Six years ago, capitalism's Beautiful People invited John Perry Barlow to their annual get-together at the World Economic Forum. Once in Davos, the cattle-ranching cyber-theorist and Grateful Dead lyricist burst out with A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a work of cyber-anarchism in such awesomely pure form you can get a contact high just reading it.

A few choice excerpts:

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.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

The Declaration is stirring stuff, and it's little surprise that those who would shake things up, online and offline both, have taken up its demands as rallying cries. The distance from "There is No Matter Here" to "Another World is Possible" is not so great; in fact, Barlow's cyberpsace proclaims itself to be that other world of freedom and fairness, proof by example. An awful lot of the Declaration could have come -- or has since been adopted -- by the folks who march in protests outside of WEF meetings.

Which raises an obvious question: what were they thinking when they invited Barlow to Davos?

Let's start with one of the great shining examples of self-organizing bottom-up online collaboration: The great honking TCP/IP routers and SMTP relays that keep the packets flowing. It's a remarkable form of cooperation, really. I'll carry your packets if you'll carry mine, and we collaborate to get them where they need to go. Multiply this basic agreement by the millions of hosts on the Internet, and you have the dense web of mutual aid that lets users communicate freely and openly worldwide.

Madison said that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary;" but not even cyberspace is populated exclusively by six-winged seraphim. The first real test of the share-and-enjoy philosophy of the Internet Way was its ability to handle the bad seeds. Remember Canter and Siegal's green card lottery? These Arizona lawyers spammed thousands of newsgroups in with an ad for their services.

This was back in 1994, before such things were commonplace, and a couple of vigilantes could take care of any problems that came up. Actually, it was more like 30,000 vigilantes, mailbombing Canter and Siegal and crashing their ISP's server. Each time they switched ISPs and tried again, the irate response drove them off the Internet. Score one for social norms.

The next few years weren't so good for social norms alone, though. It's relatively easy to hunt down a few miscreants, but individualized rough justice only works when it's being meted out to a few individuals. Further, as soon as the bad guys realized the awesome power of mailbombing, they turned to it themselves, unleashing atomic mailbombs on unsuspecting victims. Fake the "From:" header and the crowd with pitchforks will go burn down someone else's castle, but burn down a few too many wrong castles and you get a little shy about picking up your pitchfork.

The next few years were the first golden age of spam, when legends like the great Spamford Wallace bestrode the narrow 'Net like mass-produced collectible Colussus statuettes. Unable to gag the spammers, John Perry's enlightened community stopped listening to them. Figure out who's sending spam and then just refuse connections from their servers. It's a classically anarchist solution: everyone is free to say what they want, and to listen to what they want.

Politically speaking, it gets more remarkable, though. Once the "black-hole lists" started blocking most known spam senders, the spammers started preying on the weak and the infirm. If you had a mail server and you didn't bother to secure it properly, Katie bar the door, because you could -- and typically would -- wake up one morning to find millions of ads for porn flooding through your server. The good folks of the Internet solved this one by blocking email from these "open relays," too. If you weren't with the anti-spam brigade, you were against it, and your own, legitimate, non-spam email would start getting dropped.

Again, no government in sight, but the code of responsible sysadminning starts to look an awful lot like a social contract. Lawful people must uphold the community's standards and help enforce its judgments, on penalty of being excluded from the contract. Not bad for a purely virtual society.

If real governments were seriously to get into the act, they'd probably be pretty upset at the terms of this convention, or at least at some of its consequences. It's a crime to interfere with postal mail; even if it's just mail-order catalogs. There are free-speech issues involved in throwing away Internet datagrams (especially other people's datagrams, as the extended social norms of cyberspace are starting to require).

In fact, meatspace governments, those "weary giants of flesh and steel," might also look askance at the enormous powers the keepers of the canonical lists of spammers enjoy. What if SpamCop decides that is hosted on an insecure server and starts rejecting my email? What if the Mail Abuse Prevention System decides it'd also like to prevent Mr. Todd Chalmers of Lincoln. Nebraska from sending email to its subscribers? What if AOL Time Warner decides it won't deliver packets through its cables if those packets originated from

Well, say the Barlows of the world, that's okay, too. If people are upset with their spam-filtering service -- if they really value Todd Chalmers' thoughts, that is -- they're always free to renegotiate the social contract and take their electrons somewhere else. If enough people care enough, they can reshape the very "constitution" of cyberspace just by voting with their feet; the natural marketplaces of the online world will rapidly converge to their desired solution.

That is, John Perry Barlow stands not so much for cyber-anarchy as for cyber-libertarianism. On his account, everything online is going to be just jolly not because of the purity of cyberspace's social interactions, but because of the purity of its markets. In this view, markets may be no place for governments, but corporations should just stroll right in. Government should just stand back, let the companies and individuals beat each other loody, declare the result to be the best of all possible worlds, and if it turns out that the online social contract is drawn up by those with the most cash, well, that's just the wisdom of the market asserting itself.

Which is probably why the tycoons of the World Economic Forum let Barlow crash their party. The future he claims to represent looks an awful lot like the future they'd like to see.