Information: private property or public good?

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 12. April 2018 - 13:07

Information: private property or public good?

On 15 February, I gave a TEDx talk at the Institut National Polytechnique: École Nationale Supérieure d’Électrotechnique, d’Électronique, d’Informatique, d’Hydraulique et des Télécommunications (INP ENSEEIHT), Université de Toulouse, France, on the topic "Information: private property or public good?". The full series of TEDx talks that day in French can be seen on YouTube at TEDxINPENSEEIHT. My talk is at This article is the English translation of what I shared with the students in Toulouse with a few added quotes from the Bahá'í writings.

We are living in an information age, and corporations built on information technologies have become the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. But behind this is a fundamental problem that has not been properly debated. Should information be considered private property to be bought and sold, or a public good accessible to everyone like the air we breathe?

In 18th century England, the aristocrats decided to fence the pastures and make them their property, leaving peasants who formerly grazed their flocks there without resources. This was the privatization of the commons. Today we are experiencing a new privatization of the commons as knowledge and information that used to be freely available becomes the property of multinational corporations intent on managing it for maximum profit. With the medium of the new information technologies and social networks, we are all exploited to extract our information, which is assembled in "big data" without any benefit to us in return. On the contrary, our information is used to target us with the advertisements we will be most susceptible to, and the news that will reinforce our prejudices and confirmation biases.

This presents us all, and society in general, with an ethical challenge: where is the common good in all this? Two questions will illustrate the problem.

Is there a human right to access information, or is it normal that we have to pay for it? Perhaps we should distinguish between information to which we should have a right, such as news of the world, and other content, such as for entertainment, that we should expect to pay for. And for those who cannot afford to pay for information, is it damaging for society that they do not have access? Inequality in access to information is as unjust as extremes of poverty and wealth.

"Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone." (Baha'u'llah)

Second, how should we reward the creators of information? Is profit the only motive for creation and innovation? What about scientific curiosity, the desire to help others or to advance civilization? Are we inherently selfish, or can altruistic motivations be more important? How do we encourage creation for the common good, for everyone's benefit? For individuals, an ethical education and spiritual motivation will be determinant. For corporations, which today are driven only by profit, we need to add a social motivation and responsibility to be of service to society. Profit should be one measure of efficiency among others, but not an end in itself.

A few cases will illustrate the problem. We have built a system for intellectual property rights, including patents, trade marks, and copyright, enshrined in national law and managed globally by the UN World Intellectual Property Organization. Patents are the foundation of modern industries, and are intended to make new discoveries public in exchange for a limited period (usually 20 years) of exclusive rights. There has always been a debate about whether intellectual discoveries should be considered property, and the WIPO tries to balance public and private interests. The system is legally cumbersome, with constant lawsuits that often benefit the biggest and richest, but it has serious drawbacks. For example, a poor sick person could be cured by a patented medicine, but he will die because it is priced to maximize dividends to the shareholders. For a new discovery that could improve the welfare of everyone, should we have to wait 20 years before all can benefit, while the rich enjoy it first?

Agriculture is an interesting case, because two parallel systems of innovation have existed since the mid-twentieth century. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) coordinates research centers around the world that maintain seed banks for important crops and share seeds freely as they make crosses adapted to each local situation. They were behind the green revolution of the 1970s that allowed India to go from a country of famines to a food exporter. Alongside this, the multinational agroindustries produce patented seeds, some with genetic engineering, adapted to their herbicides and other agricultural chemicals that they sell around the world for large-scale intensive agriculture, all designed to maximize their profits. In Canada, they so control prices that farmers are always close to bankruptcy, while all the profits of the agricultural sector are captured by corporate interests. Are monopoly monocultures or sustainable ecological diversity more in the common interest?

Even worse, with the new information technologies of remote sensing, drones and other instruments, the same multinationals can offer information services on the state of crops and the localized treatments needed. These help farmers to increase productivity, but all that information is captured by the corporations in big data that allows them to see the larger picture and to manipulate the whole agricultural system to maximize their profits, while farmers simply become passive consumers.

Another case is that of genetic information increasingly privatized by multinationals. For example the company that discovered certain mutations favouring breast cancer patented them, so that anyone wanting to know if they were carriers had to go to them for expensive testing. One woman whose results were inconclusive wanted a second opinion, but the company refused to give her the analyses, and only a long court case finally ruled that genes should not be patented.

Even access to scientific discoveries has largely been privatized, as the major journals have increasingly been bought up by multinational scientific publishers who protect everything by copyright and require payment to read each paper. Everything is available on line, but if you do not have access to an academic library that pays high subscription fees, you have to pay. I cannot even read my own publications, or those of my grandfather from a century ago, except for a high fee, up to $50. Scientist in poor countries are thus excluded from access to much scientific information, except the too few open access journals.

Private property makes some sense for a scarce resource. If I eat a sandwich, you cannot eat it too. But information is not like that. It can be printed in a book (requiring payment for paper and printing but readable by many people ever after), but also broadcast over radio waves or sent to a screen, at no cost increase for the number of users. In fact, information becomes more valuable the more it is shared, benefiting thousands or millions of people without diminishing the original information. With the internet, free access is universally possible as a public utility, although some companies would like to privatize it.

"A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity." (Shoghi Effendi, 1936)

There are many benefits from the free access to information, from political transparency to health information and environmental warnings. It facilitates democracy and elections, and encourages public participation. It can also shed light on attempts to manipulate people, to incite hatred (as during the genocide in Ruanda), or even to wage cyberwarfare. It seems odd that the essential public service that journalism provides to keep us informed should largely be financed by advertising for things we do not need. The Guardian newspaper decided to make its articles freely available on line without ads, asking for contributions instead, and now receives more than it did from advertising.

" the sight of God knowledge is the greatest human virtue and the noblest human perfection. To oppose knowledge is pure ignorance, and he who abhors knowledge and learning is not a human being but a mindless animal. For knowledge is light, life, felicity, perfection, and beauty, and causes the soul to draw nigh to the divine threshold. It is the honour and glory of the human realm and the greatest of God’s bounties. Knowledge is identical to guidance, and ignorance is the essence of error." ('Abdu'l-Baha)

What are some other options for rewarding innovation and the creation of information and knowledge? There are public subsidies and research grants, employment as researchers in universities or institutes, prizes for innovation, and crowd-sourcing. Even the present system of intellectual property could be modified to guarantee the free access to information and discoveries, with a requirement that any profits from the use of those discoveries be shared with the original creator.

From the perspective of system science, it is the exchange of information between the different components that allows the system to organize and function. The more highly evolved and productive a system is, the more developed and diversified are its networks of communication and coordination. Limiting the circulation of information by privatizing it deprives the poor and slows the advance of our civilization.

Last updated 12 April 2018