Wrapped up in Crypto Bottles

A talk with cyber-rights pioneer John Perry Barlow about Digital Restrictions Management and the future of human knowledge

John Perry Barlow or JPB for short is maybe best known for three things: he was the song writer for the Grateful Dead and is still supporting music bands. He wrote the Cyberspace Independence Declaration seven years ago during a visit to the World Economic Forum. And he tried to define a brand new way of thinking about copyright in an well-received article that was published in Wired magazine. Recently, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation came to Berlin to fight the German version of the Digital Copyright Millennium Act (DMCA) together with the civil rights organization privatkopie.net. Stefan Krempl sat down with him to look forward and back in the history of Cyberspace and copyright.

There are new laws for copyright in the digital age drafted here in Europe everywhere at the moment. What do you think is at stake? Why is this an important issue people should care about?

John Perry Barlow: There are three things at stake. The first is, extending a monopoly to a few large organizations about what people can or cannot know and express. This is really about the control of information and it has the potential to become over time a kind of private totalitarianism. That is not an exaggeration since it has already happened in the United States. The reason that the U.S. is behaving in the completely irrational and dangerous way that it is, is because we have erected private totalitarianism and are suffering a reality distortion field that is as dangerous as the one erupted in Germany in the 1930s. But not being driven by the government, but being driven by the media. Being driven by ourselves. I fear erecting a system which highly advantages a very few corporate channels for human intellectual exchange.

What are the other points?

John Perry Barlow: Secondly, I fear that Digital Rights Management today is Political Rights Management tomorrow. That embedding these kinds of technological controls into the very architecture of computing has the capacity to become a form of political control in the not so distant future. Because you're putting at a very basic level surveillance capacity, control over what information may or may not travel, and a whole range of things in the architecture that can be very easily used to suppress dissent. Third, I am very afraid, that by wrapping a large amount of human knowledge up into bottles that can no longer be opened except at a price, much of it will be wrapped up in crypto bottles that in a very fairly short time cannot be opened even at a price. A huge amount of human creativity will simply be lost for future generations.

So you're mainly worried that the content industries in cooperation with the help of hardware and software makers and their DRM techniques are taking over control of the data universe?

John Perry Barlow: It's not the data universe only, it's human conversation. They want to turn it into a one-way flow that they have entirely monetized. I look at the collective human mind as a kind of ecosystem. They want to clear cut it. They want to go into the rainforest of human thought and mow the thing down.

Many people are worried about the efforts of the computer industry to establish a new computing model based on TCPA and Microsoft's Palladium.

John Perry Barlow: They should be.

What's your take on this issue?

John Perry Barlow: I think it's very dangerous. This is exactly what I'm talking about. This is the first form of Political Rights Management. And there won't be anything we can do about it. After these organizations have come up with a new business model, Palladium will still be there. And the chip and the computer architecture will have been changed so that it will be very easy to track what everybody is doing and saying online. Germany has some memory of what it's like to live in a society where everybody is visible in that way. And I suppose that we don't want to go there again.

Could you express a bit more widely your thoughts about copy protection and informational sustainability? I mean, today we still have a lot of books, and they can be read for centuries. What about the digital world?

John Perry Barlow: This is one of my greatest concerns. I am really afraid that a lot of material that is already in the Public Domain is going to be re-encapsulated and taken out of the Public Domain. I'm also very afraid that they are going to refuse to digitize -- or are only digitizing in this highly controlled way -- much of what has taken place over the last 150 years. And that, as a consequence, this will die embedded in their corpses and be lost to future generations. I'm disappointed with the human species that we are less concerned about that than we are about strengthening a monopoly for a very few large organizations. We're given this choice. Why are we choosing to help them instead of our descendants?

The "culture of the free" has to end, it was a "mistake by birth" of the Internet, Thomas Holtrop, the CEO of T-Online, proclaimed a while ago. If you could talk to him right now, what would you say?

John Perry Barlow: I would say that the culture of the free started the first time when somebody said something and it was heard by another human being. It wasn't started by the Internet. People have been sharing information that they found relevant without cost for their entire history. Do you think that there were royalties collected on the early cave paintings? Do you think that Bach wrote everything he wrote because he was looking to get his copyright royalties? The culture of the free has been around for a while. And people nevertheless managed to be enormously creative and managed to get paid for, by a wide variety of means.

You helped to found the EFF about 13 years ago due to "concerns over the combination of governmental zeal and cluelessness", you once said. How far did you come in educating the politicians?

John Perry Barlow: Unfortunately they are half-clued now in a dangerous way. Now they recognize that something is going on and they are responding to it in a way that is as bad and as harmful as it could be -- in terms of what I would consider to be the optimum future of Cyberspace.

Could you give an example?

John Perry Barlow: What I want to see is a world where anybody can know anything what they are curious about. I want to see a world where any kid in Africa can find out all that human beings know about any subject no matter how obscure. And that's not an unrealizable dream. But if we continue in this way, it will never be realized. And that's because the large media corporations, the content industry, have succeeded in buying our policy makers and taking over the control mechanisms. If you got to WIPO in Geneva, you will not find anybody who has not worked for a large content organization. They are just not there. They own that. If you go to Brussels, it's just the same. And they have succeeded in getting the public to think that there is no difference between sharing knowledge and shop-lifting.

You're maybe most famous in the "old" Internet community for writing the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. "You titans made of flesh", in that time you wrote, "back off". How do you feel about the piece today?

John Perry Barlow: (laughing) I wish they would have taken my advice. I mean, looking back it seems impossibly quiet. It seems like an incredibly 90s thing to have done. I don't regret it, however, because I think that over the course of time it will be demonstrated to have been correct that the industrial period is simply not equipped to understand the information age. That the traditional nation state does not nearly have the same kind of sovereignty over the virtual domain.

The declaration still stands the test of time?

John Perry Barlow: Now one thing that I have regretted at that time and should have revised was that I didn't make it more clear that I understood that there was a profound connection between the physical and the virtual worlds. The virtual world bares the same relationship to the physical world that the mind bares to the body. Which is to say an intimate connection. But even though they are closely connected, the body and the mind are two very different things. And so are the politics of the virtual world, the global mental space, and the politics of the physical world. And so are the economics and so are the philosophical underpinnings. And those differences need to be recognized. What's been happening is that those differences are not being recognized and that the physical world is trying to impose all of its economics and political philosophy on the virtual world in a way that I think will be in the way of the long term reliability of the human race.

How is the copyright situation in the US in the moment? Do you consider it worse for the average user than in Europe?

John Perry Barlow: It's much worse because we already have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that you plan imposing on yourself. We already have obscenely long extensions of copyright, which have been recently upheld by the Supreme Court in a way that I think is clearly unconstitutional. And even they had some questions about it. They ruled very narrowly. They ruled that Congress had the right to do what it had done even while expressing concerns that what it had done was wrong. And it's even getting worse. Hollywood wants to rule the world, make no mistake. And I think that there are more uplifting things for the world to be ruled by than Hollywood.

The EFF has warned often about the "chilling effect" the DMCA might have in terms of fair use and free speech. Do you still consider this piece of legislation a threat?

John Perry Barlow: The real threat has still to be seen. We're gonna really see it when all CDs are copy-protected, when all music and all literature has Digital Rights Management embedded, when all software does. And that will be very shortly. At that point it will be too late for us to do anything about it and furthermore we won't be able to have a public discourse on this subject because the channel will no longer be open for that to take place. That's already the case. You can see how difficult it is to get a story about copyright on television, despite the fact that it is extremely important and critical. But the channels just don't want to carry anything about it.

You've coined a totally different notion of copyright in your Wired article about the "Economy of Ideas". Could you please shortly sum up your main points?

John Perry Barlow: I said back in 1993 that it was going to be very difficult -- given the natural human desire to share information and human creativity -- to control that desire in an environment in that everything humans do can be easily reproduced at zero cost. And that we had to come up with a different way of monetizing human creativity than to deal with it as though it was no different from physical goods. Because the physical goods in which it was previously embedded would go away. And that what previously would have been a noun would become a verb. But we didn't know about the economy of verbs and we would have had to learn. Instead, what we've been doing is trying to turn many things that are not verbs into nouns and imposing a large number of very severe constraints on the people in order to preserve the business models of a few large organizations. And that's what the European Copyright Directive is about. It's about consolidating and strengthening media companies that are actually of dubious long term benefit to humanity.

Now, a decade onward, could you run a "reality check" on your thesis?

John Perry Barlow: I think it stands up quite well. Well, one thing where it does not stand up that well is that I don't think that I proposed the right kinds of approaches to solving the problem. I stated that there was a problem and I didn't talk much about solving it. Actually, one of the solutions I proposed is what I think extremely dangerous, which is the use of cryptography to bottle information. Which is much all this is about, giving a legal protection for that method. And I don't think anymore that this is a particularly good method. At this stage I have other suggestions how to monetize human creativity. I'm not too hard on myself on not having them because even today I feel like what needs to happen is for us to have an open field of experimentation what the appropriate business models are. When Gutenberg created the massively reproducible book there was no model for the economic return on that product. And actually it was another 250 years before they came up with copyright. And they somehow managed to have books in the meantime. I would have been a lot happier if we would have stuck to that waiting period instead of going right through the door as we've gone.

Giving away content might work in the realm of music. But would it also apply to other content and copyright areas?

John Perry Barlow: Well that was misunderstood. I mean, what I think the reality is that making freely available virtual copies increases the sale of physical copies in many cases. And it certainly did for the Grateful Dead. Despite the fact that our fans had access to better recordings that we made commercially available, they went out and bought our commercial copies. Not right away, but over the course of time just about all of our records went black. And I think that the fact that much literature is available online is in some way responsible for the fact that somehow book sales are higher than ever. Furthermore I think that even tough I would concede that some people are not buying CDs that the might have bought otherwise economic I would also insist that there are many people -- myself among them -- who have bought CDs because of downloading that the never would have bought. Otherwise you would see a much greater fall-off in the record industry.


John Perry Barlow: There are probably five or six million people trading files at any given moment with Morpheus or Kazaa. And the fact is that the record industry is only off ten percent. In the United States everything is off at least ten percent. We are in a recession. In fact, the record industry is not in anyway dying. It has just to become much more realistic after a long period in which it has seen obscene profits. Because when they first produced the CD they had huge gross margins. The cost of a CD was based on the cost of making a CD, and that cost plummeted immediately. And the cost of selling one and the cost of buying one staid the same. Huge amounts of many was pored into the record companies. They got ridiculously fat and heavy, and now they are having to pay the piper. And they claim it's not their own mismanagement and greed but that they are being attacked by pirates. In fact they had been the most unconsciousness pirate at all.

Would this model also work in other content areas?

John Perry Barlow: Yes, there the demonstration is even much more clear. You can get a DVD of any first-run movie now before it is released. But the actual attendance in theatres has never been higher. DVD sales and video cassette sales are on a all-time high. So if downloading is injurious to these industries, why are we not seeing the results? What they would tell you is, that we haven't seen them yet, but that we will. Well, I'm a big fan of solving problems that we have, not problems that we think we might have.

Do you have a long-time strategy to protect the knowledge commons?

John Perry Barlow: I don't think it's a matter of protecting them. It's a matter of distributing them properly. The whole notion of protection is based on the assumption that there is a hard-coupled relationship between scarcity and value. Which there is in physical goods, but not in virtual services, where there seems to be a relationship between familiarity and value. There are a variety of ways to monetize it. But one way that I think may work in the short run is for us to create a pool of money at the ISP level from a percentage of what people are charged for their online accounts and make those funds available on a statistical basis to the creators themselves as you do with entities like ASCAP. And unlike these licensing and collection entities, you have the potential to come up with a very clear understanding what material is actually passing online. You don't have to know who it's coming from or where it's going. But easy enough to know what it is quite accurately and then dividing up the proceeds from that general pool to the people who are responsible for the material that is passing through the ISPs on a most regular basis. That's my current idea for solving this problem. But his presupposes something that I am not very comfortable with which is compulsory licensing such as you've got it in broadcast now.

What role could Open Source play in this context?

John Perry Barlow: I think this movement will ultimately prevail. My big concern is what damage gets done before that happens. What architectural changes will be made in the substrate of computing, what intellectual output will be lost forever, and what freedoms will be endangered. But ultimately, it's hard to come up with a better model than open source where everybody can be involved improving everything. I don't care how smart you are, how rich you are as a company. You don't necessarily have the world's greatest programmers working for you. And even if you did, if you think about human knowledge and how it grows: it grows in an open system. It doesn't grow in a closed system. Science is about an open self-feeding process, it's about expanding the consensus and reality-checking at the broadest possible level. The same thing applies to any form of human creativity.

You've been doing a lot of research about Internet censorship too. Here in Germany, or better say: Nord-Rhine Westphalia, a government official has forced access providers to "block" access to two controversial US-sites with Neonazi content, which is, of course, illegal in Germany.

John Perry Barlow: Where does that stop?

Many people are worried that this is just a beginning. Do you see web blocks as a workable solution for the problem?

John Perry Barlow: I don't think that the answer to hate speech is trying to shut your ears to it. The answer is love speech. And as terrible and stupid I find Nazi propaganda, I still remember that Hitler was in jail when he wrote "Mein Kampf". So it would seem apparent to me that oppressing that kind of expression actually strengthens it and gives it a kind of credibility that it would not otherwise have. The answer to it is to let it disprove itself which it does quite easily when given the opportunity to flop out. But also I would say that a community has the right to define what is a permissible topic to discuss. I just think that a community by necessity is a smaller entity than the entire nation state. And the right to express inherently includes the right not to listen. But it doesn't necessarily include the right to make everybody else not listen.

In ten years, what will the Internet look like? Will there still be a culture of sharing information or will it be totally walled down?

John Perry Barlow: I would be very disappointed of my species if it is all walled down. But I'm afraid that what we're gonna see is two separate entities. One of which will look like interactive television and will have all of the commercially made available material that has been produced. And the other which will be an open-source Freenet and will have little access to the previous works of humanity. This is already more or less the case. If you go to Google and search on a topic what you get is what has been written but not published in a material form.

A German translation of this talk was published in c't 5/2003. (Stefan Krempl)