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Should Information be Free?

I have to admit that I come at this question with a somewhat conflicted point of view. I believe that information is already free; especially those facts which we merely discover rather than invent. They would be, regardless of whether we knew of them or not. But I think that, to the extent we can facilitate it, information should be free, in that no one should be blocked by another from accessing knowledge. I suppose what I mean specifically is that nobody should own the fact that the planets orbit the sun, or something of that nature. Nor should somebody own the fact that an important event happened at some place or time. These facts exist outside the realm of ownership, obviously.

“We often confuse information with the form that it takes”

(It’s a pretty big digression from the point of this post, but the following short video explains this concept well.)

However, this issue gets confused in terms of ownership when information is translated and transmitted by people- especially groups of people- hoping to be compensated for their efforts. But, the work that people have to do in order to communicate these facts is valuable. That includes authors, reporters, television and film crews, etc. All of their time is valuable, and the work they do to keep us informed is worthwhile. They do the work so that we don’t have to (ideally). Does this mean that information is suddenly not-free? I don’t think so. I think it just means that we’ve acknowledged that our time is not free.

So it’s not really a question of whether information is/isn’t/should be/should not be free. I think it’s clear that information is free. But the problem is that the internet has quickly changed our attitudes about what should cost money and what should not. In his Time article, “How to Save Your Newspaper,” Walter Isaacson portrays the economic quandary faced by all of online media well. Here’s the crux of the problem:

“One of history’s ironies is that hypertext — an embedded Web link that refers you to another page or site — had been invented by Ted Nelson in the early 1960s with the goal of enabling micropayments for content. He wanted to make sure that the people who created good stuff got rewarded for it. In his vision, all links on a page would facilitate the accrual of small, automatic payments for whatever content was accessed. Instead, the Web got caught up in the ethos that information wants to be free. Others smarter than we were had avoided that trap. For example, when Bill Gates noticed in 1976 that hobbyists were freely sharing Altair BASIC, a code he and his colleagues had written, he sent an open letter to members of the Homebrew Computer Club telling them to stop. ‘One thing you do is prevent good software from being written,’ he railed. ‘Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?'”

The easy Internet ad dollars of the late 1990s enticed newspapers and magazines to put all of their content, plus a whole lot of blogs and whistles, onto their websites for free. But the bulk of the ad dollars has ended up flowing to groups that did not actually create much content but instead piggybacked on it: search engines, portals and some aggregators.

Another group that benefits from free journalism is Internet service providers. They get to charge customers $20 to $30 a month for access to the Web’s trove of free content and services. As a result, it is not in their interest to facilitate easy ways for media creators to charge for their content. Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.”

I was glad to see that Isaacson pointed out that the major profit areas online are not in content creation but in the tools that help us access and/or organize that content. But this has only obscured the problem of assessing value. We face it every day with our clients, who sometimes will sincerely ask us things like, “why do you charge for this when I can get something similar for free from Google?” It’s difficult to explain this, since Google simply subsidizes much of their products with the huge revenue they get from advertising. This allows them to buy the time they need to figure out how to make these individual services profitable themselves. We don’t have that luxury!

I would be completely willing to pay subscription fees for sites like The New York Times, since I consume and appreciate their content daily. I already value it, and want to continue to have consistent access to it. But what about the content that I don’t know about yet, that I may want to access just once? I may not want a long term subscription. Isaacson suggests using a model similar to what iTunes has made wildly successful:

“But I don’t think that subscriptions will solve everything — nor should they be the only way to charge for content. A person who wants one day’s edition of a newspaper or is enticed by a link to an interesting article is rarely going to go through the cost and hassle of signing up for a subscription under today’s clunky payment systems…Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day’s full edition or $2 for a month’s worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.”

However this is accomplished, I know that I’d be willing to pay for content, probably both in subscription or more ad hoc ways.

Update: (2/19/09) Google exec Jonathan Rosenberg writes in a blog post entitled From the Height of this Place


But news isn’t what it used to be: by the time a paper arrives in the morning it’s already stale. As written communication has evolved from long letter to short text message, news has largely shifted from thoughtful to spontaneous. The old-fashioned static news article is now just a starting point, inciting back-and-forth debate that often results in a more balanced and detailed assessment. And the old-fashioned business model of bundled news, where the classifieds basically subsidized a lot of the high-quality reporting on the front page, has been thoroughly disrupted.

This is a problem, but since online journalism is still in its relative infancy it’s one that can be solved (we’re technology optimists, remember?). The experience of consuming news on the web today fails to take full advantage of the power of technology. It doesn’t understand what users want in order to give them what they need. When I go to a site like the New York Times or the San Jose Mercury, it should know what I am interested in and what has changed since my last visit. If I read the story on the US stimulus package only six hours ago, then just show me the updates the reporter has filed since then (and the most interesting responses from readers, bloggers, or other sources). If Thomas Friedman has filed a column since I last checked, tell me that on the front page. Beyond that, present to me a front page rich with interesting content selected by smart editors, customized based on my reading habits (tracked with my permission). Browsing a newspaper is rewarding and serendipitous, and doing it online should be even better. This will not by itself solve the newspapers’ business problems, but our heritage suggests that creating a superior user experience is the best place to start.

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