Barlow’s Legacy

Published, 2018-02-19:
https://www.dashforcenews.com/barlows-legacy/

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

So begins “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow [1]. Fully intending to have the tonal ring of the US Declaration of Independence [2], Barlow threw a stake in the ground declaring that the Internet was ours (the public’s) and not yours (the government’s). It was written as a response to the passage of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 in the US, an act that put a great deal of power and control over the Internet into the hands of relatively few oligarchs [3].

If you have not done so already, stop what you are doing and read his paper now.

The proclamation may have been focused on this piece of legislation, but its impact was far broader. Around the time of the initial explosion of the Internet in the late 80s and early 90s, civil-libertarians (and those simply concerned about government overreach) became increasingly vocal realizing a revolution in communication was unfolding. Governments, being governments, were, predictably, scrabbling to ensure this new medium was both regulated and economically funneled to blessed corporations.

Barlow’s declaration served as a voice to an expanding crowd of people who viewed their citizenship as empowered by this revolution and increasingly borderless; where governments no longer had jurisdiction. They were citizens of cyberspace [4], netizens, the digerati.

The paper galvanized a movement. And at the center of it all was Barlow and the organization he co-founded, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Of course, it helped that Barlow had a high-profile, fascinating background ready-made for internet stardom. Growing up and indeed later in his life, he was a cattle rancher —eloquent, charismatic, and articulate, but also a cowboy of sorts… salt of the Earth. One of his high school friends became a musician and through that connection, one thing led to another and Barlow became a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Ahead of his time (pre-internet), Barlow became involved in the WELL [5] where he met other like-minded cypherpunks in John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor who co-founded the EFF with him.

These cypherpunks were some of the more prominent founding fathers [6] of an activist movement to keep online life free. This virtual universe expanded so rapidly that controlling powers did not have time to adapt. The cypherpunk community and the EFF strove to retain as much autonomy for participants as possible. They were a new and free global citizenry, who could communicate anywhere at the speed of the electron, only limited by access availability.

Activists associated with the cypherpunk movement included a lot of technical people as well, as you’d expect. Some became associated with the movement even if they did not directly identify with it. Ironically, western governments both encouraged this openness, while at the same time trying to control it. For example, the US government developed the original Internet and built tools to make online computing more accessible and secure (DES, etc). And even later, the US government developed two notable projects that greatly enhance security and privacy which were then subsequently released to the public as open source projects: The Onion Router (TOR) and Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux). The US governmental tech community was likely harboring plenty of cypherpunks as well, sympathetic to The Cause.

Over time, cryptography became more and more accessible to individuals, projects, and companies. Most notable were technologies and protocols built on top of Public-Key Cryptography. Public-key crypto was originally developed in the 70s but brought to the common man by cypherpunk Phil Zimmermann and his famous package of tools and libraries called Pretty Good Privacy. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) developed by Netscape ushered in the era of online commerce. The importance of public-key cryptography to today’s modern free Internet cannot be overstated.

As the Internet expanded, governments, backed by legacy tech industry giants, started to fight back. Many governments classified encryption as munitions and criminalized distribution of PGP and any software that shipped libraries implementing strong encryption. After years of court cases and civil disobedience (the cryptography was well distributed anyway), governments gave up the fight and opened the floodgates on encryption and instead focused their efforts on backdoors, centralized services, ISP hacking, and spending enormous funds on collecting data and hiring as many security experts as possible.

Building on the ideals of the early cypherpunks, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was born and published the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL built a workable framework for copyrighting software so that it could be distributed, modified, and consumed, but maintained as “free as in freedom”. The GPL encouraged code distribution and sharing. In fact, it demanded it. It took the industry time to adjust to this, but free software, now more commonly referred to as open source software, radically changed how software is developed and distributed and has led to unprecedented innovation.

Cypherpunk leaders in the open source movement included FSF founder Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond, the author of arguably the single most influential manifesto advocating for open source, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Linux, with all of its important components adopting open source licenses, is now the most dominant operating system on the planet .

Even 100% open source companies sprang forth, led by Cygnus Solutions (also co-founded by John Gilmore) and then Red Hat which proved that you can build a Fortune 500 company and still release every line of your source code to the world.

The message carried through: Freedom is achievable, maintainable and necessary. World class legal scholars even joined the fight with the likes of Lawrence Lessig and Mark Webbink who counseled companies, organizations, and legislatures. They pioneered in new ways to leverage software patents yet remain ideologically ethical [7] and also helped refine existing open source copyright licenses in order to make them more powerful but less ambiguous so that they were more palatable to companies unfamiliar with them.

Throughout the years of governmental and corporate hand-wringing, John Perry Barlow ensured that a clear, rational, diplomatic approach to combating censorship, surveillance, and oppression, was maintained. The Electronic Frontier Foundation assumed the role of always being the adult in the debate who never compromised her ideals.

The Internet and the Web gave us a freer platform for building applications, sharing knowledge, and discussion. However, though much improved, commerce was still handicapped by a fraud-filled, error-prone, slow, unreliable legacy central-banking-system backend. Credit card companies and banks smoothed over some of the rough edges with high fees and interest to cover the rampant fraud. Many world central banks even began ensuring retail bank deposits. There had to be a better way. A cypherpunk way. Commerce that promised greater sovereignty. Commerce that embraced the ideals promised by the Internet. Commerce which was borderless and censorship-resistant.

As soon as the promise of the Internet became obvious (1988 for this author) cypherpunks started envisioning virtual currencies. In 1989, David Schaum created DigiCash. It was cryptographically sound and distributed, but it was not decentralized. And it was a bit early. Too early. Ecommerce wouldn’t take hold for another 10 years. DigiCash was a great experiment, but it did not survive the dot-com bust (early 2000s). Others started experimenting with that idea though, most notably, Adam Back (proof of work) and Nick Szabo (smart contracts and research on Byzantine fault tolerance).

And then, in 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto published his famous whitepaper: “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” [8], followed up shortly thereafter with the implementation of the world’s first truly decentralized, trustless, censorship-resistant, global store of value. The release of that whitepaper, much like Barlow’s Declaration of Independence though less bombastic, sent a chill down this author’s spine. It was again another eureka moment —Cryptocurrencies were another freedom-enabling innovation that would change the world.

Since then, Bitcoin has been improved and has gained in market value. More importantly, innovation in the general cryptocurrency space has continued at breakneck speed. Dramatic improvements have been layered on top of the original idea. Dash is leading this charge. Dash took the original innovation of a new programmable money (store of value and unit of account) and addressed the payments gap [9] making Dash a viable medium of exchange —the first cryptocurrency that is truly a currency. Dash continues to innovate, but plenty of other projects are also experimenting with many ideas.

"First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” —Mahatma Gandhi (apocryphal)

And much like the Internet, the Web, ecommerce, and even more loudly, open source were initially maligned… Cryptocurrencies have been dismissed, then mocked [10]. They are now openly fought by governments and banking institutions in some region of the world, though it seems many world governments have learned from their past failed encryption and speech battles and are taking a more prudent and cautious approach with cryptocurrencies.

There will be more setbacks. There will be more successes. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, with intelligence and wit, thumbed his nose at draconian state authorities and in the process rallied an army of technophiles to join the cypherpunk community. His dedication to Principle for the last 30 years went a long way towards building a formidable ideological foundation where respect for civil liberties is now expected by even the most casual netizens …globally! Today, cryptocurrencies offer the promise of breaking governmental monopolies on our financial lives, allowing citizens of cyberspace (all of us) to have even more sovereign control over their lives.

“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” [1]

John Perry Barlow died Wednesday, February 7, 2018.

Thank you, Mr. Barlow. May you rest in peace with the knowledge that the torch you lit in 1996 continues to light our way forward in the neverending fight for a freer world.


Notes

[1] John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, February 8, 1996 — Wikipedia article. Read also “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto” from 1993 by Eric Hughes.

[2] Thomas Jefferson et al., “United States Declaration of Independence”, July 4, 1776 (adopted). Its purpose was to clearly proclaim the independence of the American colonies from British rule. Wikipedia article.

[3] “Telecommunication Act of 1996”, aka the Communication Decency Act. Enacted January 3, 1996. As described in the Wikipedia article, “The original intent of the Act was to provide more competition but the bill actually did the reverse. The implementation of the Act led to a complete reversal of the growth of the telecommunications sector.”

[4] Cyberspace, a term coined by Gibson and once in common parlance by net-dweebs, has now been coopted by the US government. Oh, the irony.

[5] The WELL, or The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, a pre-internet virtual community that has attracted many early free thinkers and pioneers of cyberspace. It still exists today.

[6] “founding fathers” because they were all mostly male. There are exceptions though, of course. Jude Milhon, who coined the term cypherpunk immediately comes to mind.

[7] Mark Webbink (original primary author), the Red Hat “Patent Promise”, — In 2002(?), Red Hat’s Patent Promise introduced the concept of “defensive only” patents. Red Hat counsel at the time (Webbink) acknowledged the illogical and destructive nature of software patents, but instead of caving to the system, per ce, he cleverly turned patents on their head, declaring that Red Hat would begin aggressively patenting software, giving free license to other projects, communities, and even companies, and only using them in court defensively in case of attack. And thus, Red Hat preserved her cypherpunk ideology within the confines of a broken system.

[8] This author has a sneaking suspicion that Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity is closely linked to Schaum, Back, and Szabo. It would be a bit surprising if Satoshi turned out to not be one of them, all of them, or others plus one or more of them. Let’s hope we never know. Life needs its mysteries.

[9] t0dd, “Dash and the Cryto Confidence Gap”, Dash Force News, January 30, 2018. Dash fulfills the requirement to be a currency by enabling rapid execution of trades without fear of doublespend. But that is merely one of Dash’s many improvements to the baseline Bitcoin codebase. Learn more at Dash.org.

[10] t0dd, Cue the Naysayers, Dash Force News, February 9, 2018.


About the author

Todd Warner
Lives on a farm. Plays with computers. —of the agrarian digerati.
t0dd @ Dash Nation | toddwarner @ keybase