John Perry Barlow, a visionary internet pioneer, passed away in his sleep on February 6 at the age of 70.
Barlow co-founded the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which defends online civil liberties, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation. However, his legacy goes beyond internet rights.
Barlow was a Wyoming cattle rancher who’s love for the Grateful Dead — for whom he actually contributed lyrics — brought him to the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) forum in 1986. The oldest virtual forum community in continual existence, the WELL was also known for its “Deadhead” presence. He later served on the board of WELL for several years, which served as his launchpad for a career in the world of the internet. In 1990, he founded the EFF.
The EFF is one of the most prominent leaders in the fight for civil liberties online. Their work ranges from providing funding for legal defense, to actually defending individuals and technologies from legal threats, to exposing government malfeasance, to organizing political action (such as protesting the U.S.’s recent dismantling of net neutrality protections).
“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,” Cindy Cohn, the executive director of the EFF, said in a statement.
“He always saw the internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.”
In his own words, Barlow described his internet activism as building “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.” This comes from his Declaration on the Sovereignty of Cyberspace, one of his most influential pieces of writing.
In the years after founding the EFF, his influence on internet culture ranged from the personal to the policy level. In 2003, he gave a speech on cyberspace to a middle school that happened to set the life course of the late hacktivist Aaron Swartz, according to Swartz’s father. Meanwhile, his collaboration with Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil helped shape the country’s intellectual property and digital laws. Barlow’s 100 invites to Google’s social networking site Orkut, all of which he sent to Brazilian friends, may have also played a role in Brazil becoming one of Orkut’s biggest markets.
Barlow was also known, among other things, as the human companion of a cat named Buck, which he believed to be a Bodhisattva; an enlightened being that stayed on earth to help others reach Nirvana. He was also a self-professed lover of many women, avid Burner (as “Burning Man” attendees call themselves), and one-time roommate to Napster founder Sean Parker.
Barlow is survived by three daughters, and an internet shaped by his vision.