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Open Source Politics: Safeguarding the Free Flow of Information | The Nation

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Open Source Politics: Safeguarding the Free Flow of Information

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A century ago, change wrought America as the Industrial Revolution swept across the landscape. Today, we are in the midst of a new technological revolution, what has been called the Information Revolution. We need a politics of information. Unfortunately, most of what can presently be called the politics of information is a massive rearguard action, made up of industrial values and institutions. Profits are concentrated among a small group of corporations and individuals. Copyright and patent laws, once used to encourage the free flow of information and disperse its benefits, are used to stifle and concentrate.

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Joe Costello
Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown's 1992 presidential run and a senior adviser to Howard Dean...

Copyright and patent laws are being used not for the public good, as intended by the Constitution, but to try and keep control of information and ideas themselves. Mega-corporations have extensively extended patents into areas such as information coding—including software and bioengineering, the two greatest examples. The past few decades have seen the extension of copyright far beyond the life of any personal creator, in order to ensure what might be deemed the immortal life of the corporate owner. In his book Free Culture Lawrence Lessig documents the chilling impact this has had on creative culture.

Just as the components of the Industrial Revolution didn’t fit well into the structures of agrarian political economy, neither do the components of information fit into established industrial structures. Information becomes the life blood of the new political economy, the fundamental building blocks for everything from new energy systems to seeds. It is imperative that such information be left open for all to utilize and scrutinize. Just as copyright and patent laws were established for the public good, we must now have a policy of open information. The principle of “open source” suggests a direction for this policy. In open source software, the code—that is, the operating instructions—is left open for anyone to use and evolve, with a reciprocal agreement that improvements and changes are then left open to be used by anyone else. Open source is integral to certain software that runs the Internet, such as the nonprofit Apache server software, which connects more than 200 million servers, and the enormously successful Firefox browser, which is used by more than 22 percent of people connecting to the web each day.

But open source has begun expanding beyond software—one of its greatest success stories is Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia relies completely on its users to edit its content, which has become a ready resource for millions every day. Creative Commons offers an open source approach to copyright, while its Science Commons project has seen “successful implementations in taxonomic, energy, genomics, disease research, geospatial, polar, and bilbiometric disciplines.” Open sourcing pharmaceutical research could do more to bring down the price of drugs than all other initiatives combined. 

As information becomes ever more important in every aspect of our lives, it must not be controlled by a few individuals or a couple of massive mega-corporations. To do so would be to place everyone else not just at an extreme disadvantage but in what could be called information servitude. Citizens can help by supporting open source projects like Firefox and Wikipedia, a little civil disobedience regarding patents and copyrights, and demanding their legislators begin reforming our copyright and patent laws—not for corporate profit, but for the general welfare.

We have the rudiments of an information politics in both the founding principles of this information revolution and their compatibility with the founding principles of our Republic. The values of openness, common utilization, nondiscrimination and distributed networked power were all vital to the creation and success of the Internet. These values coincide nicely with the self-government essentials of an informed and participating citizenry. In order to develop a vitally necessary information politics, we must begin by asking, What is a citizen in the twenty-first century?

Read the next proposal in the “Reimagining Capitalism” series, “Protecting Retirement Funds From Wall Street Speculation,” by Ray Carey.

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