Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow

I am generally not a fan of nonfiction, reading the genre only on recommendation. This book was recommended by a colleague who started reading the book and then realized it would be perfect for me.

In the book, which is broken down into short, manageable chapters with specific examples interspersed throughout, Doctorow extrapolates his ideas about copyright and information distribution in the digital age. As a libertarian, I thoroughly enjoy his discussion about the failures of any top-down system of enforcement when it comes to digital rights management. He provides several examples of “digital locks” backfiring, noting that companies like Apple, not necessarily the publishing companies, are the ones that insist on those pesky digital rights management (DRM). He notes that the age of DRM has angered people: did you know that you don’t actually own those iTunes songs you purchased? Rather, you have purchased a license to use those songs, but they aren’t yours to keep or will to your descendants.

Doctorow also writes of the opportunities afforded by the digital age. Often, websites and projects started as a labor of love can “go viral,” providing fame and an audience for artists. While this doesn’t guarantee wealth, fame is usually a prerequisite for becoming wealthy as an artist. He further notes that most of the time, artists (defined as authors, musicians, visual artists, etc.) working for a large company receive only a small percentage of sales, and all these “digital locks” required by large companies only end up benefiting the companies, not the artists—and they certainly don’t deter people who want to make illegal copies of the material. (For instance, in an experiment, it took just minutes for a DRM song to appear on the black market after its release).

Like a true libertarian (though I’m not sure if Doctorow is one—his ideas in this realm tend that way, though!), Doctorow notes that criminals are going to be criminals, and honest people are going to be honest. DRM won’t prevent a criminal from stealing, and the black market won’t prevent an honest person from paying. In one of the forewords, Amanda Palmer notes that people have come up to her, handing her money and apologizing for downloading her songs illegally. Looking at myself, I always buy the CDs of artists I care about or respect. Same with authors: I prefer to buy their books rather than borrow them from the library, making sure they receive their royalties.

To this end, he discusses the Internet and “going indie” as a way to circumvent the system that is designed to benefit the “big guys” and take as much money as possible away from the actual artists. With digital distribution relatively easy (and fairly cheap), the playing field is becoming leveled for independent artists. With big companies shrinking, talent is being laid off and send into the indie market as well.

I do have to disagree with the author on the topic of net neutrality. He contends that Internet access is a human right, citing studies that show how quality of life improves for those who have Internet access (even when variables such as education and income are controlled). Though I understand his gripe about bigger companies paying for bigger bandwidth, I don’t understand his faith in the government to regulate the industry (even he mentions the rampant cronyism in the FCC). My solution here would be for the government to back off completely—end the subsidies and stop picking winners and losers—and let the free market decide, which seemed to be the author’s point on regulation of digital content—except on net neutrality).

That said, he goes into detail about how policies like SOPA and other policies meant to be harsher about copyright infringement are unfair and counterproductive, punishing people like Internet Service Providers for illegal things done by customers using the Internet through them. He further notes that in true government crony fashion, Obama’s IP czars typically rotate from a job in the government back out into the entertainment industry. With all this in mind, I don’t see how he could trust the government to take over the issue of net neutrality. The government is never looking out for the little guy!

He mentions that increased regulation will likely increase the cost of doing business, and that hurts artists. For instance, he mentions YouTube, started by “three guys.” If regulations increased and YouTube-like services were required to better police their site for copyright infringement, there wouldn’t be many YouTube-like services in existence. This bottleneck would make it easier for big companies (like the Big Five in publishing) to make all the rules. The little guys—the indie artists—would be hurt. As they often are.

I enjoyed his chapter about censorship and copyright: it begins with a well-intentioned desire, such as protecting the world from inappropriate content. But by virtue of a government-imposed firewall, the list of sites that are blocked can NOT be published; otherwise, the government would be broadcasting the very sites it wants to protect people from. But this opens up corruption: why can’t governments then block any sites they don’t like? This happens in places like China. He makes a similar connection to copyright: it begins as a way of protecting people, but then the lines blur.

For instance, should it be illegal to download a digital copy of a movie you already own? How about a song if you already own the CD? He cites examples of countries “enforcing copyright infringement” as a front for culling dissent. In other words, countries pick and choose which copyright infringers to investigate/punish based on how “dangerous” they are to the government. He mentions that even countries as “great” as China, with such heavy firewall restrictions and such massive numbers of engineers, is not fully able to track content and block everything that “needs” to be blocked. His bottom line: no system of blocking content will ever succeed. The implication, I believe, is that criminals are going to break the law regardless.

He mentions scary implications that remind me of 1984. When large companies sue places like YouTube for not doing enough to protect copyrighted videos, the implication is that sites like YouTube should thus be responsible for scanning every single video that is uploaded, even videos uploaded for only personal reasons (to be shared with family). A creepy example would be Amazon and digital copies of 1984 (ironically!). In America, 1984 is not in the public domain. When Amazon got into some legal trouble for selling copies to Americans with Kindles, it decided to “hack” into their customers’ Kindles and remove the book. Amazon later went back in and restored the book, but the scary thing is that Amazon could physically do so. Amazon is not the only company to do things like this (iTunes!!). The author provides an abundance of examples to demonstrate the stupidity of enforcing copyright rules for all users. He provides further examples about how easy copyright “locks” are to break. No system is flawless.

After establishing how easy it is for a computer to be hacked without the owner’s knowledge, he mentions how scary it is to consider what will happen when we have computers in our bodies (for medical reasons, etc.).

The point, he argues, is to “treat copying as a fact.” ​He proposes a blanket license policy, whereby distributors pay a blanket license fee into a collective account, which is then paid to the artists whose music is played. He notes the difficulties with this system. I wasn’t sold on the idea.

The bottom line, though, and the idea he closes with, is this: computers offer so much power, and it’s important that such power does not stay in the hands of a powerful few, for their purpose will become to remain in power, and keep out those who would replace them. Rather, we must use technology as a way to increase freedom of thought and expression, and we should be wary of any policies that try to limit the power of the little guy to express his ideas.