Poet, lyricist, and digital activist John Perry Barlow dies, aged 70

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Friday, February 9, 2018

On Wednesday morning, US poet, lyricist, and digital rights activist John Perry Barlow died in his sleep at his San Francisco home. The announcement of his death specified no cause, but reportedly Barlow had recently experienced debilitating health problems. The co-founder of the digital rights legal defense non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and former lyricist of rock band Grateful Dead was 70. The EFF announced his death.

Barlow smiling
John Perry Barlow, 2009.
Image: Joi. (Reuse terms.)

Barlow composed lyrics for the Grateful Dead, several songs for the psychedelic rock band over almost 25 years. In the 1990s, he shifted his focus to the Internet, composing essays on Internet culture and working with the EFF to protect digital rights.

Born to Republican state legislator Norman Barlow and his wife Miriam, Barlow was raised on the Bar Cross Ranch in Pinedale, Wyoming. Barlow became friends with future Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir in high school before attending Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut, where he studied comparative religion. During his studies, Barlow began visiting LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) drug advocate Timothy Leary.

After graduation in 1969, he opted to travel the world and returned to his family's ranch in 1971. With his father ill from a stroke, the younger Barlow began ranching before Weir contacted him to finish songs for the latter's solo album Ace. The collaboration continued with the Grateful Dead and their individual members, with Barlow contributing occasional lyrics until the band's 1995 dissolution. In 1977, he married Elaine Parker. He sold the family ranch in 1988 due to financial strain.

Barlow became interested in the online world in the 1980s, including becoming a leader at on-line forum the WELL. In 1990, Barlow was interrogated by an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent about possible connections to underground hackers. He posted his experience to the WELL and discovered that Mitch Kapor had had a similar encounter. The duo decided to join together to help provide legal defense for the hackers and formally incorporated the EFF, adding to the EFF board Stewart Brand, John Gilmore, and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak. He served on the board of the EFF until his death. He and Elaine divorced in 1995. He met Cynthia Horner in 1993 and was briefly engaged to her before her unexpected death from an undiagnosed health condition at the age of 29.

In addition to digital activism, Barlow was an early commentator on Internet culture, writing several pieces for Wired in its early years and penning essays such as "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" (1996) that helped define digital citizenship. In 1998 he became a fellow of Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and in 2013 he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. Barlow stayed active in issues related to civil liberties and rights, helping to create the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012. Although he had mostly retired from songwriting, he contributed to several songs by jam band The String Cheese Incident.

Barlow suffered a major heart attack in 2015. By late 2016, he faced several serious health conditions, leading several musicians to hold a benefit concert for him to raise funds for his medical bills. He recently completed his memoir Mother American Night, slated for release on June 5.

Barlow is survived by his ex-wife Elaine Parker Barlow; the couple's three daughters Leah Justine, Anna Winter, and Amelia Rose; and a granddaughter.