Digital Myth: Information Wants to Be Free

Digital Myth #1: Information does not want anything. But it’s not always worthless and thus not always free.

‘Information wants to be free’ was the maxim of the first years of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. It was a powerful credo that inspired much of the development of the public internet in those early days, but closer inspection reveals problems with every word: what is ‘information’, what does it ‘want’ and what does ‘free’ mean? These basic questions have no clear answers.

The phrase ‘Information wants to be free’ was coined by Stewart Brand, publisher of the mail-order Whole Earth Catalogue in the 1970s and 1980s and one of the original hippie-era Silicon Valley visionaries, except the complete quote reads:

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 is fair to say Brand’s insight captured the conflicts over the value of content that have played out since; too bad only half the quote made it into general conversation. Our digital society would have been much better off if we had taken Brand’s wisdom at face value from the outset.

‘Free’ is also problematic. As Richard Stallman of the GNU open operating system, famously put it:

Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.

Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.

So which ‘free’ is it that information supposedly wants so badly? For sure, freedom of information is a fundamental right, but that is not the same as saying that all content should be free of charge.

Finally, what information ‘wants’ was brilliantly disarmed by Malcolm Gladwell in his review in The New Yorker of Chris Anderson’s book Free – The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, 2009). Once again, I quote:

But information can’t actually want anything, can it?

Information will not be disappointed if it doesn’t get what it wants. In fact, ascribing propositional attitudes at all, like free will, to inanimate objects, like information, or the Internet, may be rhetorically elegant, but confuses the substance.

And what is information? Is it always speech? Is it always data? Can the same terms apply to all types of internet traffic? What about the distinction of metadata versus content? On closer inspection, it turns out that information is much too blunt a term to be helpful in understanding the digital world.

Even Richard Stallman himself, an icon of free software, ironically decided to ‘monetize’ the GNU system in 2015, adding fees to parts of its functions and accepting a US$150 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. That’s right, after having used the open source software for years as a basic technology for their systems, now many companies have no choice but to pay up. Not sure if that counts as free speech or free beer, but it goes to show there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Information does not want to be free. It’s a myth!


Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.