Information Wants To Be Free

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Information wants to be free is a slogan of technology activists invoked against limiting access to information. According to criticism of intellectual property rights, the system of governmental control of exclusivity is in conflict with the development of a public domain of information. The iconic phrase is attributed to American writer Stewart Brand who, in the late 1960s, founded the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing.

The earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first ‘Hackers’ Conference’ in 1984. Brand told Steve Wozniak: ‘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.’

According to historian Adrian Johns, the slogan expresses a view that had already been articulated in the mid-20th century by Norbert Wiener, Michael Polanyi, and Arnold Plant, who advocated the free communication of scientific knowledge, and specifically criticized the patent system. The various forms of the original statement are ambiguous: the slogan can be used to argue the benefits of propertied information, of liberated/free/open information, or of both. It can be taken merely as an expression of an amoral fact of information-science: once information has passed to a new location outside of the source’s control there is no way of ensuring it is not propagated further, and therefore will naturally tend towards a state where that information is widely distributed. Much of its force is due to the anthropomorphic metaphor that imputes desire to information.

In 1990, free software pioneer Richard Stallman restated the concept but without the anthropomorphization: ‘I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.’

Brand’s attribution of will to an abstract human construct (information) has been adopted within a branch of the Cyberpunk movement, whose members espouse a particular political (Anarchist) viewpoint. The construction of the statement takes its meaning beyond the simple judgmental observation, ‘Information should be free’ by acknowledging that the internal force of information and knowledge makes it essentially incompatible with notions of proprietary software, copyrights, patents, subscription services, etc. Information is dynamic, ever-growing and evolving and cannot be contained within (any) ideological structure. According to this philosophy, hackers, crackers, and phreakers are liberators of information which is being held hostage by agents demanding money for its release.

Other participants in this network include Cypherpunks who educate people to use public-key cryptography to protect the privacy of their messages from corporate or governmental snooping and programmers who write free software and open source code. Still others create Free-Nets allowing users to gain access to computer resources for which they would otherwise need an account. They might also break copyright law etc. by swapping music, movies, or other copyrighted materials over the Internet.

Bradley Manning is alleged to have said ‘Information should be free’ to Adrian Lamo when explaining a rationale for US government documents to be released to WikiLeaks. The narrative goes on with Manning wondering if he is a ‘hacker,’ ‘cracker,’ ‘hacktivist,’ ‘leaker,’ or what.’

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