In its early days, cyberspace had no formal governing body. There was just the handful of academics and engineers that had gotten the Internet up and running, people like Jon Postel. Brooke talks to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about Postel's legacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We just heard Mr. Cukier refer wistfully to the Internet's early days when he says, "a haven of academics and engineers" were at the helm. Bob Kahn, Larry Roberts, Vint Cerf and Jon Postel are credited with inventing the Internet, although modesty would most likely prevent any of them from actually admitting it. John Perry Barlow is a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He knew some of the cybersphere's eccentric progenitors and he joins us now to talk about how one of them in particular might weigh in on the issue of Internet governance. John, welcome to the show.
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Hey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you tell us the story of Jon Postel?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: He was in charge of connecting domain names to IP addresses. What Jon Postel did was to make order of a particular part of the Internet, and he did that beautifully. You know, the marvel is that the last time that that aspect of Internet governance worked, a benign dictator in a cluttered office in a university was in charge, sitting barefoot, who looked like Moses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was a computer science professor, but as a grad student in the '60s he was among the team who built the Internet.
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Yeah. Well, he was, indeed. But he was also – more importantly, he was one of the people who everybody respected. You know, when I first encountered the Internet, I thought, "Gosh, this is great. This is actually working, a large working anarchy." Because, I mean, you know, I'm from Wyoming and a libertarian at least and an anarchist at best.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: And my friend Mitch Kapor, who also founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "You know, inside every working anarchy there's an old-boy network." Which depressed me at the time, until I found out that the old-boy network consisted of people like Jonathan Postel and many others who were really dedicated to some greater purpose. And they were so good at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was their greater purpose?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Their greater purpose was connecting everybody to everybody.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, did it bother you that he was doing his work under the auspices of the Department of Defense?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Not at all. I didn't care who was paying him. Actually, the National Science Foundation was paying him for a good long time and, you know, I think the University of Southern California was paying him for quite a while. And it – it didn't really matter who was paying him or under whose auspices. It didn't matter at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At what point was the decision made that the administration of these domain names should move away from one bearded hippie and go to an organization called ICANN with representatives of the world sitting on its board?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Well, actually, Jon, you know, I think knew that he was dying. He certainly knew that – that it was getting harder and harder to justify his, you know, apparently arbitrary control of this matter. And he actually tried to set up the original form and – and content of ICANN but died at a point when, you know, he had not actually transferred the torch in a – a full way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if he had the ability to live forever, there would never have been a need for ICANN at all?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, there would have been all these major corporations that suddenly realized that they needed a mcdonalds.com, a generalmotors.com, whatever. And, you know, it would have been tough for him to deal with things like cybersquatters who'd already decided to get generalmotors.com or whatever. It turned into a thing that had to do with property. And he – he knew that the Internet was not about property.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if Jon Postel were alive today and he were attending the upcoming meeting in Tunis, what do you think he would tell them?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Oh, gosh. If Jon Postel were alive today and he came down to the meeting in Tunis, he would be like Moses coming down from the mountain, I swear. He would be so annoyed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how come he could do it and a summit of representatives of the world can't?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Because everybody respected him. There were many times where there were countries, you know, where there were various parties that felt like they ought to be in charge of administering the local domain name. Right? He was really good at deciding who was going to have the bottom line in a lot of countries that he'd never been to and never would be to. He just – he had a feeling about this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so he did it from the gut?
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Well, as far as I could tell. I mean, you know, I – well, I mean, there are a number of people that I thought had such an insight into how this thing ought to be done. And fortunately, it was designed by people who understood it in a deep way. I still take faith in the fact that they're still there. But I – I worry a great deal. These guys are getting old. And they'll die. And then I don't know what we'll do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JOHN PERRY BARLOW: It's been great talking to you, and – and also it's been great to remember Jonathan Postel, who was one of my heroes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Perry Barlow founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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