory is not an inexorable slide down a one-way street, but is rather the swing of a pendulum – and that the pendulum is feeling the pull swing back.

There is growing awareness and understanding about the fact that how we access and use services through the internet raises significant questions regarding the rights of individuals and their relationship with governments and corporations. Popular disquiet is causing governments and corporations to ask tougher questions – of themselves and each other. There is general consensus that the path we are on is not sustainable. But there are no silver bullets here. We want to be able to leverage large-scale intelligence to stop human trafficking, while also protecting the privacy of the vast majority. Sincere efforts to use technology to drive social inclusion and opportunity by offering formal identity to those who don’t have it run into strident and equally sincere attempts to protect rights of privacy or freedom of speech.

Fundamentally, the internet is forcing us to once again ask the question: what kind of society do we want to live in? We are writing a new social contract. Just like in the 18th century, the answer is not provided by one text, one person, one institution. It is the result of broad social process – the aggregate result of millions of individual choices. Today, the internet also provides us with a greater opportunity to share our answers to questions we care about – and the platform to act and shape that future. The internet is humankind’s greatest project of collective creation. It is a grand social experiment where everyone shapes its evolution, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Working our way through these questions will not be easy. It will require deep, informed and sustained multi-stakeholder dialogue and cooperation – in a positive, open and constructive spirit. Some may say, in an clear-eyed, adult spirit. We should not be surprised to find that we can again draw from the wisdom of Barlow’s well to offer us guidance and inspiration as we start down this path. Nineteen years before the Declaration, Barlow penned the 25 Principles of Adult Behavior. Some of them are particularly relevant to our shared challenge here. But all are worth reminding ourselves of.

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