John Perry Barlow, 70; championed an unfettered Internet

Mr. Barlow’s affinity for open spaces and free expression made him a leading defender of an unfettered Internet.
Michael Appleton/New York Times/File 2012
Mr. Barlow’s affinity for open spaces and free expression made him a leading defender of an unfettered Internet.

John Perry Barlow, a former cowpoke, Republican politician, and lyricist for the Grateful Dead whose affinity for wide open spaces and free expression transformed him into a leading defender of an unfettered Internet, died Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 70.

His death was confirmed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which he helped found in San Francisco in 1990. No cause was given, but the organization said he had been ailing after a heart attack in 2015.

At his death, Mr. Barlow was a vice chairman of the foundation, which has been in the vanguard of legal challenges to government constraints on cyberspace, a term he helped popularize in 1990 to describe boundless digital telecommunications networks.


“There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and open space,” Mr. Barlow, who was raised on his family’s 22,000-acre cattle ranch in Wyoming, told People magazine in 1995. “There is a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

His plea for an open Internet was inspired, in part, by the Grateful Dead’s uncommon practice of welcoming audiences to record the band’s concerts.

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, former president of Lotus Development Corp.; and John Gilmore, one of the first employees of Sun Microsystems.

In 1995, 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 4 miles away to a corporate consultant and citizen of the world.

From around 1971 until the Grateful Dead disbanded after founding member Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, 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 guitarist and singer Bob Weir, a founding member, and others with 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.”

‘There is a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up.’

He was born on Oct. 3, 1947, in northwestern Wyoming, near Pinedale, on a ranch 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 Weir, a guitar-toting fellow student who would found the Grateful Dead with Garcia and others in 1965.

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 Co. (Jacqueline 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.

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. Mr. Barlow leaves 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 anymore.”

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.”