Who Is John Perry Barlow? Internet Advocate and Grateful Dead Lyricist Passes Away at 70

John Perry Barlow—a poet, Grateful Dead lyricist and a renowned open internet pioneer—died in his sleep on Wednesday morning at age 70, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization he helped co-found in 1990.

“It is no exaggeration to say that major parts of the Internet we all know and love today exist and thrive because of Barlow’s vision and leadership,” said Cindy Cohn, the foundation’s executive director. “He always saw the Internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.”

Cohn went on to say that “in the days and weeks to come, we will be talking and writing more about what an extraordinary role Barlow played for the Internet and the world. And as always, we will continue the work to fulfill his dream.”

Barlow was born on October 3, 1947, in Wyoming and attended the Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at age 15—there, he met Bob Weir, one of the co-founders of the Grateful Dead. Music fanatics may also remember Barlow as the man behind the Dead’s songs such as “Mexicali Blues,” “Hell in a Bucket,” “Estimated Prophet” and “Throwing Stones,” among other anthems. 

When asked about Barlow’s songwriting process, Weir said in a 2008 interview that “a successful song depends on how closely the lyric marries the song. With Barlow or Gerrit Graham or whoever, there’s a lot of back and forth.”

When Weir discussed the origins of Dead’s smash hit “The Music Never Stopped,” he said he “played this over the phone to John, and he just started spitting stuff at me. The first line came out, 'There's mosquitoes on the river / Fish are rising up like birds.'"

JohnPerryBarlow String Cheese Incident (SCI) songwriter John Perry Barlow (R) speaks during a news conference which addressed the Colorado band's lawsuit recently filed against Ticketmaster August 11, 2003 in New York City. Barlow died on February 7, 2018. C. Taylor Crothers/Getty Images

But it was Barlow's work as an advocate that earned him widespread recognition. He fought for net neutrality and open Internet, often suing the federal government over its role in privacy affairs and online information, according to website Engadget.

Following the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act—which would allow any communications business to compete in any market against one another— Barlow wrote a manifesto known as “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” The document stated at the time, “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. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow also played a pivotal role in the creation of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2012 that seeks to protect and defend “adversarial journalism in the 21st century” by using “crowdfunding, digital security and internet advocacy to support journalists and whistleblowers worldwide,” according to its website.

Barlow was also a fellow emeritus at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society since May 1998. The school describes him as a “retired Wyoming cattlerancher” and a father of three daughters—Leah Justine, Anna Winter and Amelia.