Information Wants to Be Precious – Copyright and Privacy Are One

We used to think that information wanted to be free. This was the idea that informed the vision in the early days of the internet. It’s a figure of speech of course, information does not want anything. It means that information is difficult to contain. Especially if you design information technology as if information wants to be free. But time has shown that information rather wants to be precious. The quote “data is the new oil” is to be taken literally, personal data is the world’s most precious commodity. It turns out some people understood this faster than most. Take a look at Google’s famous mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. It appears to be in line with the concept that information wants to be free. If information is not only free but also organized, accessible and useful, then that’s even better than free, right? But there is another idea hiding behind the first: if you’re the one who organizes all that information and it turns out that information is precious, doesn’t that mean that you have a huge edge on the competition? On everybody who uses information, at least digital information? Right? If information is precious, the one who organizes it must be the most powerful in the world.

The world is catching up to the fact that information is precious. A couple of months ago, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation came into force. It can be seen as a recognition that at least personal data wants to be precious. Let’s be honest, information is precious depending on the circumstances. If you run a power plant, the data about megawatts, volt and operating temperatures from the generators, spools and cables (and whatever other things they have in power plants) is precious for you, perhaps your suppliers and maybe your competitors, but outside that context the information is probably pretty useless for anyone else. Not all information is precious all the time. But if we think our personal information is of no value, maybe we freely give it up to somebody who thinks it’s precious. If we give it up in exchange of free services of something else we want, that may work fine on the individual level. But on the aggregate level, we create a monster.

Personal data (and power plants and what not) is not the only form of information that wants to be precious. Content can be precious, the more in demand it is, the more precious. The demand can be individual of course, an Ingmar Bergman-fan may be prepared a lot to watch a restored copy of Wild Strawberries while others would not even take the time to see it. It is probably fair to say that demand and compensation have never really been in balance. Over the years a lot of different methods have been applied to help find the balance: creators have organized to protect their interests. Copyright law has been refined as technology has developed. International treaties have been put in place. It is probably also fair to say that the imbalance between demand and compensation has been accelerated with digital distribution. In part due to technology, the ties between delivery and payment have been cut in many ways. But also in part due to ideology: the reason given was that attempts to strike the balance would stop “innovation” (and give a disadvantage in global competition). The result: run-away imbalance putting more money into the pockets of those who control the technology. Early days it was the telecoms making piles of money from piracy, but these days the internet platforms making even bigger piles and hide behind their users. That and cheap mail order knock-offs of famous designs. The pattern is the same: the power of technology and the direction of ideology multiply the imbalance.

The good news is that the European lawmakers are also interested in this aspect of information wants to be precious. Yes, the pushback from pirates and internet giants is overwhelming, but there is actually policy brought forward to address the imbalance of demand and compensation, as in the so-called Article 13 of the Copyright reform currently debated in European parliament. And the other day, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that users who publish content online should get consent from the creator (in the so-called Cordoba-case). The world is turning from information wants to be free to information wants to be precious. Good steps, but they won’t be enough. In personal data, it’s not enough to give users tools to control their personal data. We tick consent boxes and click banners that stand in the way of the service we want to use. To properly protect personal data, we need institutions that look after our interests plus transparency and accountability from those who use it. The same is true for creative content: individual users cannot get consent from creators, those who provide the tools for publishing must provide some way to help users with that. And the creators cannot be expected to patrol the internet for unauthorized use of their content. Those who provide the services should.

Institutions. Transparency. Accountability. Do it!


The original “Information wants to be free”-quote was made by Stewart Brand. I have written about it here:

The double meanings of free is material for many good jokes. I have written about one of them here: