“Information Wants to Be Free” and the Need for Free Exchange of Ideas Online

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What is our information worth? What should it cost us?

It’s an easy answer, if you live in an American culture that champions “free speech” as paramount. The answer is as logical as any well-written computer code. The only ones who disagree are those trying to farm the world with copyright laws — clinging to lawmakers to promote the unwanted sharing of “copyrighted” ideas as plagiarism and even theft.

But information should — and must — be free, which most online today now understand.

The free-speech-based motto originated with hackers — the necessary front lines of the Internet, but people whose reputation the corporate world has effectively ruined. The free-information model itself began to spread in the 1980s when uber-nerd Stewart Brand shared it with Apple whiz Steve Wozniak at the first annual Hackers Conference.

Ironically, it was 1984, a year representing the future of technology and power because of the worldwide success of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel. It’s unlikely Brand had any idea the eerie similarity our 2010s would have to the novel’s depiction of government trying to control “unauthorized” information.

“Information wants to be free,” Brand told Wozniak. “The cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

Commenting on a practical limitation, his clear suggestion was information should be shared, as ideas are power. If information can educate and enlighten entire nations of people, why shouldn’t it be shared?

The only challenge he suggests is how to get it to people. That isn’t always free.

But information — free from limitations and endlessly sharable — wants to be free.

The social power of information cannot be understated in an interconnected digital world. Almost anyone in the world can now share and compare ideas with almost anyone else in the world.

There is no longer a media monopoly on distributing ideas. Traditional media can’t tell all the stories that need telling or share all the ideas that sharing.

Ideas can change hearts and minds and governments and peoples. This is the heart of what’s become known as the “hacker ethic,” largely based on Brand’s famous statement.

Somewhat surprisingly, the fiercest opposition to this worldview comes from American big business and government — once staunch supporters of free exchange of ideas.

They argue ideas can be owned, patented and monopolized just like real-world commodities.

Adopting this logic, ideas can be worth a certain price if they’re protected enough from the general public. They sell an idea to those who can afford it, encouraging the hoarding and hiding of something that neither physically nor mentally can be owned.

Only by keeping this information from the public does an idea still offer something unique to a paying customer, so the people who buy academic journals from MIT, for instance, rarely let those ideas slip into the public.

It’s a hierarchy of access to information internet pioneer Aaron Swartz believed was wrong. So wrong that he stole thousands of academic journals and posted them online for the world to read and build upon.

The scrawny Swartz, who helped build Creative Commons, Reddit and several other successful Internet websites, was arrested several months later, and charged by federal prosecutors who threatened 35 years in prison for making information free. Unable to handle living in a cell until age 61, Swartz hanged himself after prosecutors denied his lawyer’s second plea deal.

The federal prosecution of Swartz remains highly controversial, as Swartz stated his primary motivator was making intelligent information available to those who could innovate with it.

Clearly, MIT invested money into researching those academic journals, but does that mean the ideas themselves — something truly limitless — can be created and copyrighted?

Swartz believed information was discovered and not created. He believed those who uncover miracles should become famous for their thinking, not from their ability to license the discoveries of the scientific world.

He believed products and services could be created, owned and sold — but that ideas were simply realizations of the world in which we live, and those are for everyone to exchange freely.

Obviously there are practical limitations. Communication still uses energy, resources and the human effort to set it all up in the first place. Information can’t be completely free.

But Brand knew it wanted to be: “The right information in the right place just changes your life.”

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