The crux of the problem that troubles John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist, and Co-Founder and Vice-Chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the relationship between big business and the U.S. government. Barlow, last week's Common Hour speaker, expounded on these and other issues relating to civil rights and internet privacy last Friday in Pickard Theater.
Barlow started by pointing out that since the fall of communism and the triumph of laissez-faire capitalism, there has evolved an environment in which large corporations are for the most part unregulated. This, Barlow said, was a result of a breakdown in the regulatory role of the government. This ultimately resulted in the state actually beginning to act as a servant of large corporations-and he quoted from Mussolini to back up his point: "Fascism should rightly be called corporatism, as it is the merge of state and corporate power." He also said that although this wasn't an entirely new phenomenon, that "it is only in the past few years that the United States military has become the security force for the Fortune 500 and is out there making the world safe, not for democracy, but for Shell and Exxon."
He said that while corporations differed from people "as much as an anthill differed from an ant," that these organizations acted exactly as if they were large organisms, that like human beings, sought to survive by "bringing in more nutrition to itself." Nevertheless, he took great care to say that he was "not completely disabused" of the notion that corporations were basically good entities run by fairly honest people.
Barlow then raised the issue of corporate control of information saying, " there is another movement afoot, which I think is a very important movement, to own the human mind institutionally." He said that private companies are scared of the possibilities of the digital environment, particularly as it pertains to its ability to reproduce intellectual property at almost zero cost. They thus seek to extract the maximum return from each and every use of their goods. He then continued to comment on why these corporations react to what they see as an attack on their bottom-line the only way possible in a digital environment- by eliminating shared use. They seek to do this by tagging every bit of information that they sell, to keep track of its usage and whereabouts according to Barlow.
He went on further as he said, that they were now "enclosing much of what has in Wonderland digital book aloud to your children would be a copyright been in the public domain into their own digital wrappers" so much so that you would fear that reading an Alice infringement. He gave the example of a Russian programmer, Dmytri Sklyarov-coming from a country where information was required by law to be as free as possible-who figured out a way to extract electronic books from their digital wrappers and was arrested on a visit to Las Vegas for infringement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). "Interestingly enough," he said "the former Soviet Union wants to make information free, while the United States of America is trying to imprison information."
He further revealed that there were movements by the content industry-through a bill introduced by Congressman Howard Berman-to obtain for themselves the right to search an individual's hard drive for forbidden content, such as those exchanged in peer-to-peer services like Kazaa. Also sought is the power to then shut down parts of the internet with which that person may have any interactions, through denial of service attacks. "They are asking for the right and the ability to close down any part of the internet that is behaving in a way that they don't like," he said.
He expressed view that the internet was the last frontier for information and hoped that it would be able to hold out against what he sees as certain destruction by these unscrupulous companies.