[This is copyright material from the 1/15/96 issue of TIME, reposted by permission.]


By John Perry Barlow


An ex-cowboy and rock lyricist turned Internet activist takes on the censors of cyberspace

Two weeks ago, a prosecutor in Munich managed, almost casually, to strike a global blow against freedom of expression. Though he is a person of such obscurity that most of the accounts I've read of this incident didn't even mention his name, he has been able to constrict the information flow for some 4 million people in 140 countries.

He did this merely by telling CompuServe, the world's second largest online-service provider, that it was breaking Bavarian law by giving Germans access to Usenet discussion groups believed to include explicit sexuality. A strangely terrified CompuServe responded by removing any newsgroups whose title contained the word sex, gay or erotic, thus blocking access to all subscribers, not just those in Germany. Given the centralized nature of its operations-and the decentralized nature of Usenet-this was, according to CompuServe, the only way it could comply.

Thus were CompuServe subscribers prevented from further discourse on whatever they talk about in alt.sex.bestiality.hamster.duct-tape (which may exceed even my high squeamishness threshold). At the same time, however, they were also barred from alt.religion.sexuality (a pretty chaste topic), clari.news.sex (which redistributes wire-service stories) and alt.sex.marsha-clark (the mind reels =8A).

Once again, the jackboots of the Industrial Era can be heard stomping cluelessly around the Infobahn. In fact, the Germans did almost nothing to stanch the flow of sexual materials. The newsgroups that CompuServe removed are still active on millions of computers worldwide. CompuServe subscribers in Bavaria or anywhere else can simply switch to a less timid online service and re-enter the discussion. As Internet pioneer John Gilmore once said, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Such assaults are most likely to injure the large service providers, sober institutions more culturally attuned to their governmental attackers than the info-guerrillas of cyberspace. CompuServe, for its cowardice in folding without a fight, probably deserves the calumny heaped on it by angry users. The company says it hopes to reopen access to all but its German subscribers as soon as it can figure out how.

But the issue at stake here is larger than whether the good people of Munich can prevent others half a world away from looking at pictures of sexually misused hamsters. These apparently trivial struggles may in fact be the opening fissures of a historical discontinuity.

The real issue is control. The Internet is too widespread to be easily dominated by any single government. By creating a seamless global-economic zone, borderless and unregulatable, the Internet calls into question the very idea of a nation-state. No wonder nation-states are rushing to get their levers of control into cyberspace while less than 1% of the world's population is online.

What the Net offers is the promise of a new social space, global and antisovereign, within which anybody, anywhere can express to the rest of humanity whatever he or she believes without fear. There is in these new media a foreshadowing of the intellectual and economic liberty that might undo all the authoritarian powers on earth.

That's why Germany, the People's Republic of China and the U.S. are girding to fight the Net, using the popular distaste for prurience as their longest lever. After all, who is willing to defend depictions of sexual intercourse with children and animals? Moving through the U.S. Congress right now is a telecommunications-reform bill that would impose fines of as much as $100,000 for "indecency" in cyberspace. Indecent (as opposed to obscene) material is clearly protected in print by the First Amendment, and a large percentage of the printed material currently available to Americans, whether it be James Joyce's Ulysses or much of what's in Cosmopolitan magazine, could be called indecent. As would my saying, right here, right now, that this bill is full of shit.

Somehow Americans lost such protections in broadcast media, where coarse language is strictly regulated. The bill would hold expression on the Net to the same standards of purity, using far harsher criminal sanctions-including jail terms-to enforce them. Moreover, it would attempt to impose those standards on every human who communicates electronically, whether in Memphis or Mongolia. Sounds crazy, but it's true.

If the U.S. succeeds in censoring the Net, it will be in a position to achieve far more than smut reduction. Any system of control that can stop us from writing dirty words online is a system that can control our collective conversation in other, more important ways. If the nation-states perfect such methods, they may own enough of the mind of mankind to perpetuate themselves far beyond their usefulness.

If that sounds overstated to you, consider the millions of people one prosecutor in Germany was able to mute with little more than an implied threat.


John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist, cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil rights in cyberspace. He lives in Wyoming and New York and at barlow@eff.org.

Copyright 1996 Time Inc.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt

TIME Magazine