Information Should Not be Free

The internet contains some dreadful design flaws. I will spare you the long list and cite just one here. You may instinctively think this flaw a good thing, I used to.  Here goes:

That information is free on the net has resulted in what used to be an open system based on standards, becoming largely proprietary in particular through Web2.0 organisations among other aggregators of information.  That is a bad thing.

All that free information is being concentrated into wealth for a very small number of organisations while destroying jobs and privacy for the vast majority who blithely give the information in the first place. History is littered with cycles like this. This cycle is extreme though, as the power is being concentrated in a tiny number of global organisations.

First, a Web 1.0 story, so I can start to explain why this is a bad thing:

In February 1998 our first child was born. From mid 1997, I wrote an online diary about the experience of getting ready to be a parent. It contained words, pictures and even some voice recordings from a bizarre incident in which our dog stole a frozen chicken.  I added to the diary incrementally until Lydia was born. Then I used it to announce her arrival and post some pictures of everyone looking tired but happy.  I remember the last post vividly.  It was called, “Lydia Has Arrived!”.

I laboriously maintained the diary myself, in space provided by my ISP. I was still almost a techy at the time, and some of my colleagues also followed it just out of interest. It was of course, a blog, though according to Wikipedia, the term wasn’t coined until December 1997 (

It was a pain to manage. I wrote it in raw HTML at first, managed all the file structures manually, ensured it worked on both Netscape and IE, tested it so all the links worked and then published it via a clunky FTP interface.  I then shared it via links pasted into emails to my parents and a very few connected friends.  As I recall, the final version also got printed out and put into the post to “the unconnected” by way of announcement.

What a palaver!

It was interesting and enjoyable as a hobby, but to put it bluntly, once Lydia arrived, I quite simply didn’t have time. As for posting bits of paper about the place, well, really.

That I can now achieve all of that just by typing these words and pressing a button represents a huge leap forward.  In addition, Web 2.0 features enrich the experience greatly. The comment streams here are often far more informative or at least more entertaining than an original post. The ability to easily and powerfully connect with numerous others was simply not there in 1997. I could go on, you get the point.

So what is my problem?

My diary in 1997/98 relied on open standards.  Those standards were implemented by numerous providers of software (FTP tools, editors, WAV recorders, GIF editors), ISPs who provided storage and dial up IP connectivity and so on through the layers of the WWW and underlying internet.

The system, while excruciatingly clunky and lacking in all the features we now take for granted, limited the extent to which any one party could aggregate what I posted free (seemingly in return for some endorphins, Latin for, “magic beans”) for their own commercial benefit.

Here is the rub, the Web 2.0 features that make it all so much easier for millions of us to share our identity, location and preferences are not additions to the standards that can be implemented by many, they are unique to a small number of huge companies..

The availability of free information made it worthwhile to develop all those new features so as to harvest all that information we had got used to giving away. When there was no one aggregating it and it was all just fun that was fine.  That the internet was open and standard spurred the explosive growth and huge benefits we have seen.  That the Web 2.0 features that triggered the next wave of growth are closed, proprietary and owned by a handful of vast corporations is disastrous. It is an unintended consequence of the internet feature that sounds the most liberating, that information should be free.

The answer? Long, complicated and painful, I’ve cut a lot out of the following to keep it brief. Here are a couple of potential steps:

1.Charge microscopic amounts for certain actions,  e.g. tweeting, reading a blog, sending an email, accessing my FaceBook profile; basically ascribing permanent ownership and value to information and events.

2 Standardise Web 2.0 features, e.g. decompose Twitter into its features (identity, location, followers, followees, #tag, search, interoperability, messaging etc.) and license it to multiple operators.  A bit like how mobile works to standards so that SMS works anywhere in the world.

Basically create an environment in which a Web 2.0 operator has to compete to offer you the best value for your information, because it is yours, you just give it away at present.

I really could go on on and on…

For the 350 page version, try Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier which inspired this post.  As ever with his stuff, it is too long, occasionally annoyingly conspiratorial and often mind meltingly complicated.  However, it is a shocking and brilliant read that describes just how wrong we have got it and how we are being played on a massive scale.  Bizarrely, in the main, this is by well meaning and clever people.

As ever, I’d love to know what you all think about this,  as I am sure will Twitter and WordPress!


19 thoughts on “Information Should Not be Free

  1. I’m puzzled. Your post is so full of contradictions that either a) you have been to the pub at lunchtime, b) you have been abducted by said J.Lanier and it is he who has typed your blog post, or c) I am missing something so blunderously obvious (yes, blunderously is a word according to Wikidictionary, or something) that I may as well buy a quill pen tomorrow and go and live in St Ives.

    Surely the very point of Web 2.0 is reach, and the so-called “small number of large companies” (who you haven’t named and I still have no idea who you’re referring to) are the facilitators of that reach. Your original first-arrival ‘blog’ on Compuserve / AOL or whatever had very few readers because they had no way of telling the people you’d forgotten about, about it. Think about photos you put up on Facebook. I like the fact that, with certain controls, others can share them. And, better still, I like it when people share what I post on Facebook or Twitter. You have been heinously guilty of that very crime yourself Mr A. No money has been exchanged in doing so, yet many more people’s lives have been enriched as a result.

    Without out-techie-ing you (again, Wikidictionary to the rescue) the open standards have become even more open. I draw the honorable gentleman to the entry on ‘XML’ and to this video on YouTube (which someone shared BTW):

    If this is Mr Lanier who has abducted my friend then please would you put him back. I know by writing what I have above that you probably have steam coming out of your ears by now but I don’t apologise in the slightest. If this is still Mr A then can I suggest that you disavow Mr Lanier in favour of someone who actually understands the 21st Century ? I think we’d all be better for it, not least because we’ll all still be able to comment on your blog.

  2. Evening.

    That diary was clunky and narrowly viewed. Web 2.0 features (take your pick, sharing photos is one) make doing the same massively easier, more effective and considerably richer. It’s all wonderful, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. The standards have indeed not ceased to exist and have moved on, XML is a great example.

    Most stuff is banal, profane and otherwise of limited value. It’s still mostly just fun and harmless at that. That the tiny signal of location, preference and identity gets winnowed out of all that and that that immense power is centred in a very few companies is a concern.

    It’s a long and complicated argument, but it’s the fact that the raw materials used by Facebook, twitter et al are free that has to some extent led to that imbalance.

    And its not just Web 2.0, I really wonder what will happen when it’s AliBaba not Amazon holding sway. The protectionists will come out of the woodwork then.

    Anyway, as ever trying to distill 350 pages to one is always a little fraught…

    • I get the point that you and Mr Pannier are getting at, but I suppose I worry about it less than you do. Granted, the fact that we have now decided that sharing our location with others, and therefore putting it in the hands of a few large corporations, is a good thing is very much up for debate. It’s a similar debate to loyalty cards – Tesco Clubcard etc – where you allow your data to be analysed to provide a more relevant set of products in store (or so they say) in return for money off. You post your location on FourSquare to get money off at Starbucks. Same difference.

      In the former example, Tesco did actually experiment with RFID in the actual Clubcards themselves so they could locate in to the nearest metre in store. This was strongly resisted by the average punter as being too invasive. So it shows that we’re willing to sacrifice our data to big corporates, but only on our terms.

      I actually think the point here is not about standards, or charging for performing actions, but simply one about data governance and data privacy ? Put another way, if the Facebook model was such that the more you posted, the more money you personally made, would you post more ? I bet it would vastly increase Facebook traffic. Another example is a video a few years ago called “Charlie bit my finger” on YouTube. I met the company that acts as so-called agents for people who post stuff like this. You know how much the person who posted that on YouTube has made from selling the rights to it ? $15m. Yes, they’ve given up a huge amount of privacy as a result, but they’re happy to do that so they can buy a bigger trailer.

      I think what we’re seeing is just the evolution of a connected world which, if history is anything to go by, has a habit of correcting itself and, generally speaking, giving punters what they want.

      Must admit, that I worry far more about the standard and quality (or lack of) journalism in our country than anything of the above. That subverts and brain-washes people en masse in a rather disturbing way. Have you ever met a Daily Mail reader ?

      • Hi

        I tend to agree. Privacy and governance are at the heart of this. The central point is ownership, this implies rights, one of which might be the right to charge or not. I made a really long comment on this below so won’t repeat it all here. The example is email, where a combination of ownership of an email address, trust implied in ones social network and pricing (engineered to fail safe and not require lots of admin) could destroy spam. I’m in.

        Overall, I think there is a huge business opportunity here. Initial uptake might be low, but most web businesses start with a slice that takes advantage of the webs a bailing to access all markets globally and make small niches viable.

        I have met a few Daily Mail readers, but I’ve met even fewer of them twice.

        Cheers, and as ever, thanks for robust debate. It’s why I do it.


    • Meg – thanks for dropping in. This a monster topic, I tried and perhaps failed to keep it simple 🙂

      The price we pay for much of SM (and other things even webmail) being “free” is that we give away things we may not have done, had we thought about it.

      These include identity, location, preferences, privacy, intellectual property rights (very very dull but actually hugely important, ask Mr £1 fish…) etc. What we get back is pretty awesome. This conversation would obviously not be happening without it as just one example. I have done all sorts of hugely entertaining and useful things with it.

      There are countless examples where the equation isn’t balanced between the value corporations get out of us and what we give in return.

      There are endless potential examples, each of which is an over simplification, but here is one choice I would make easily:

      For the fun and occasional purposefulness I get from, say, Facebook, would I be willing to pay, say £1 per month? Yes, if in exchange I retained ownership and total control over my data and restricted the extent to which they could reuse it? Yes.

      Might I expect to get paid for a video clip that gets viewed twice, not really! But if it goes viral and becomes an advertising magnet? Yes. But more importantly I would expect it to be mine in either scenario.

      There are a whole range of more complex scenarios that flow from this. Bottom line, we give things away without really thinking about it and the result is a lot of power in a very few hands.

      My head hurts even more now 🙂

    • Gerard,

      Thanks for highlighting that post.

      Reading that it struck me how important it is that we retain ownership and control over our personal data, our identities and those of people we claim to love.

      The whole thing reminds me of what led up to the Financial crisis of 2008. Then it was the securitisation of debt. Now some other clever people are securitising our identities.

      Securitisation is the combination, packaging and reselling of information. In 2008 that was debt, money is just information. The securitisation process destroys ownership. That in turn destroys responsibility. How often at work we say, “who owns this process?”, when what we mean is, “who is responsible for this process?”.

      Given how enjoyable and powerful SM is, how much would we pay per month for a model where you retained ownership and control? My guess is that for most of us that would be very much less than it costs to provide the service.

      I wish I’d saved the, “Look at What They Make You Give Title” now 🙂


  3. I enjoyed reading and re-reading this. I like the way that the techie stuff you have included in your writing, on this occasion lends the post a light clunkiness, which for me reinforces your point Web 1.0 really nicely. In addition to what has been written, how quickly might spam disappear from our inboxes if the spammer had to pay to send? One micro payment times a kajillion spam emails = bankruptcy?

    • Doug,

      My head has almost coalesced into something near normal 🙂

      There are lots of dimensions in play.

      Rights to ownership and therefore control of our data is central. That leads into pricing. To ensure the rate of flow we see, I would expect most content and events to continue to be priced at zero. Much of the traffic we see is harmless fun, but there is huge value (commercial yes, but also simply human) in it all. I wouldn’t want to damage that.

      Personal email: I send ~5 per week and receive 1-200. I am proud to have a very few friends. A personal email account where others pay for using the email address I own might be interesting.

      I might price it free for all to use to start with (assumed trust). That’s pretty much the model we run now.

      Over time though I might wonder where trust comes from. It is unlikely to be cold emails from people or organisations I don’t know.

      I might then say it is free to use for those in a short list of friends and family (manual, yuck, and why Circles doesn’t really work) but then say that all my FB and LinkedIn contacts or followed/liked orgs can use it free too.

      For everyone else, it is 1p. If you pay and I trust you (or you are a long lost friend, willing to pay 1p to get back in touch!) then I am sure an enhanced platform (let’s call it Web 3.0) would allow me to quickly with you so you could use my email address for free.

      To cut a long story short, you are right, no more spam. For a spammer, 1p is a fortune. For a long lost friend, I hope it’d be worth it 🙂

      Buried in that lot is another observation. That Web 2.0, cool though it is, is also rather disjointed. Rather like I was used to running my diary with lots of tools, we have got used to Web 2.0 requiring us to manually join it all together. Behind the firewall I have jive. That gives me Fb, twitter, WordPress, messaging, news aggregation etc al in one place. When I find myself outside the firewall clunkyly connecting it all together it looks like a set of prototypes to me. My bet, SM will either be disrupted by a new player that offers all this, or we will see the current players merge. Now that would create a trust problem.

      There in lies another post 🙂

      More than anything. Thanks to all for being open for the debate. This is not obvious.

  4. No, no, no – my head has just exploded! My brain is only filled with fun things at the moment so it can’t cope with anything challenging. Please join some easy dots next time…!

    • Try the latest two, they are a little more uplifting 🙂

      This one is really hard, not obvious. I may well be plain wrong. There is a sequence in the comments about ownership and trust which might have made a better post though.

      I would recommend the book though. It is extremely thought provoking (if a little silly, e.g. The Matrix is real etc etc).

      Cheers and safe travels 🙂


  5. Right on, Anthony! Here’s a little example (below the radar of most folks) of how we got to this point in web history which you’ve described, above:

    Blink, and you’ve missed it (pun intended)

    Throughout history, technologies have their rise & fall, exhibiting a natural [sic.] cycle of advancement, refinement & replacement in which contingent obsolescence is always inherently a part of the technology. The problem is, you can’t predict when or where significant disruptions in the life cycle will occur except a posteriori so you may have to live with the (unintended?) consequences longer than you expect to.

    In parody of John Keats’ epitaph (‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’) I once wrote a poem, I think it was using WordPerfect, whose last line was: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in bytes.’ It was self-referential in so far as I knew a day would come when no-one would be able to read the poem unless they had a device that could read the 8 inch floppy disk on which the text of the poem was stored. Like Keats, I may as well have written that poem in water as in bytes; it may have survived longer if I had.

    • That’s a really interesting piece, it made me reflect on three things:

      1. I get the New Yorker delivered to my home and never ever find anything of interest until you point them out.

      2. The only thing (ok, one of the few things) I remember about my university degree in Computer Science (1989) was a lecturer in IT networks (I was into the internet in 1986, yes before Tim Berners Lee hi jacked it with a few tiny tweaks called the www!) observing that the great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.

      3. That archaeologists in 2000 years, while sifting through landfills, will find in between the discarded, curling tongs and hair straighteners, the occasional floppy disc. On one of them will be your poem. Imagine the Time Team ratings that week 🙂

    • I disagree, in this particular instance. You are basically a tenant on Google’s (or Yahoo’s, or Microsoft’s, or anyone else’s) email servers. For the massive convenience of cloud you cannot assume 100% control. A bit like if you rented a house vs buying a house. There are some limits to renting a house, including the rights the owner of the house retains over it while you live in it. If you want to have totally private email, you must adopt a solution akin to buying a house e.g. run your own email server / service. Saying you have rights over something hosted on someone else’s service – which you benefit from BTW – is a bit like saying you’re going to change the locks on your rental properly.

      I agree with privacy but you need to make sure it’s attached to something that ought to be totally private in the first place. Everyone enjoys and benefits from cloud services – Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail etc – but you cannot expect the people that run such services to totally forego all rights and responsibilities they have in hosting such a service.

      (Having lit the blue touchpaper, I am now retiring to a safe distance…)

      • Hi

        Buying vs renting a place to live is a good analogy.

        My preference is to buy. Partly for long term financial reasons, but also because we can run our house on our terms to a greater extent than if we rented. We use services provided by utilities and government and are bound by laws (we pay the bills) and cultural conventions (we don’t put old fridges and cars in the front garden). But otherwise we can do as we like.

        I fully expect providers of “free” cloud based services to securitise and trade my identity, preferences, presence and location because the Ts&Cs say they can and the service is not free to operate. 

        Most people are unaware this is going on. You have made a conscious choice about this. I would prefer to make a different choice.

        I would happily pay £5 PCM for email  (and SM services) where I got more flexibility in the Ts&Cs.

        I would pay that so my preferences etc were mine and shared on my terms under my control and according to my preferences (which are mine!). There are times when I would positively want to share it, eg when I am actively looking for a new car. In general I’d rather not.

        Yesterday I sent an email to a friend, we are organising a trip. The email mentioned the destination and the need for hotels at airports. An hour later I got an email from a hotel chain highlighting their premises at the specific airport in question. Arguably, that is quite useful. However, I would prefer that my emails not be scanned and shared with partners that way. I will pay for a service that doesn’t do that unless I choose to.

        I also think we could get very very rich by building a business out if this. We would only need a tiny % of the global population to share my curmugeonly preferences to have a huge market to tap. Amusingly those drug dealers, Facebook etc., have established a huge dependency on endorphins. We just need to find the discerning users who want a supply of the premium product. The Hendrick’s of the online world. ?


  6. A new movie, In Real Life opens in September. There are showings with discussion panels nationally on 22nd.

    This article is one of several to explore the topic much more eloquently and comprehensively than I have here.

    Most of it comes back to ownership, privacy, conscious choices and the fact that, total openness, alluring though it is is not as good as it sounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s