Toward a Transparent Society

John perry barlow

John Perry Barlow – the man giving DLD14's last talk – is a man with many hats. He was a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, he cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation with fellow DLD participant Esther Dyson and was a founding fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Recently, he created the Freedom of the Press Foundation with Daniel Ellsberg to fund WikiLeaks and other conduits of transparency journalism.

Beginning his talk, Barlow says he would have liked to have Snowden or Assange with him today. "But I’m as good a representative of what they care about as you can get – and I haven't been incarcerated."

"We believe that human beings have a right to know about all matters that pertain to their affairs," he says about his collaboration with Esther Dyson. That can run into privacy. A person may have the right to know, while another person may simultaneously have the right to protect the privacy of whether or not they have HIV, for instance.

Barlow says that the omnipresence and unavoidability of the digital footprint – which he refers to as a "digital slime trail" – means that certain institutions may know more about an individual than that individual him/herself does.

“I gave privacy up as a lost cause a long time ago,” Barlow says with a smile about his childhood in a small town in Wyoming. There, he and his neighbors had “mutually assured destructive capacity” over each others reputations.

No such pact has been made with governmental institutions, however. Yet these bodies can put pressure on a person to control that individual.

“Back in the 1990s, Esther and I went down to the CIA to try to convince them that information is a type of gift economy,” Barlow recounts. They suggested that the best way for them to get information was to give it out, for free.

“But they were so retrograde. It was way more like Brazil than Bond,” he describes the CIA in those days. Barlow decided to become a consultant for them. Particularly because he felt intelligence services repeatedly failed at figuring out what was going on in the world. “On the day of 9/11 there was one person in the CIA who spoke Arabic,” Barlow gives as an example.

Now he feels his efforts were wasted. The CIA has become more secretive as have other organizations. Although they continue to be very good at gathering data “on the principle that if we get it all then maybe some day God will endow us with ability to sort it out.”

Last December, Barlow went to speak to the CIA about many of the issues Snowden revealed. Some in that audience listened to what he had to say and were “humming the same tune”. Nonetheless, the machine kept running to “totalitarian key”.

Barlow’s conclusion and final message: there has to be a symmetry between loss of personal privacy and loss of institutional secrecy. “I’m fine with not having any privacy as long as I know exactly what they are doing with my data and why they are doing it.”

All DLD14 Blogposts