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Stopping the Information Railroad

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February 9, 2018

Stopping the Information Railroad

Keynote Address Winter 1994 USENIX Conference
San Francisco, California January 17, 1994

by John Perry Barlow

Over the last four or five years since I left the cattle business I've started to feel like my life has turned into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Weird experiences are so numerous that I don't even keep track of them anymore. But I've got to say, for somebody who's spent most of his working career pushing cows around, this is a very weird audience for me today.

You people are great though. I honestly believe, and I say this without hyperbole, that the people in this room are doing things which will change the world more, in terms of what it is to be a human being, than anything since the capture of fire. I'll try to justify that very broad statement as I go along here.

I'm not entirely unqualified to think and talk about wild places. I'm from a part of Wyoming. The county I live in is larger than the Netherlands and has a population of 3500 at the moment. It is the focal point of the history of the fur trade. The fur trade was an economic manifestation that came into the west in the 1820's and 30's. Many of its constituents would be familiar to you.

They were kind of a fractious lot of misfits and opinionated loners. They were somewhat irregular in both their eating habits and their personal hygiene. They were hairy and anarchistic. They were smart. They created a society which was largely self organizing. And they were exploring unmapped territory using tools they developed themselves for getting around. I would try to draw a close parallel between them and the people in this room but I think that will be unnecessary.

When I first started to put my head into Cyberspace, it was not as unfamiliar to me as it is to a lot of folks who are now getting into that area, because it had a lot of the characteristics that still remained culturally in my odd little part of the world. I could see that a number of things were going to go on in there. One of which, if history was to be any guide, was that after a very free society had developed naturally in a very free place, then another society would come and try to make money off of it, and in the course of trying to make money off of it, would impose an awful lot of control.

There has been a lot of unfortunate talk about the National Information Infrastructure being a data superhighway. This is largely an artifact of the fact that Al Gore's father was instrumental in creating the Interstate System. So it's no mistake that Al Gore likes that metaphor. But in fact, what has been going on lately reminds me a lot more of the development of the railroad in this country. It is not a data superhighway so much as a data railroad system that we seem to be developing.

There is a cautionary tale in there because the folks like Jay Gould and his fellow barbarians who created the railway system in the west knew that if they owned the roadbed, and the area around it, they also essentially owned the society that was going to develop there. They could tariff whatever products were going to be created in that society on the basis of their own whim. The west today is still trying to get out from underneath the burden of regulation and legal standardization that was created in those early days by the railroad guys.

It was almost impossible for farmers in the upper midwest to make a living for a while even though the Northern Pacific Railroad had asked them to come in there and settle for nothing and had given them land. As soon as they got established on that land they were charged usurious rates for transporting their product to market. If we look at the history of the railroad we can see exactly what kind of damage occurs when we give too few people control over too much of the economy.

Actually I think it's far more useful to look at the development of the Internet in biological rather than structural terms. The Internet seems to me very much like a life form. It has all those characteristics. It is self organizing. It adapts itself readily into the possibilities faced that it finds. It is being created in an interactive way out at the margins rather than in the center.

I've heard UNIX described as a virus from outer space, and it is very much like a virus, I think, but it's more of a virus from inner space. The space inside the cerebral cavities of many of the people in this room.

Among the notable characteristics of the Internet, outside of explosive growth, is the extent to which it can naturally root itself around problems. John Gilmore, who may be here and is known to many of you, said something profound: "The Internet deals with censorship as a malfunction."It really does. You see people trying to stop traffic in certain kinds of intellectual material on the Internet. It simply routes itself around it and gets that material distributed by some other pathway.

Unfortunately, the folks who are now entering the game ... to a more precise extent, the organizations and institutions ... that are now entering the game, are very different from what has previously has characterized the development of digital networks in the world. They come at this with a different paradigm of how the world works and how to create order. They come at it with the notion that order is something that you impose and not something that merges. They come at it thinking about their products as something focused and centralized, that require large amounts of capital to create, that are broadcast in a one-to-many medium.

I don't think these are necessarily bad people. But hey have a very hard time understanding the modern digital environment. Most of the folks that I've talked to from the television industry think that interactive television consists of putting a "buy" button on your channel clicker. I'm not kidding! I wish I were. They fail to understand that there is a profound difference between information and experience. They are trying to sell non-interactive stored information as though it were experience. And I think that they actually believe that they are accomplishing that task. They are going to try, in many ways ... some of them overt, some of them unknown even to themselves ... to impose their culture and their metaphors on this environment.

There are all sorts of ways in which their immune response system is already working and I'll give you just one example. I was recently talking to somebody from Viacom about the importance of creating interoperability between whatever set top boxes Viacom was sponsoring, and other kinds of networking ... specifically the Internet. I talked about TCP/IP with this fellow from Viacom. He said, "Well we would love be able to incorporate TCP/IP, but really, it's just too slow, the packets are just to big, they can't be made to be isochronous. We really don't think that it has a place on top of your television set."

While that may seem like an irrelevant factor to many of you who probably don't even own a television set, if we are to create a society on the Internet that is genuinely inclusive, and doesn't consist of its present large band of wild geese, we are going to have to make it so that you can get Internet connection from that electronic device that is your principle access point into Cyberspace. That may well to be the set top box.

The folks in the television and entertainment business are also intrigued by the possibilities that the railroaders first confronted, which is that they are going to build the road bed essentially, and they're also going to be in the information business. It's not lost on them that if you own the rails and you're also shipping the cargo, you can get a really good deal on your rates. Other people may not get such a good deal, especially if they feel they are in competition.

This has given rise to a whole set of concerns and problems which the Electronic Frontier Foundation is now dealing with. EFF did not start out to be a traffic cop on the data superhighway. That wasn't our objective. At the time Mitchell Kapor and I started EFF we had a very narrow set of concerns. We thought that there were actions taking place on the part of the Government that made it clear that they didn't quite realize that speech was speech whether it was expressed in bits or ink on the page.

We felt that all we had to do was hire a few really scary civil liberties attorneys from New York, kick hell out of the Secret Service, dust our hands off in satisfaction, and go back to whatever it was we were doing. But we hadn't been at this very long when I got some electronic mail from a young fellow who was in what was still at that time the Soviet Union. He said, "I applaud what you and Mr. Kapor are doing in trying to insure that your First Amendment extends to Cyberspace, but what about us?" And we realized for the first time that in Cyberspace the First Amendment is a local ordinance.

That was a revelation to me, and also to Mitch. We started thinking about what had to be done on a structural rather than a legal level to make certain that people who connected to one another electronically would do so without fear of reprisal for the things that they might think and say. Mitch said something profound at one point: "Architecture is politics."

Now when I said that to something like the Academy of Television last week, they didn't have the slightest idea what I was talking about, but I'll bet the people in this room know that very well. It's a message that I think we need to start carrying to the world in a much more forward and pro-active way than is your natural bent.

I know that when I've talked to computer audiences in times past I've had a continuous question and complaint from people in the room who say, "Well, you know, you want me to behave as though I were a social philosopher and, actually what I do is bus architecture." Well, exactly. I don't think you can expect the social philosophers to understand bus architecture very well for a while either. So the job falls to you and the people who understand the basic nature of this very different environment.

When I was down in Los Angeles late last week, I attended something that some of you may of heard about. This was  "Superhighway Supersummit." You have never saw such self-importance in your life. It was unbelievable.

This next anecdote has nothing to do with anything, except it's more evidence that I'm in a Thomas Pynchon novel. As a guest of the White House I had a packet which included a discrete little part which read, "Those persons who will be accompanied by a personal security assistant are reminded that their assistant may not carry his weapon while in the building." There were also two parking passes. One for regular cars, and one for limousines. So they knew a fair amount about the culture that they were pitching to down there.

The idea that this particular set of hooligans was going to be in charge of the future was terrifying to me, in spite of the fact that, to my surprise and satisfaction, I found people like John Malone saying all the right things. It was very gratifying to hear that the things that EFF was pretty much alone in saying two years ago were now politically correct.

But there is a great distance between being able to mouth the politically correct thing and the actually having the kind of consciousness that will promote those goals in a serious way. These folks are in business, they're not in it for their health.

I looked around that audience and I realized that what I was looking at was perhaps the ultimate expression of contemporary civilization. Which made me start to think. Mitch and I had always talked about the job of EFF as civilizing the electronic frontier. I think that our job, and your job, increasingly, is going to be frontierizing civilization.

I believe that as a species we have gone just about as far as we can go by design. If we are going to try to design society from the top, we will continue to have the sort of results that they had in the Soviet Union and at IBM.

The world is simply too complex a place to figure out. It's pretty good at figuring itself out as long as you have an extremely open architecture, or ecosystem, which supports ideas in a fluid and nutritious kind of way. That's one of the great geniuses of UNIX. I have a Next machine ... I expect a boo or two ... but that's as close to UNIX as I've been able to get. It's kind of like UNIX with training wheels by Armani.

I have no personal aspirations to write a lot of shell scripts. I still feel like C++ must be an exceptionally mediocre report card. But when I look at the development of UNIX over the course of its existence, I find it truly remarkable how this critter has grown. I sometimes think of it as being the 1990's equivalent of Chartres Cathedral, where thousands of people worked for many years creating something that was amazingly complex, and yet somehow worked rather elegantly to the purposes for which it had been created.

I look at UNIX as it continues to develop and I think that it will continue for a long time to be the genetic code of Cyberspace. You have to approach your work, I think, with that in mind. Of course the Government and the large entertainment and television bodies that are now getting into this really don't have a sense of how important it is to have an adaptive organism as your substrate. They are not approaching it from that angle.

I am pleased to say that among the things that Al Gore announced down in Los Angeles the other day had to do with opening up information infrastructure to competition. In the past, as you know, most of the information infrastructure in the United States was designed on the basis of a regulated monopoly. We had for many years a stranglehold on the part of AT&T which up until very recently was still requiring you to fill out a whole bunch of forms to put a suction cup on your telephone.

So I'm very grateful to Judge Green, who took a lot of flack at the time for having the insight to see that this stuff was going to develop much more rapidly and much more openly in the hands of a lot of different companies rather than one. The same thing is now starting to happen with regard to the impending train wreck between the cable industry and the telcos and the wireless industry.

These various industries have been regulated in the past by completely different regimes originating in completely different places. Most of the broadcasters have been regulated by the FCC ... and poorly, I might add. The telephone companies are regulated by state public utilities commissions, and most cable operators are regulated by municipalities. What they are trying to do is create a system whereby all these different media can come into direct competition with one another so that the path by which bits can get into your home or office are so repetitious and so open that competition brings down prices and creates bandwidth.

There is going to be, as you folks know well, an enormous desire for bandwidth, and a lot of different agencies are going to be engaged in fulfilling that desire. There will be plenty of business for them ... Bandwidth is one of those things kind of like money and sex ... the more you got the shorter it feels.

Demands for bandwidth will also grow as we start moving away from text. (Personally, I can hardly wait. I have a text allergy at this point. I get kind of an ASCII glaze at the end of the week after 5 days of 100 to 150 e-mail messages a day, each one of which I have to read in order to understand whether or not it's important to me. I want to see a lot of richer data that has the kind of semiotic format that tells me right away whether or not I want to mess with it, but it's going to take a lot of bandwidth to do that.)

In any case, there are several bills already in Congress which EFF has been pretty involved in helping create. There's the Markey bill, which is HR 3636, the National Communications Competition Information Infrastructure Act of 1993 which would make it possible for cable companies to provide telco services and visa-versa. And also make it possible for the national long distance carriers to compete with the RBOC's in local telecommunications.

There's another fairly similar bill in the Senate, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Act, which is being promoted by Inouye. As Vice President Gore announced on Tuesday, the administration is currently drafting an amendment to the Communications Act which would include a whole new section code called Title VII.

Title VII, if promulgated, would do something that seems pretty enlightened. It's a promotion of a lot of the principles that EFF has been talking about in Open Platform. It would essentially make it possible for telecommunications providers enter into a fairly non-regulated regime if they were willing to ensure complete openness of whatever channel they were creating to whatever service or server might want to attach itself to it. There is a lot of emphasis being placed on making certain that the Data Superhighway is not 500 lanes in one direction and a foot path the other.

I can't tell you how important it is that these communications structures are designed to be full-duplex. This does not resonate with the culture of their builders, however. They don't know very much about getting that bit back from the consumer. They are understandably a little afraid of what will happen when the couch potatoes actually start to speak up about what has been smothering them from their glass tubes all these years. It may turn out that they don't really like this stuff very much and that they are not going to be pleased by 500 versions of the air channel for men or the ability to watch "My Mother the Car" at any hour of the day or night.

In spite of these fairly enlightened activities, I think that you will see that Congress is even more inclined than ever to act "in loco parentis."There are impending bills which would impose the necessity of having some kind of technological switch on your set top box would sense incoming violent content and would just circumvent its entry into your home.

This is obviously pretty bone-headed, but these are the kinds of things we have to deal with. We have to make Congress and the various communications providers recognize that the best way to assure family values, for whatever family might be having those values, is to tag information in ways so that people can make their own choices. There are ways to do that that are not particularly demanding from the technical level. We do not need a society which protects us from our own words.

One of the great things about talking to you guys is that I don't have to go through a detailed history of the EFF or what we are doing. I know that many of you, who had a natural affinity for the work we did defending the freedom of speech in the very beginning, were baffled when we were suddenly became something that looked like a telco trade organization, started pushing ISDN, and dealing with telecommunications regulation. I think that we did that for prudent and sufficient reasons even if we didn't communicate those reasons very well to the outside.

I want to run down some of the fundamental aspects of Open Platform. We are trying to promote the idea that there needs to be common carriage, much as there has been through out the history of the telephone system. The phone company certainly didn't try to regulate content over its lines.

The problem here is that common carriage under the telephone model was protected by a regulatory regime which essentially gave a monopoly the right to go on being a monopoly ... and a lot of incentive to go on being a monopoly ... if they were to keep those lines open. Now it's a whole new ball game trying to come up with a model for common carriage which does not involve a regulatory overburden or monopolistic practices.  It's going to be a very significant challenge. We don't have all the answers by any means.

We have to work on interconnection and interoperability. When the fellow from Viacom told me that TCP/IP had too much overhead, as a non UNIX weenie, I didn't have a good response to him, except that it sounded to me vaguely like a religious, rather than a technological statement. Which I think it is. The people who know that and have sound evidence to prove it will have to work hard on these people for whom  such beliefs are a canon of faith.

You also need to be thinking about set top box and video architecture protocols that will make it very easy for the telcos and the information services to provide video fairly cheap bandwidth. You need to help the Internet ramp up in a wise and orderly fashion. I know it's hard to do under the current system. We all saw what happened to the Internet as soon as Mosaic got out there. I'm somewhat concerned that if a lot more of this goes on it's going to be very difficult to get traffic across the Internet. There are some serious technical challenges. But there are things we can do to solve them.

There is a new initiative that EFF is just starting up. We're trying to work with the companies themselves, and these include some of the new Internet based companies, to convince them that there is a business advantage in allowing the people who connect to their system to use those connections for whatever purpose.

I don't want to pick on Rick Adams, whom I assume is here, but I think it's unfortunate that AlterNet and PSI and other commercial Internet providers have forbade their customers from using their facilities for such commercial services as bulletin boards. This is a debate that's going to have to be carried on among you folks who are on the Internet and use those providers. It may well be that you have to start looking to other IP providers are willing to open up their lines to real communication and not impose unnecessarily restrictive barriers to competition.

There is another set of issues that I think are going to be particularly troubling and difficult to solve. I refer to cryptography and the private protection of your data. The Government is really not even on the chart with this yet.

Parenthetically, I have to insert another Thomas Pynchon moment here. I had a really weird experience the other day. I managed to schmooze myself onto Air Force 2 and ride back up here to San Francisco with Al Gore. A great sense of unreality pervaded that experience for me, and the conversation with the Vice President which took place along the way. Al Gore is a good guy and a smart guy, but, when it comes to designing the National Information Infrastructure, he has been strictly focused on those issues around regulation and competition.

What he has apparently been thinking about very hard is cryptography. When I started to open this line of discussion he went all blank and said, "We have national security interests at stake." End of discussion.

I think we need to think long and hard about whether or not our national security interests are actually addressed by trying to impose export embargoes on cryptographic code. This strikes me as being like trying to impose export embargoes on wind.

You can get MacPGP or PGP from FTP sites all over the world in seconds, so I'm not quite sure what they are accomplishing, except that they are accomplishing a chilling effect on the ability of American corporations to incorporate robust cryptography into software and hardware which they might design. Obviously it doesn't make a lot of sense to build a system that incorporates levels of cryptographic protection that the NSA won't let you to ship overseas. You don't want to have to build one system for the United States and another system for overseas sales, especially in a business that exports as much of its product as we do in the hardware and software industries.

We have to get the Government to recognize the futility of crypto embargo. It would be nice if they could also recognize that the Cold War is over, but that may take some time. Even when they do figure that out: we still have to deal with their Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: kiddie pornographers, drug lords, terrorists, and unnamed foreign enemies.

These monsters are rattled out at me every time I suggest it would be a good idea to free up cryptography. I think they are all fairly illusory at this moment. Assuming that we have to shut down privacy in America because of terrorists doesn't make a lot of sense to me, when we only lost6 of our citizens to terrorism last year. This is not quite the threat that the Government portrays it to be.

Really what we have going on, I think, is the NSA acting as a stalking horse for the FBI and other domestic law enforcement interests. They are scared to death they are going to loose their ability to wiretap as analog communications become some kind of digital fruit salad. They don't see ... and there may be a fortunate quality to this ... they don't see yet the technological opportunities that digitization will present them.

I think we need to analyze the problems and opportunities on both sides here and deal with them accordingly. We may be hurtling toward a future in which everything we do will be visible to the Government. As it is right now, any time you make a financial transaction you smear your fingerprints all over Cyberspace. This does not need to be the case, but it's going to take a lot of consciousness changing to have it be otherwise.

For example, when I was talking to Gore the other day, he boasted about how Government services were going to be a lot more efficient as the result of a centralized card that people could use to get any money that was owed them by the Government in disability payments, social security payments, or whatever. They could simply go to a kiosk and insert their card to get their payments. I asked him if there weren't some privacy considerations that went along with this. I drew a complete blank. So we have a serious problem.

By the same token, there are also serious problems to reckon with in giving cryptography to everybody. I'm not certain I'm completely sanguine with the idea that the advent of digital cash may create an economy in which taxes become voluntary. At first blush that seems immensely appealing to me. I'm sure it does to you too. But the problem with simply buying only as much government as you think you need is that the people who can afford government get it and the people who can't don't get it. You can see what's happening already in the delivery of a lot of vital services.

Education has become privatized at the top. Mail has become privatized at the top. I don't know anyone with an income of more than $50,000 who uses the Postal Service when they want to send a package. They use Federal Express or UPS.

The rich even have their own police. If you go down to Los Angeles, which I guess you won't be able to do for a few days [there had been an earthquake there that morning], you will find that in the wealthier parts of Los Angeles, the local established government supported police force is not a major element. The real police come from Westec. It's like something out of "Snow Crash."

I think that we have to do something to detach financial transaction from identity, or we are going to be in a serious mess. While I believe that the current Government is, for all of its ineptitude, relatively benign, I'm not sure I trust it with the power network-wide transactional analysis might endow it with. As Lord Acton said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." When the Government can see every single thing that we're up to, I think that conveys to them a level of power that I'm not going to be comfortable with they're having.

I don't think you should be.

There is also a whole set of extremely knotty questions about intellectual property we're going to have to deal with. Again I'm pleased that I don't have to explain to this audience that the digitization of everything presents us with certain intellectual property challenges. You know a lot about this. Believe me, the people in traditional media do not. We are entering a situation where the primary article of commerce looks a hell of a lot like speech.

Given the ambiguity of property law in this area, I think it's almost impossible for us to say that free speech is assured when proprietary interests will try to control its transport for their own economic purposes. There is going to be a lot of that. There already is a lot of that. There are other aspects of this that are more inconvenient than threatening, but I don't see how we're going to avoid a complete collapse of technological progress if we continue to put patents on things like cursors.

I'm sure that many of you work for companies that now feel obligated to patent every thought that happens to gel up in your head. I believe you have to think about how you can serve Caesar, and at the same time, serve the collective good of humanity. I am convinced that a lot of those thoughts really are the collective property of humanity. Somebody once said that art is what happens when God speaks through a human being. I believe there's some truth to that. so it may be bold and arrogant to claim whatever appears in your head. I think it's there for everyone. That's my own personal belief and I'm sure I can get a good argument out of somebody on that point.

When I discussed the intellectual property dilemma with Gore on the plane the other day he said, "You're a songwriter and you must know that there is already a system operating that deals in intellectual property that doesn't have some physical manifestation, and that is BMI and ASCAP."

I said, "I'm a member of ASCAP, and if you think that's the solution, I invite you to write some songs." ASCAP and BMI have a system for extracting royalty payments from radio and television stations and distributing to their members which is so disorganized and disorganizable that I look at it ASCAP payments as being kind of like manna.

When I get a check from ASCAP I think, well, that's nice. I wonder if it reflects anything real about actual radio play or television broadcasts. I suspect not because they way they monitor air play is to have people walking around with randomly selected tapes of radio broadcasts on their Walkmans, writing down every song they hear and coming up with some very crude statistical reckoning of these samples mean in terms of actual air play. This is a sloppy system.

I think there are going to be other systems of intellectual property protection which evolve, probably based on something more like a performance model or a service model than instantiation in some physical widget.

Those things are all going to go away and we're going to have to figure out how to sell the wine of intellectual property without any bottles we've been putting it in. I think that we probably will come up with something. I can't imagine we're going to get very far into the Information Age without any way of being paid for the work that we do with our minds.

We're going to have to change our perceived relationship with intellectual property from one based on ownership to one based on performance and service. We're going to have to look at ourselves in a continuous relationship with the people who use our work rather than saying, "Alright, I put my work in this box and the next time I give you this box it's going to be a whole new transaction."

All of this is going to involve some fairly profound economic and social changes. About the only thing I'm willing to say about them today is that any projection made from this vantage point is liable to look ridiculous in ten years. Everything is going to change very much. I really feel that what we are essentially doing here is roughly like what the French theologian philosopher Teilhard de Chardin was talking about when he started to write in the thirties about the Omega point ... that point at which human beings became so good at communicating with one another that they would create what would amount to a great Collective Organism of Mind.

I think we are going to become such a creature. Perhaps we already are. It is a very different kind of creature than has ever been seen in the universe before. It will be enormously powerful and intelligent. And you folks are helping it be born. Thank you very much.

[Transcribed, mostly, by Jeff Davis and, a little at the end, by Stanton McCandlish]

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