Rocky Barker Copyright 2005

Net's wildest cowboy values power of community

John Perry Barlow epitomizes the Hunter S. Thompson line: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

The retired Cora, Wyo. rancher had already fashioned a strange resume by 1985 when I first met him. He was president of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the state's leading environmental organization, yet a staunch defender of ranching. He was chairman of the Sublette County Republican Party and also a lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

He told stories of tripping on acid with everyone from Timothy Leary to Willie Nelson. Yet he only lost his bid for the family seat in the Legislature by a narrow margin in 1987.

His great-granduncle was the first white man to spend a winter in the upper headwaters of the Green River in 1875 and Barlow was proud of his Wyoming roots. He spoke often about the power of community and about the values of small town life.

He had run 1,000 head of cattle on the 7,000 acre Barlow ranch since 1971. By the mid- 80s, it was hard to make a living there and he eventually sold it.

He explored the psychedelic frontier in the 1960s with Grateful Dead guitarist Robert Weir, who he had met at a military academy in Colorado. In 1986, Barlow was poised to open yet another frontier.

That's the year he bought a computer and made his way into the wilderness known as cyberspace. Cyberspace is the electronic network of computer communications, the Internet. Barlow entered it through a modem connection called The Well, where other progressive computer users were meeting electronically and sharing ideas, software and anything else they could trade, barter or give.

The Well was 1980s version of the trappers' rendezvous. Its participants were the modern- day Jedediah Smiths, Jim Bridgers and William Sublettes.

Like the Western frontier of the 1830s, the 1980's electronic frontier -- a phrase coined by Barlow -- was a bawdy and lawless place. A young hacker who called himself Phiber Optik shocked Barlow to his boots in December of 1989 by sending him a copy of his credit history.

On Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15, 1990, AT&T's telephone network failed and service across the Northeast was disrupted. Soon after Phiber Optik and two other New York City hackers were raided by the Secret Service and their computers were seized.

Several months later an FBI agent visited Barlow in Wyoming. He thought his controversial comments about computer hacking might be the reason for the federal muscling. Instead, he learned they were investigating a group of hackers who had stolen proprietary Apple Computer source codes. He had nothing to do with crime, but because he was a well-known computer network guru, he had been sent floppy disks of the codes.

He recognized immediately that computer technology was advancing faster than human comprehension or legal institutions could handle. People's constitutional rights were at stake.

Barlow wrote an account of his frightening engagement and posted it on The Well. The G- Men also had visited Lotus Corp. founder Mitch Kapor, who read Barlow's essay. He flew his personal jet to Pinedale and together the two men founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In true Western tradition, Barlow set out to keep big government out of the lives of the citizens of cyberspace. EFF was established to "civilize the electronic frontier," and to protect free speech, consumer rights and privacy in the virtual world of computers.

Now Barlow has become bi-coastal, lobbying, speaking out and writing about electronic freedom. The long-time Republican has become chummy with Vice President Al Gore, the political advocate of the information age, even catching a ride recently on Air Force Two.

Still, he is skeptical of government's ability to effect positive change. He remains the Wyoming cowboy, with faith in the individual, interdependent communities and bravado. Like the mountain men who first walked across his Cora, Wyo. ranch, Barlow is ready to push the frontiers until someone stops him.

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