In 1996, John Perry Barlow published the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” Barlow wrote. “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” Online, the “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us,” he continued. Barlow envisioned an Internet where all users are created equal—male or female, rich or poor, sweetheart or asshole. “In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”
In real life, Barlow comes from Wyoming. He’s a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and a white male libertarian. Read one way, Barlow’s declaration gives marginalized communities permission to speak truth to power. Read another, it discourages women and people of color from discussing their bodies and identities online while emboldening others to bully them into silence. Upon publication, Barlow’s declaration “spread like kudzu through the electrical wires of the virtual world,” Businessweek reported. Within months, it had been republished across the Web 5,000 times. Nearly two decades later, Kate Miltner, who studies online structural inequality at the University of Southern California, recognized Barlow’s words “echoing through the #GamerGate controversy.” It was almost as if the Web had been calibrated from the very beginning to allow a bigoted harassment campaign to flourish.