John Perry Barlow, 70, Dies; Championed an Unfettered Internet


Lawyers recruited or supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation were instrumental in winning court rulings that granted electronic mail the same privacy protection as telephone calls, and that defined written software code as free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The foundation was formed by Mr. Barlow; Mitchell Kapor, the former president of Lotus Development Corporation; and John Gilmore, one of the first employees of Sun Microsystems.

In 1995, Mr. Kapor called Mr. Barlow “the uncrowned poet laureate of cyberspace.”

Cindy Cohn, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement that Mr. Barlow “was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naïve techno-utopianism that believed that the internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more.”

But his “lasting legacy,” she said, “is that he devoted his life to making the internet into ‘a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.’ ”

More than a defender of the internet, Mr. Barlow had many guises in an uneven evolution from an only child whose nearest neighbor lived four miles away to a corporate consultant and citizen of the world.

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Mr. Barlow spoke at a 2012 rally in Manhattan against proposed internet anti-piracy legislation that opponents said would infringe on online freedom of speech. The legislation never passed.

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Michael Appleton for The New York Times

From around 1971 until the Grateful Dead disbanded after the founding member Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 (though the group periodically reunited in different configurations and under different names for many years after, and performed what were billed as its last concerts in 2015), he wrote lyrics for such well-known songs as “Estimated Prophet,” “Cassidy,” “The Music Never Stopped,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Hell in a Bucket.”

He contributed to some 30 Grateful Dead songs in all, many with the guitarist and singer Bob Weir, a founding member, and others with the keyboardists Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick, who were later additions to the group.

Mr. Barlow said he had decided to try his hand at writing lyrics mostly to attract women. “I thought it was a misuse of the holy gift of poetry,” he said. “Then I realized, this is what poetry has always been for.”

He was born on Oct. 3, 1947, in northwestern Wyoming, near Pinedale, on a ranch that a great-uncle had started in 1907. His parents were Norman Barlow, a Republican state legislator, and the former Miriam Jenkins.

John attended a one-room elementary school. Brought up in the Mormon faith, he was barred from watching television until he was in the sixth grade.

As a rambunctious teenager prone to discipline and academic lapses, he was dispatched by his parents to Fountain Valley School in Colorado. He described it as “a great place for people who are intelligent and intractable.”

He forged a lifelong friendship there with Mr. Weir, a guitar-toting fellow student who would found the Grateful Dead with Mr. Garcia and others in 1965.

As a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Mr. Barlow took LSD trips with the Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary in Millbrook, N.Y., where Dr. Leary and others were living in a grand Georgian house. He graduated in 1969 with a degree in comparative religion.

Passing up an opportunity to attend Harvard Law School, Mr. Barlow embarked instead on a journey to India and other destinations to complete a novel, which was never published.

A memoir, “Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times,” which Mr. Barlow wrote with Robert Greenfield, is to be published this year.

Mr. Barlow joined the Grateful Dead as a nonresident lyricist in the early 1970s. In 1972, after his father died, he returned to Wyoming to manage the family’s debt-ridden ranch, the Bar Cross Land & Livestock Company. (Jaqueline Onassis sent John F. Kennedy Jr. to work as a wrangler there in 1978.) Mr. Barlow remained there for almost 20 years while continuing to contribute lyrics to the Grateful Dead.

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Mr. Barlow in 1996, a year after the Grateful Dead disbanded. He wrote lyrics for about 30 of the band’s songs.

Credit
Tom LaPoint/Albany Times Union, via Associated Press

In Wyoming, he was chairman of the Sublette County Republican Party for a time and a coordinator for the 1978 congressional campaign of Dick Cheney, whose conservative politics Mr. Barlow later disavowed.

His 1977 marriage to Elaine Parker ended in divorce. In 1994 his fiancé, Dr. Cynthia Horner, died suddenly. His survivors include three daughters, Amelia, Anna and Leah, and a granddaughter.

When Mr. Barlow turned 30, he drew up what he called 25 “Principles of Adult Behavior.” No. 15 was “Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.”

His preoccupation with the internet dated from the mid-1980s, when he began using a computer to manage the ranch’s finances. In 1986 he became a director of the WELL (the initials stand for Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), an online community that drew members from the worlds of music, publishing and technology.

“On the WELL, he is the No. 1 digital Deadhead, equal parts beat poet and P. T. Barnum,” Craig Bromberg wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1991.

Mr. Barlow, an emeritus fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, was also a founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation in San Francisco, which promotes adversarial reporting and internet advocacy. The foundation’s president is Edward Snowden, the former government intelligence analyst who leaked secret documents to journalists in 2013.

Yet for all Mr. Barlow’s internet advocacy, there were limits to his own internet use. He came to complain about feeling “constantly oppressed by all of the beeping and buzzing and whining” of computers, and by “discussion groups on the net, which I found very easy to leave once the signal-to-noise ratio deteriorated to the point where I didn’t dig it any more.”

Still, in 1996 he issued a declaration of independence for — not from — the internet.

It proclaimed: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

He championed not only a right to speak freely on the web but also what he called “a right to know” all the information that it offers. And he endorsed the creation of communities through encounters in cyberspace.

But he warned against “the modern plague of boredom,” which he attributed to society’s desire to homogenize human experience, from fast food to television.

“I remember one of the few truly Buddhist things that my very non-Buddhist Wyoming mother said to me when I was little,” he told the social theorist bell hooks in 1995 on lionsroar .com, a Buddhist website. “I’d complain about being bored and she’d say, ‘Anyone who’s bored isn’t paying close enough attention.’ ”

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