March 8, 2002

EFF's Barlow takes on Hollywood, Microsoft, the NSA and even Stallman, kind of

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
An audience made up mostly of Johns Hopkins University engineering and computer science students challenged Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow Thursday about his organization's stance on email spam, its outsider status among Washington power brokers, and his libertarian belief that the Golden Rule, not government intervention, should govern actions in cyberspace.

For his part, Barlow urged the audience of about 150 to be "good ancestors" by designing technology systems that give future users access to information instead of walling it off. In the process, the former Wyoming cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist took to task the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act [SSSCA] and its sponsors, poked a finger at Microsoft and the U.S. National Security Agency, and even took a gentle jab at the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman.

Barlow spoke as part of the JHU Information Security Institute's ongoing seminar program. Part of his presentation came from his regular stump speech, which talks about information's value increasing as more people share it. An early lesson came from his time with the Grateful Dead when in the early '70s, the group decided to allow fans to tape concerts instead of kicking them out. The fans shared the taps, built the group's fan base, and the Grateful Dead began selling more of its own recordings and selling out stadiums. "We invented viral marketing without knowing what we were doing," he said. "That was so successful that by the time we did die in 1995 we were the most successful entertainment group in the United States. We could fill any stadium in America any time we wanted ..."

'Control freaks' and Hollywood

Barlow also compared information technology to cattle ranching. "I want you to start thinking about what you do as it manifests itself in a greater ecology of information," he told the students. "I was a cattle rancher for about 17 years, and I saw that if I was going to be successful at what I did, I had to trust nature a lot, I had to maintain open systems, I had to avoid monocultures at all costs."

Barlow launched into a critique of the content-owning corporations that supported the DMCA, which he says makes fair use of copyrighted content "essentially illegal," and are now pushing for the SSSCA, which would require copy controls on every piece of electronics sold in the United States. He called SSSCA sponsor Sen. Fritz Hollings "dynamically unclueful," and he accused Hollywood and other large copyright holders of trying to close off content that's long been in the public realm and treating information no different than toasters to be bought and sold.

They're getting help from Microsoft, he said, which has built content-monitoring into its latest operating system's media player. "Windows XP is one of the most amazing [monitoring] tools ever devised in the non-communist world," he said.

He also took aim at the U.S. PATRIOT Act, passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which allows law enforcement agencies to spy on U.S. citizens activities, online and off line, without getting warrants.

"The control freaks will be dining on that date for a long time to come," he said of Sept. 11. "Our attorney general said the other day we're going to be in a state of crisis for the rest of our lives, and he didn't seem that unhappy about it."

Failure of closed systems

The content-control corporations and the spy-happy government officials now have all kinds of excuses to create closed, "unhealthy" information management systems, Barlow pointed out. He used the National Security Agency, headquartered near Baltimore, as an example of a broken system.

"Because [NSA] emulated the Soviet Union in the closed system of information management, they are completely incapable of producing any useful information at all," he said. "They have 55,000 people down there, and the aggregate of those 55,000 people was incapable of telling us that somebody was going to fly into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Nor were they capable of telling us that a madman had declared war on the United States."

He said he first heard of Osama bin Ladin's declaration of war not from the U.S. government, but on bin Ladin's own Web site.

"We ignored him, and more to the point, the NSA ignored him, because they were ignoring basically everything. They have a system that's fantastically good at getting information, and really, really bad at digesting it. If a (piece) of information enters the NSA, it enters into darkness ... because the way in which you gain your professional prestige inside that culture is by stopping the flow of information. Information that isn't flowing doesn't exist."

Barlow crammed a lot of warnings and requests into a 40-minute speech, then turned it over to about 40 minutes of discussion. "My colleague John Gilmore is famous for saying, 'The Internet deals with censorship as if it were a malfunction and routes around it,'" he told the students. "Until relatively recently, that was an accurate thing to say. You have an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility because you are designing the foundation of the social space where all of humanity will gather for the foreseeable future. Whatever you do, there is no human responsibility that is more important than being a good ancestor."

Defending spammers and the Golden Rule

During the Q&A, Barlow was asked to defend the EFF's defense of some email spammers. Barlow says he hates spam, but the technology exists to filter it. "I'd rather have that spam coming, especially since I regard it as a form of expression, albeit the lowest one."

When Barlow said he recognized that's an "outside position," one audience member asked him if there are ways to effect change from inside the political establishment, instead of outside it like the EFF seems to be doing. Barlow noted the EFF used to have an office in Washington, and the White House would call frequently to get the organization to "sign off on something diabolical."

"We found ourselves with a greater incentive to stay at the table than to be right," he said. "There's a Washington phenomenon called logrolling, which is to maintain negotiations at all costs. We found ourselves whoring around in so many different ways that the only way to buy our vision back was to leave Washington."

But Barlow said he still wants the EFF to be a force for change, even as a Washington outsider, by pointing out to the public what's wrong there. "Somebody needs to maintain a sense of clarity about this, and there are relative degrees of outsiderness," he said. "I'm not Richard Stallman. Richard has done a valuable service to what has become the Open Source movement, but it seems that Richard has placed more value on being an outsider than on winning."

Asked about what kind of privacy protections should be available on the Internet, Barlow suggested that it's up to individuals, not the government, to protect their own privacy. With laws like the PATRIOT Act, he doesn't trust the government to do a good job of protecting privacy, and he said a right to privacy is a fairly modern concept that came about during the Cold War and the flight to the suburbs. A lack of privacy works fine in places like the same Wyoming town where he lives, he said; there's a "mutual assured destruction" if someone airs too much dirty laundry, because everyone knows where everyone's skeletons are buried. Barlow suggested the future of cyberspace will be more like that.

Addressing privacy and a question about socially conscious behavior on the Internet, Barlow said the concept of treating others as you would like to be treated youself generally has worked quite well, although trusting ethics breaks down when you're dealing with institutions, which "don't have consciences and can't be expected to." Institutions like law enforcement agencies thus need to be checked, he said.

One audience member suggested that relying on personal ethics doesn't work because the millions of people online employ so many different codes of ethics. "Cyberspace ... is generally an ethical environment," Barlow countered. "I'm pleased to say that people seem to be behaving better than you'd expect them to, in terms of the excessive behavioral problems that usually happen on anarchical systems.

"Most people recognize they don't have a choice in the matter," he says. "What's the alternative? The question is, 'how harmful would it be to come up with a solution?' The alternative is far more injurious than the original harm."

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