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Information and the Information Age

Free Information and Free Choice
In an era of convergence and international conglomerates what choice do we really have in the information that we consume? Develop the argument put forward by Nick Chapman.


In this paper, I will attempt to persuade the reader that even in this “era of convergence and international conglomerates” that we really do have a choice in the information that we consume. That this information is free and that we do have “free choice.” I will do this by using the Internet as a case study, to prove this point in as many interpretations as I can.


It is indeed a an era of convergence and international conglomerates, one has only to look at the example of AOL Time Warner to see that this is true. On their own each company was a huge entity, but now they have converged into one gigantic international conglomerate. Here the media of print, film and the Internet have fused into one. Here also, one can see some of the major media through which information is conveyed to an audience. Print and film media have been with us for some time, but it is the net, the upstart that has provided us such a volume of information that it surpasses all other media. It is the Internet that provides us with a never reached before freedom.

To prove this I will make a number of points, in total, they will try to cover as many interpretations of “Free Information and Free Choice” as is possible.

To start, the point will be made that the Internet provides, to a great extent, a free service providing us, a wide choice of information at “relatively small cost. Next we will move on to the shady methods of getting information, in its various forms for free, albeit illegally. After this more legal methods of information gathering and sharing will be presented with the ideas of ‘copyleft,’ and freeware. Finally the point will be made of the net’s ability for people to exert their right to choose through the freedom of speech and expression.

By the end of this paper, hopefully, you will be persuaded to agree that indeed we have a choice in the information that we consume.

Free Information And Free Choice From The Perspective Of Cost

In a world of that is consumed by money, it would appear to be unlikely that anything comes free. Indeed in an age of conglomerates, it could be presumed that nothing would be free if they could have their way.

However the Internet is to all intents and purposes, one such place. It can be said that a lot of expensive equipment is needed to gain access to the net. However one can get an internet-ready PC for under 500 that will suffice many people’s needs. Even if that is too great a cost then, there are more and more libraries, which provide free Internet, access. It is only a matter of time before all libraries provide this facility.

There are those who would argue that broadband access will increase the cost of connecting to the Internet, this however is yet to be seen. In the US where broadband access has exploded in the last year, such hikes in price have not materialised, most likely due to the high demand, pushing down the price. Another speculation is that companies will start charging for information, such as audio files, video files etc. MP3.com has such a service, where a customer pays a small monthly fee to have access to thousands of hours worth of classical music. Whether such a practise will become widespread is still unclear.

Thus, at this point in time a wide choice of information can be accessed relatively free via the net. However whether it will remain so is uncertain.

Shady Methods for Obtaining Information

Information, especially in this age of digital media has no physical presence. Thus it cannot be protected in the same way as normal physical property. It is extremely easy to copy information and then to give it to somebody else whilst keeping your own copy. This whole premise is what fuels the shady and indeed illegal transactions that can and do occur over the Internet.

The Internet and the information that it contains have no physical presence. The Information Superhighway is thus very hard to police and to track all of the information exchanged over it is nigh on, if not, impossible.

On FTP Servers and websites on the World Wide Web are thousands of files, containing copyrighted information, all available for download for free. The term normally used to describe such illegal information is “Warez.” Anybody can go to a search engine and search for any kind of information, and it can be found for free. The choice of information is phenomenal, anything from the latest hit single in MP3 format to the latest blockbuster movie in DivX;-) format. However illegal and wrong this may be viewed, the fact remains that anybody can get any form of information be it software, music, films, picture or books which would normally cost an amount of money can be downloaded off the net for free.

However the conglomerates, a great number of which own this copyrighted information, are fighting back. One has only to look at the recent court battles involving MP3.com and Napster, both facing suits from the powerful conglomerates of the Music Industry, to illustrate the point. These court cases do not of course mean that the conglomerates are winning, in the case of Napster, a huge increase in the number of users has occurred after the court case. Other programs similar to Napster but encompassing other forms of information including audio as well as video and pictures have sprung up. One such example is Gnutella.

‘Warez’ and information provided for free illegally will always be present on the net, this providing a huge bank of information for free and indeed such a choice of information that it will cover any area of interest. The conglomerates will of course try to stamp out this phenomenon, however the Internet is too vast and the people behind such sites will just hide the information somewhere else.

You can get a free lunch, well as long as you like Information!

The net has a lot of generous people on it who are more than happy to provide free information for anybody to consume. Here lies the strength of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Not everything needs to be paid for or stolen on the net, in fact that is the minority of the content. Most of the net consists of information made by anybody for anybody. This information can be found in many places but by far the most popular, is the website, where people can share information in the form of articles, reviews, stories or poetry, not to mention the multimedia capabilities of the Web. An example of this capability of the Web is the recent explosion of audio files in the MP3 format, which provided thousands of small bands and groups of musicians to get their music heard by thousands of people who otherwise would most likely never have heard the band’s music.

The Internet is full of content like this, in fact a lot of people would say that it is brimming over with the amount that it has and that is hard to find some useful or good quality information. It still remains however that such information is freely available and easy to find.

To rival the music industry conglomerates there are small band sending their music out on the net. To rival huge software conglomerates like Microsoft, there are the lone programmers who provide ‘freeware,’ software that you don’t have to buy. The number of programs that are freeware on the net is phenomenal, with applications ranging from games to a fully featured spreadsheet program.

Well known authors have made some of their books available for free on the net. Examples of this are Stephen King’s book, which he released in your chapters solely on the net. Another example is Bruce Sterling who has released a number of books in an electronic freeware format, including “The Hacker Crackdown.”

It can be seen from this, that the Internet is also a haven, a warehouse even, of legal free information. Information that people have decided to provide for other ‘netizens.’ This information is normally copyrighted, but is still there to be consumed free of charge. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the Internet and almost certainly the greatest strength of the Web.

Open Software Movement, Copyleft and Linux

There is another interpretation of free information, and that is ‘information which does not belong to anybody, rather it is free to be consumed and remains so in both cases. This is what the idea of Copyleft is and the whole basis of the Open Software Movement.

Copyleft is the idea of Richard Stallman. “Copylefted software can be distributed freely and altered by anyone: the only requirement is that users not make any changes to the software to make it proprietary – in other words, once the source code is open, it must stay open. No secret formulas allowed.”i

One example to illustrate this point is the Linux Operating System. Linux is an Operating System, such as MS Windows ’98, that is available for download from free of charge from the net. Around this OS, first distributed over the net, by Linus Torvalds after he copylefted it in 1992, a huge community of programmers and users alike has grown. Their headquarters and means of communication being primarily the Internet. These programmers have used the open source code of Linux to improve upon it adding new features. This free information, in the form of Linux has grown to such an extent that it has even scared Microsoft, one of the more powerful conglomerates. In November 1998, “a two-part internal memo written by a Microsoft engineer, the Halloween Document provides a detailed competition analysis of the free software movement in general and Linux in particular, and speculates about various strategies Microsoft might pursue in order to combat the Linux threat.”ii Here we can see that a conglomerate is afraid of the competition that an alternative free product provides; however it has no way of stopping everybody from using it.

In another example we have AOL Time Warner, one of the larger conglomerates and as I have said before a good example of convergence. AOL owns the Netscape Navigator internet browser. In early 1998, Netscape, still a separate company at the time, released the source code for its browser and started “the Mozilla Project – a small group of programmers coordinating an Internet-wide effort to improve the browser.”iii Here we can see an international conglomerate embracing “free information” and using this principle to improve their product.

From this we can see two different approaches to “free information” from two international conglomerates. Although one is trying to discourage the choice of this type of free information another is embracing it and is even forwarding the cause. This form of free information is here to stay, with the increased popularity of Linux, and the Open Source Movement, it is unlikely that this kind of “free information” will die; rather in fact it is likely to grow.

“Free Choice”

The Internet is a stronghold of “free choice.” Governments and conglomerates may try to censor and curtail this choice to some extent, but the users of the net will not allow them to, organisations such as the “Electronic Frontier Foundation” (http://www.eff.org) fight everyday to protect the netizen’s rights. One such case is when the EFF along with other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the U.S. Communications Decency Act in 1996. The Act would have disallowed any content that was considered to be “indecent,” this would have included any site with sexually explicit content. Along with pornographic sites this would include health information sites as well. The act was successfully challenged and removed. However this act is just one example that would restrict the content that could be put on the web.

If only because of the sheer volume of information on the net, we have a wide choice of information to consume. There are only a few ways that a conglomerate can try and control what information we choose to consume. One way is through the use of portals. These sites try and provide any information that you may want to find, or links to other sites, that the conglomerate may already own or has some affiliation with, in any case the conglomerate has approved the site. Examples include http://www.aol.com and http://www.yahoo.com. These sites try and ensure that you remain on their site and not go looking elsewhere for it, thus controlling what information we “choose” to consume. However “a report issued in 1998 by market analyst Forrester Research stated that the top nine portals actually receive only 15 percent of web traffic.”iv

Some sites pay search engines to rank their site higher, thus trying to influence our choice. This is perhaps the most effective way for a conglomerate to influence our choice. This however is not the case with all search engines.

Finally conglomerates, especially advertising conglomerates can use cookies, small files placed on your computer to build a profile about you and thus can personalise advertisements thus they are trying to influence our choice in the advertisements that we see. Recent research however suggests that banner ads are rarely clicked through, although it does improve brand recognition, from this it can be seen that the influence is of a small degree.

From all this, we can see that as much as international conglomerates try to influence the choice of information that we consume, it is only effective to a small extent. To a much greater extent we are free to choose the information that we wish to consume.

Convergence of Man and Machine

Lastly, I would like to take a look at another interpretation of convergence, the convergence of man and machine primarily through the use of “Intelligent Agents.”

“Intelligent agents are programs that use “human” characteristics, such as initiative and the ability to draw conclusions, in order to perform tasks independent of their users.”v This may all sound well and good and indeed useful, however these “agents” monitor their users activities, learning about them and creating a profile. From these past activities, agents can recommend other sites that might be of interest to you. Thus, “in the words of Internet Analyst John Robb, “All of a sudden, your history becomes your future.””vi These programs can to a certain extent thus reduce the choice of information we wish to consume.

However for the most part this technology has not become very widespread, and is thus not affecting the majority of users. Whether it will remain so is unclear.

Summary & Conclusion

Thus it can be proven that in this era of convergence and international conglomerates we do indeed have a choice in the information we consume, through the example of the Internet.

Firstly, the ability to access the net is relatively cheap, if not free, at this point in time. The vast majority of the content on the net is also free, be it legally or illegally.

The net is a stronghold of information free of an owner; it can be consumed and altered by anybody.

Conglomerates do not always try to restrict information and the choice of information that we have. But those who have tried have been unable to influence our decision-making on the Internet, to a significant degree.

As for new technology, which converges man and machine, even more then it already is, in the form of “Intelligent Agents” has also proved ineffective. Thus, the information is free, the choice is free of interference from international conglomerates, we really do have a choice in the information that we consume.

i [Chronology 1999] pg 161
ii [Chronology 1999] pg 233
iii[Chronology 1999] pg 234
iv [Chronology 1999] pg 267
v [Chronology 1999] pg 257
vi [Chronology 1999] pg 259


[Chronology 1999] Christos J.P. Moschovitis, Hilary Poole, Tami Schuyler and Theresa M. Senft. 1999. History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present. ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Further Reading

Gnutella – http://www.gnutella.wego.com
Napster – http://www.napster.com
MP3.com – http://www.mp3.com
DivX;-) – http://divx.ctw.cc
AOL Time Warner – http://www.aoltimewarner.com
Open Software Movement – http://www.opensource.org
The Mozilla Project – http://www.mozilla.org
Electronic Frontier Foundation – http://www.eff.org