Information is a basic term, and to say that it is wrong for it to not be free is a simplification. Yet many hackers and other people who work or play with information say this, because there are many cases where hiding information harms the greater good.

However, everyone has secrets - is it abhorrent to not share all of one's fantasies, fears, or plans? Are privacy, encryption, and anonyminity obscene?

Better to say that information wants to be valuable

An unfortunate catchphrase.

"Free" in English here has two definitions that fight with each other here: free as in speech and free as in beer. (We can refer to these with the foreign words libre and gratis, respectively.)

Libre: Information wants to be unfettered, uncensored, un-bowdlerized, unrestricted. IIRC this was the original intent of "Information wants to be free", and so far as information can be said to want anything, liberty would be it. The abuse of patent and copyright laws is naughty. Censorship is almost always more ugly than what's being censored.

Gratis: Information wants to be $0.00, and downloadable over the Internet. Nuh-uh. Like kra said, information wants to be valuable. Things that are offered gratis are usually a case of "you get what you pay for", but when people who produce information do it for the money, they can put more resources into it, and work harder. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.)

[/me hides his MP3 collection under the bed]
Oh, and hypocrisy is a bad thing, too.

So far we have:

  • Information wants to be libre.
  • Information does not want to be gratis.
  • I want information to be gratis.

Why? Well, this is the Information Age. Most information can be easily duplicated, at little to no cost, without the expense of creating physical media for it. To sell a CD, or a book, one has to create an actual object to store the information, but to share an MP3 or an etext requires no such object.

Now to bring in economics: I mean supply and demand here. When there is a great supply of something, its price drops; when supply is scarce, the price rises. When demand is great, the price rises, because it depletes the supply. The Information Age allows a theoretically infinite supply, so by all means the demand can be infinite and the price gratis, right? Not quite, yet...

The people who create information are not infinite.

There may be a capacity for a functionally unlimited number of copies of a Metallica song, but the number of actual different Metallica songs is finite. (Thank God. ;) If Metallica makes their living by selling copies of their music, you had very well better pay for it if you want them to make more.

Clear?

Now, suppose Metallica quits the music-making business, stops selling CDs, puts their lawyers out to pasture, and are never heard from again. Metallica songs are now abandonware. Copying them is still technically wrong, but nobody cares about that minor detail, because (in the States, anwyay) you're always innocent until someone cares enough to prove you guilty.

The phrase "Information wants to be free" is a quote somewhat out of context; it comes from a paper by Stewart Brand of the MIT Media Lab, presented at the first Hackers' Conference in 1984. Published in Brand's 'The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT', ISBN 0140097015, published by Viking Penguin in 1987.

"Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine---too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better."

Thanks to advances in technology, information can now be duplicated and passed around at high speed and low cost. This is a good thing, because humans enjoy sharing information, whether in a social or business context. Everywhere you look around you, people are communicating information. Because of these conditions, when we look at information and anthropomorphize it, removing humans from the picture, we say that it has a strong tendency to spread itself around, hence "information wants to be free."

This tagline presents a shorthand for a longer argument in the context of a political discussion. There are many reasons why people what to make information expensive and/or restricted. The topic of the restriction of information can come up from several angles. One is the notion of privacy: some people believe that if large government or business organizations acquire too much well-organized information, they will do harm to their citizens or customers. Others believe that because information describes a person it belongs to that person, and should not be transmitted without permission. The other most common subject is that of intellectual property. If information is restricted then its value will be increased and more of it will be produced.

"Information wants to be free" serves as a reply to some of these arguments that may be made for restricting information. In the absence of any kind of authority, information would be free, both gratis and libre. Libre, because no one would be around to tell you what you what not to share, and gratis, because you would have no control over the scarcity of it -- every time a piece of info is sold, another seller is produced, until the value of the info itself approaches zero. Of course, this state is purely imaginary, in the real world, many authorities exist to make sure that information controlled and costly. The question is, is this control justified? Does it produce an improvement over the state in which there is little to no control over information?

When you hear "information wants to be free," you should think of the costs that go into making information non-free. Because information wants to be free, it costs stuff to lock it up. Copyright laws take material from the public domain. Patent laws make production less efficient. Privacy laws reduce the effectiveness of public databases. Building copy protection into hardware takes usability away from the consumer. These actions must produce benefit in excess of their costs in order to be justified. In this sense, it is the person who understand the nature of information who is being a realist, while the person who argues for the absolute nature of intellectual property rights, or privacy rights, who is being idealistic or possibly self-serving.


fnord

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