The Difficulty of “Information Wants to Be Free”

Live Free?

At some point during every school year, the topic of online entertainment comes up. Every time, a disturbing number of students express confusion when I try to explain why they should pay for their entertainment. “If I can get it for free,” they argue, “then why should I pay for it?” I ask if they would want to be paid if they made a song everyone wanted. They say yes. I ask if they would be happy if people stole their song. They say no. But they still have a hard time making the final connection. And it can feel hard to argue when we live in an age when there is so much “free” content and information available. 

Pretty much since the birth of the Internet as a publicly available tool, there has been a rallying cry that echoes through the ether(net): “Information wants to be free!” As the quantity of information stored digitally grows, these cries grow louder, often accompanied by arguments about the ease of sharing information and the importance of transparency in an increasingly entrepreneurial, democratic, and global space. 

“How can we innovate,” some say, “if the information we need to build on is hidden away?”

“How can we know if there is corruption going on if we don’t know what’s being hidden from our view?”

“How can we help others if we can’t see and communicate with them?” 

These are excellent points. Greater transparency of information could help to pinpoint many of the problems faced by our current societies; and until those problems are located, they can’t be addressed and remedied.

However, this rallying cry is problematic for two main reasons: Privacy and cost. 

At What Cost?

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is moving to formalize a Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This framework is built around six central threshold ideas that the ACRL members agree are keystones to information literacy, the skills and knowledge needed to successfully navigate the information world in which we live. One of these threshold ideas is that “Information has value.” Most, if not all, reasonable people would agree with this statement and would consider it a fact. Yet the phrasing of the rallying cry “Information wants to be free” is, to some minds, in direct opposition to this cornerstone statement.

The problem is in the phrasing. “Free” can refer to “having no bounds and available to all,” but it can also refer to “costing no money.” Indeed, the first definition implies the second, as “all” includes those of limited financial means. Too frequently, users of the Internet feel that if they have the ability to get something without giving money in exchange, they should be able to do so. After all, it costs essentially nothing to make a copy of a digital file–why should I pay for something that costs nothing to reproduce? 

The Mean of Production

The error in this logic is that while it may cost nothing to REproduce information, it takes time, effort, and ingenuity to PRODUCE the information in the first place. Whether that information takes the guise of a piece of writing, a song, a movie, or whatever other media type one wishes to consume, it came from some point of origin; and if the audience enjoys it enough to want to consume it, then shouldn’t the originator enjoy some sort of recompense for her generative spark? 

This has been an argument for as long as mass media has been available: if artists are not compensated for the work they do, then they will have to find another source of funds to sustain themselves and their families; and if an artist is unable to secure the patronage of a wealthy benefactor, and those who enjoy the art are not willing to pay for that enjoyment, then the artist will have to get a job that takes them away from making the art, and the world is left with that much less art. 

To Err Is Human

In addition to cost, privacy is a major sticking point for the idea that information wants to be free. Until fairly recently, it was possible for someone to get a “fresh start” in life at pretty much any point by simply picking up stakes and moving to a new location. The move wouldn’t even have to be very far–a new town could be all it took–because information is limited in its spread to the vessels that contain it, and for most of human history, those vessels were limited to other people and physical media. Moving away from the people and media of an area meant moving away from one’s past, if one so wished. 

Like most humans, I’ve made my share of mistakes in the past. One that has stuck with me through the years was the time in high school when I thoughtlessly jumped in a car with a group of friends–but not my date–and went to a post-prom party without telling my date’s father, who was supposed to drive a small group of us to a restaurant. That poor man then had to tell my parents that he didn’t know where I was; and in that pre-cell phone age, it took a few hours for my parents to track me down. As mortifying as it was to have my parents drag me out of a party full of teenagers, that was nothing next to the shame I felt when they very loudly explained how I’d put Mr. St. Pierre in a terrible position, and how upset he’d been at having “lost” me. I apologized profusely, and he was incredibly gracious about the situation. 

The Right to Be Forgotten

Although I still cringe inside when I think about that moment, I can look back on it and realize why Mr. St. Pierre was so forgiving: I was a stupid teenager who made a stupid teenaged decision, the kind of thing that teens do all the time. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal; no one was hurt, and the problem was resolved fairly quickly. But one of the things that let me move past it is that, once I had wallowed in guilt for a while, I was able to move past it and not be reminded of my stupidity on a regular basis. Not long after, I went off to college, and with no one around to remind me of my idiocy, I was able to learn from that experience without dwelling on it and becoming mired in, or defined by, that mistake. 

If the same thing had happened to me today, however, that would not be the case. There would be videos of my parents pulling me out of that party. There would be social media posts across half a dozen platforms. And those would not only be essentially permanent reminders of the event, but they’d also be tied to my name, and searchable. 

Teenagers Do Dumb Things

My example of teenaged stupidity is a pretty mild one as these things go. Some kids are not so lucky; they really mess up. They get involved in dumb situations and make dumb choices, or they have accidents as any one of us could, and they have much more severe consequences. But whereas there was a time when they were able to put those things in the past and attempt to move on, that time has gone. 

I’m not trying to excuse bad behavior, but I believe there is a good reason to give teens the privacy to make mistakes without having to be reminded of their mistakes for the rest of their lives. The same goes for situations that are not of an individual’s making. The rise of online bullying and harassment is another great example of the difficulty of information wanting to be free.

Information Can Be Dangerous

“SWATting” is a practice where one person calls in a false report of a dangerous situation occurring at someone’s house to police in order to get the police to mobilize to that person’s location. The stated goal is to get the police to physically harm the unsuspecting target. This has, unfortunately, led to deaths of innocent people. It’s a vivid reminder that there are some drawbacks to the idea of all information being free. I certainly don’t want just anyone to be able to know where I live. I can think of some vindictive folks who would probably enjoy the idea of being able to disrupt my life pretty thoroughly with a few phone calls. 

And that’s where “Information wants to be free” becomes particularly problematic. There was a time when acquiring information was a relatively difficult process that required an invest of time and attention from an individual. Now, however, the barriers to acquiring information have dropped to such a low level that the cost–both in terms of fiduciary and effort-related–seem like they are close to nothing; and this allows for a much broader range of uses of that information than anything that could happen in the past. Bullying was, at one point, limited in the scope of people who could be “in” on the bullying; there were only so many others in an area who would be aware of one’s status as a target. Now there are those who seek out information about others who would be targets, and spread that information freely and far in order to harass and intimidate that target.

Which Information to Share

And these are all instances where the “free” information is correct. Now we are learning that “fake news” actually spreads farther and faster than “real news”–is that information that should be free? 

Without a doubt, there are many legal and moral arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, to my mind, it comes down to responsibility: We must help our students to think about their interactions with information. We want them to understand that this is a difficult issue, one that has many potential consequences across many different social, moral, and logical levels. We need them to see that just because information may seem to be intangible and have no physical weight, it is not without value; in fact, it may be a more precious commodity than gold. And just as they would treat a bar of gold with care, so to do they need to treat information with consideration for what it is, where it has come from, and what it can do. 


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Technology

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