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[Wired] It's Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cyberspace Independence

When digital dystopians and critics of Internet libertarians need a rhetorical dart board, they often pull out a document written by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, a former cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist. On this day in 1996, Barlow sat down in front of a clunky Apple laptop and typed out one very controversial email, now known as the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a manifesto with a simple message: Governments don’t—and can’t—govern the Internet. [...]

In essence, Barlow argues that the arc of the Internet’s history is long, but bends towards independence. His strongest example, perhaps, is found in the copyright wars: Yes, Napster and Megaupload can be sued into oblivion or shut down. But the file-sharing protocol bittorrent has thrived in spite of Hollywood and the recording industry’s best efforts. “I said this whole notion of property [in cyberspace] is going to get hammered,” Barlow says. “It has been hammered.

Barlow admits that what he describes as the “immune system” of the Internet isn’t exactly automatic. It requires effort on the part of activists like himself. “It wasn’t a slam dunk and it isn’t now. I wouldn’t have started the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation” if it were, he says. But he nonetheless believes that there is a kind of inexorable direction of the Internet’s political influence toward individual liberty. [...]