Information really wanted to be free

How to cry over spilled milkDon’t cry over spilled milk!, you might say, and you would be right. I should not cry – but since I didn’t spill the milk I wasn’t planning to cry anyway. Only complain.

Because the milk has been spilled – by the world, the society, companies, individuals, by all the usual suspects when something goes wrong.

When the internet was first invented, it might have been a military tool – the ARPA-net. But it developed into a great platform with the ability to connect the world by making information available that used to be difficult to get or even know the existence of.

At around the time of the internet getting public, in 1984, apparently Steward Brand told Steve Wozniak at a hackers conference:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

It didn’t take long before politicians got worried and began to talk about putting restrictions on the use of the internet. If to follow Brand’s thoughts, then obviously they got scared of putting value into the hands of the people. What if people would see and learn things that were not suitable for them? Oh my, what a mess it would lead to if knowledge would reach those who were not worthy – or not old enough, not from the right country, not… whatever exclusion criteria you could think of.

Now, the conversation by Brand and Wozniak obviously wasn’t an ideological one – they didn’t necessarily want information to be free, but Brand had noticed that this was part of its nature. Secrets cannot be kept forever. But they can be kept for some time, which can be an annoyance to others.

What the politicians probably never considered was the egoism and lack of empathy that makes up the foundation of our modern society – the liberal idea of making your own happiness by being better than the others, which, unfortunately, to some people translates into being better by preventing the others from getting access to knowledge.

Tame My Toddler - Teach children to share their toys

We teach children to share their toys, for instance with the help of Tame My Toddler – while we adults increasingly do not share our main toy: information.

After a while with huge amounts of knowledge being shared by lots of people, we now rather have a lot of people using the internet without contributing at all, not sharing anything, and we have a lot who do contribute but with copyright notices on everything they share. And at the same time, you know that they know more than they share. At times they use this knowledge to make a point while still being unwilling to share it.

The most absurd thing I have seen recently is that even old material, which is no longer protected by copyright and therefore is in the public domain, for instance old books and photos, is being scanned and the one who scans it puts his logo as a watermark everywhere on it along with copyright notices and various threats and warnings about not to copy “his” material. Obviously people believe that by scanning a public domain book they become the owners of it. Or that a copyright notice by itself gives them the ownership. Like if planting a flag on some piece of land would make it theirs.

Another trend is to create websites in such a way that photos cannot be downloaded from them, and to publish pdf-files that cannot be printed. All this despite the fact that the publishers do not own the material – they themselves have taken it from the public domain.

And something that really puzzles me: many companies have information about their products on their websites, which is not surprising, but some of them put only bad quality pictures of the products, even completely covered with watermarks that makes it impossible for any other to reuse those pictures – which, of course prevents bloggers and others from mentioning these products. But which company does not want its products mentioned?

No Copyright! logo

In general, I believe that people are simply forgetting the idea of information sharing and the value of spreading the word of their products. It has become a sport in its own right to prevent others from reusing information, and a sport as well to keep some information un-shared. And then some people believe that this will make their fortune.

The world pendulum has moved from limited accessibility of information to easy and widespread information sharing – and is now moving back towards limited accessibility. But how far back will it move? Will the internet end up as a private and for-payment-only party with no free information at all? Will even the No Copyright logo end up being copyrighted? Will we see a day where someone claims the legal rights to the entire public domain?

That will be the day when information no longer wants to be free.

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