John Perry Barlow: Writer, lyricist, champion of internet freedom

The name John Perry Barlow might not ring a bell, but it’s pretty much guaranteed you know his work.

The Grateful Dead’s “Mexicali Blues,” “Cassidy,” “Estimated Prophet” – he wrote the lyrics to those and dozens more.

The concept of a free and open internet and the acknowledgment of the extreme opportunities and challenges inherent in that freedom – he was an early and vocal support of all the things the internet can do.

Barlow died February 7, the likely result of declining health following a heart attack in 2015.

Barlow and Grateful Dead guitarist and founder Bob Weir went to The Fountain Valley School together in Colorado, a natural friendship that fostered his decades-long work as the band’s lyricist. They wrote “Mexicali Blues,” “Black-Throated Wind,” “Cassidy” and other songs together, according to the Washington Post and other memorials published last week.

Barlow grew up in Wyoming on his Mormon family’s cattle ranch, a background that easily set up him for the somewhat unconventional life that followed. He took over his family farm when his father suffered a stroke in the late 1960s. The ranch became a place where other counterculture and wandering souls would come and stay, working for a while before moving on.

In an NPR interview from 1996 rebroadcast this week, Barlow says he was living in Wyoming and “I started to think a lot more about Deadheads and community. I mean, I came from this little town in Wyoming that seemed to be languishing in the demise of agriculture… I was looking at things like the Deadheads, who seemed to have that kind of — that sense of shared responsibility for one another – you know, the sense of themselves against the collectively adverse. I couldn’t understand how they maintained a sense of continuity given that, you know, they only got together at shows or when the band was on the road.”

That led to his involvement is some early chat rooms and listservs online. In the early days of the Electronic Age, so to speak, he first thought of computers as “a better form of Wite-Out or a bigger adding machine, which is how most people first encountered computers.”

By 1990, he was helping create the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an early and strong supporter of the concept of net neutrality before it became a political controversy or idea to be considered. His “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” called on the United States and other countries around the world to protect the ability of people to share thoughts and ideas online while protecting people from its potential abuses.

In it, he writes as a resident of a new digital world, calling on governments to let these citizens communicate freely:

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear… We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”

Cindy Cohn, EFF’s executive director, called Barlow a “visionary and our ongoing inspiration… 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. 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.”

Barlow was 70 and living in San Francisco at the time of his death. He is survived by three daughters, Amelia Rose, Anna Winter and Leah Justine.

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