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Futurist Sees Laissez-Faire Internet

If the Internet is humanity's new frontier, John Perry Barlow is a latter-day Daniel Boone, guiding newcomers over its rugged terrain and explaining in pithy phrase why new rules - or maybe none - apply.

The former Wyoming rancher has notions that are as controversial as they are colorful.

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With his brown-bearded chin jutting brazenly toward an audience of attorneys, he fires off relentless critiques of entrenched views. ''I am encouraging you to forget everything you know, because most of it is wrong.... Law will never apply there [in cyberspace] in the way we know it.''

Current laws, Mr. Barlow asserts, are ''hard to enforce on anything except bodies.'' And on the Internet, people and their ideas exist in digital bits, not bodies. This means it will be hard to ''make cyberspace safe for lawyers,'' he says.

Reveling in his role of iconoclast, Barlow describes himself has a ''cognitive dissident.'' He is cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, created in 1990 to promote freedom of expression in the digital media. In addition to spending 17 years punching cows, he has written lyrics for Grateful Dead songs, studied comparative religion, and been a Republican county chairman.

Barlow's most fundamental message, perhaps, is one that echoes Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, ''Future Shock'' - that rapid change has put bureaucracies and hierarchies on the ropes.

The future belongs to ''small, fast-moving, short-lived 'adhocracies'...digitized hunter-gatherer groups roaming the steppes of Cyberspace,'' Barlow writes in one essay. In his recent appearance here, he predicted that in 50 years the nation state would exist ''only in the most ceremonial sense.''

''Anybody who doesn't have a well-developed sense of irony ... is going to be missing most of the fun,'' he says.

Being free to telecommute to work, many people may find themselves rebuilding a lost sense of physical community and connection to the land, Barlow says.

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Parting company with many listeners, he suggests that cyberspace cannot offer the same degree of copyright protection that lawyers struggle to provide in other media.

Questioned by his audience, Barlow in the end concedes that lawyers may have a role to play on the Internet, albeit a vastly different one. Leaving courtroom battles behind, they could become ethical guides ''to help create an equitable and just society in cyberspace.''

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