When we talk and write about information being free, financial means is not the sole implication of the term, “free.” Free is a word that implies open access and is liberated from cost—almost a romanticized version of itself in a world where everything has its cost. Information is not valuable in itself; it is what is done with the information that is valuable, or rather when the information becomes “a commodity that has value when it meets a client’s need, (Bates n.d.)
Two ways that free and open access to information is established are through the library and through the Internet. The term ‘library’ is used loosely here, and can also apply to any information-containing, collection-driven entity that strives to preserve and share information. Sipley (2003) writes that “libraries nurture children’s curiosity, and use it to instill a sense of ‘information entitlement.” As Americans, we all have our share of entitlement feelings regarding information, almost regarding it as a basic human right. Tiwari (2010) argues that access to information should absolutely “be treated a basic human right.”
The Internet brings secrets to light, and maybe even abolishes secrets all together. Information is available on it (and sometimes for a price) that concerns people’s criminal and financial backgrounds, their contact information, who they are related to, where they live, and who they talk to online.
In 2011, there was uproar from the public regarding the SOPA legislation (Stop
Online Piracy Act), which sought to establish guidelines that would regulate information on the Internet, mostly in an attempt to cut down on counterfeit goods (Samuelson 2012). Unfortunately, the legislation would have ultimately trampled on other civil liberties such as general freedom of information because specific websites would be blocked completely. Although the legislation was blocked, Samuelson says that the battle over the information on the Internet has just begun, (2012).
In some countries, like North Korea, Syria, China and Iran, the Internet is very much censored, if available at all. In the U.S. information is regulated, even though many may not be aware. For example, there are many laws governing the media and information regulation, and even things like the Library Awareness Program, which attempted, in 1988, to collect information regarding “suspicious” activity of library patrons. Representative Don Edwards of California wrote, “Everybody in this country has a right to use libraries, and they have a right to do so with confidentiality….” (Foerstel 2008, 10). In 1998, congress tried to pass the COPA legislation (Child Online Protection Act), which sought to limit access to pornography by minors (Fry 2006). This is a prime example of another strange factoid: how concerned our culture is with protecting and limiting exposure to sexual content, while sometimes ignoring violent content which is often deemed as somewhat more socially acceptable. The policies governing United States access to information are very much ingrained in our culture. Fry (2006, 137) writes:
“The Internet as a communication technology transcends national boundaries in unprecedented ways and the relative weight and priorities given to these values and beliefs are shaped by different cultural perspectives.”
Every culture confronts these problems in different ways. More recently, there were pressures from other countries towards Google (and its subsidiary YouTube) to take down an inflammatory video, which depicted the prophet Muhammad. The video has incited violent protests in the Middle East, and had even been blamed by the U.S. government as a factor in the assassination of U.S. Embassy diplomats in Libya. Under escalating pressures from foreign countries and even from the United States, the private company blocked the website to specific countries in the Middle East, although did not take down the video entirely (Miller 2012).
At the cost of rising tensions between nations, which is greater cause for concern: Freedom of information or peaceful diplomatic relations? This paper comments on the difficulties in formally establishing specific categories of information that should always be free, which types of information should not be free, and what cost is associated with limiting or allowing open access to information in a democratic society.
There are certain types of information that could be considered dangerous. There are also certain types of information that are private to individuals. There are also certain types of information that could pose a serious threat if it fell into the wrong hands. Tiwari (2010) says that “freedom of information can be a potent tool to prevent and fight corruption,” and yet, on the other hand, freedom of information can be a pretty potent tool to build a bomb as well.
Peter Galison argues, “My general view is that I think there are some things that should not be published. I don’t want to find instructions on how to make binary chemical weapons easily available on the web,” (Galison et al. 2010, 1015). To this Naomi Oreskes states, “But if I think about what broad categories of information I would support blocking, I would have to say the answer is none,” (Galison, et al. 2010, 1019).
The argument for protection of information regarding weaponry is an easy one, but what problems arise from a view that emphasizes fear and preemptive strikes? During WWII, Comanche Indians were recruited so that they could use the Comanche language to communicate secret and critical messages for the American military, because it was a language that could not easily be deciphered by the Germans (Meadows 2002). Imagine a scenario in which audio and video files of the Comanche language were digitized and openly accessible via the Internet. It would no longer be a secret weapon that we could employ in military tactics. Even something as banal as language could be considered a weapon of sorts, so should our language, too, be classified?
It is because of this “unreasonable extension of privacy” (Galison, et al. 2010, 1028) that there is an over-classification of information in United States governmental bodies. Oreskes argues that “secret knowledge is used in ways that can be counterproductive to democracy, in ways that are intended to shut down debate,” (Galison et al. 2010, 1029). Hinson states that “Undue government secrecy prevents citizens from making informed choices in matters important to individual citizens and to society,” (2010, 829).
Our country is a democracy, and with that, comes certain responsibilities and obligations that only naturally emerge from such a foundation. But as our government encourages freedom of information, it simultaneously oppresses it in the pursuit of another freedom, the freedom to create. This is a paradox Lipinski (2002, 236) calls “the contradictory nature of copyright law.”
Of course, this is only one of many sources of information control. Information is controlled by not only by copyright law, but also federal agencies such as the FCC (Federal Communication Commission), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and the NSA (National Security Agency/Central Security Service) (Lester & Koehler 2007, 278-280). They even cite the United States Postal Service as a regulator of information, because of the laws governing what can and cannot be transmitted through the mail.
Despite these regulatory bodies, information is not always controlled. Lester and Koehler (2007, 274) say that “efforts to control have often failed.” Creating a law to regulate is one thing, enforcing it is another. Some authors argue that copyright serves not only as protector, but also as financial motivator for authors of content (Lester & Koehler 2007, 320). They even go on to say that financial gain is the main reason for content creation, and without it, authors would not create: “Without some means of reward (primarily financial reward) new information would not be created.”
Not all authors create for the financial gain. There are other needs and need-satisfaction factors in place that need to be understood. This seems to be a big point that the authors who write about copyright and intellectual property fail to comment on: Not all authors create for financial reward, and other needs, such as the need for self-actualization may be a major factor in creating works (Manheim 1998). Authors of content such as art, music, literature and books should not have to worry about other people coming in and hijacking their intellectual works. U.S. Copyright law protects authors, but not forever. Personal information such as phone number, address, and social security numbers are not the types of information you want floating around the Internet for anyone to see.
Current United States copyright specifies that information is only copyrighted for the author’s lifetime with the addition of seventy years. After this time period the works become public domain (Lipinski 2002, 239). There are, however, specific exemptions for museums, archives and libraries, specifically regarding copies for interlibrary loan and for preservation reasons. Helprin (2009, 75) spouts that there is a sort of “twisted logic of copyright,” specifically in regards to what works can and cannot be read in schools. At times it seems that the laying of laws regarding freedom and privacy resist formalization. There is a tradeoff in what is valued and there is an opportunity cost associated with freedom of information and intellectual property. It becomes, at this point, a question of which thing is valued more?
In 2005, India passed a law called “The Right to Information Act” which “seeks to establish that transparency is the norm and secrecy is an exception’ in the working of every public authority” (Tiwari 2010). Perhaps what information is limited and what information is accessible is a delicate exchange between freedom and safety. The next problem then, is, who decides which category the information falls into?
The purpose of open access to information is about equality and our Egalitarian American society almost demands it. Martorella (2006) writes that “open access to information and patron privacy allow intellectual inquiry, participation in a democratic society, and the creation of new knowledge for the advancement of society.” Intellectual property and governmental secrecy of information serve the individual or group monetarily and selfishly, while forsaking the advancement of society. Freedom of information is a foundational tenant of democratic society, and an entitlement that is deeply embedded within the American psyche.
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