Internet visionary and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow dies

8 Feb 2018

John Perry Barlow. Image: Joi Ito/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

John Perry Barlow, one of the key influences in the early days of the internet, has passed away.

Co-founder of digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), John Perry Barlow, passed away in his sleep yesterday (7 February) at the age of 70.

A storied life

A prominent digital rights campaigner, Barlow was also a poet, essayist and activist who was the writing partner of Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. Although he never sang in the band, he remained a lyricist from 1971 to the mid-1990s.

Cindy Cohn, director of the EFF, announced Barlow’s death. She said: “It is no exaggeration to say that major parts of the internet we all know and love today exist and thrive because of Barlow’s vision and leadership.”

Barlow’s interest in protecting internet freedom stemmed from his involvement with one of the earliest online forums, The Well. He was one of the first to employ the term ‘cyberspace’ and EFF blossomed from some work he carried out with members of The Well who had run afoul of the law for alleged computer-related offences.

Cohn spoke highly of Barlow and his legacy, addressing criticism that Barlow’s view of the internet was too utopian and idealistic. “Barlow 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 without causing any more.

“As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good.”

An internet without prejudice

Barlow wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he warned of government intervention within online communities.

He envisioned the internet as “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth … a world where anyone, anywhere, may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”.

As well as his work with EFF, Barlow also co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012, an organisation devoted to preserving the integrity of public-interest reporting.

The EFF continues to do important work in the digital world, in areas from free speech to cybersecurity.

John Perry Barlow. Image: Joi Ito/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects