We lost a legend yesterday. John Perry Barlow, co-founder of Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and our original guiding voice, has passed away at the age of 70.
Over the course of an indelible and truly original life, Barlow was many things to many people. Some met him as a Wyoming cattle rancher, or as a mainstay in Timothy Leary’s Millbrook psychedelic facility, but many came to know him as the lyricist and poet responsible for “Cassidy” and other classic Grateful Dead tunes. It was that community—Grateful Dead fans who started some of the first message boards—that brought Barlow to the Internet, where the clarity of his vision and strength of his ideals made him a pioneer, and his gift with language made him the de facto poet laureate of a generation of technologists.
His most famous essay, a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel…”) was a catalyst for the Internet freedom movement and is taught in universities and law schools around the country. Years before Napster and its ilk would force the music industry into a reckoning, his Wired writing on copyright became a blueprint for how less restrictive—and fairer—intellectual property rules could form a cornerstone of a new economy of ideas. He was a friend and advisor to basically every early Internet pioneer, entrepreneur, or activist you can name.
He was clearly a man of words, and he was also a man of action. In 1990, well before the reach of the Web would bring the Internet into everyday life, he understood its potential as a liberating force—as well as the risk that it could recapitulate existing power structures that had always pushed some people to the margins. In that year, he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has remained for a generation on the forefront of the struggle to ensure technology lives up to its potential of expanding humanity’s access to civil liberties, instead of curtailing them.
It was his passion for press freedom, and his belief that whistleblowers should be protected, not punished, which spurred him to co-found Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012. He eloquently wrote at the time, “When a government becomes invisible, it becomes unaccountable. To expose its lies, errors, and illegal acts is not treason, it is a moral responsibility. Leaks become the lifeblood of the Republic.”
Here he is with our other co-founder Daniel Ellsberg, the day after we launched Freedom of the Press Foundation:
Death stared him down for years, as he suffered from various ailments and injuries of many kinds, but he never lost his poetic voice and dynamic spirit. His last public writing was a blog post he wrote for FPF on the 20th anniversary of his Declaration.
While it’s impossible not to mourn, there is no doubt that he would wish to see people celebrating his life and the ideals for which he lived, rather than lamenting he is gone.
In one of the Reddit Ask-Me-Anything sessions he participated in over the last several years, he posted a list of “adult principles” that he composed for himself on the eve of his 30th birthday. The principles themselves have now been heavily recirculated, and it’s a testament to the easy poetry of his words that these sparse 25 commandments have such widespread appeal. But the short introduction he gives to his principles, in response to a question about him being “a great man,” is even more indicative of Barlow’s philosophy.
The jury's well out on the great man thing. On the other hand, I'm willing to accept it when someone calls me a good man. I've been working on that one quite consciously for a long time. And, outside of being a good ancestor, it's my primary ambition.
John Perry Barlow was a good man. He was a good friend, and a visionary whose impact on technology, culture, and the world will be felt for generations. As the Grateful Dead say: fare thee well, JPB.