The internet means unlimited copying. What we make of it depends on us

Comment to is the web too good for us on a BBC blog:

But the web was not really free in the beginning. While its structure was open for everyone and websites bloomed and blossomed by copying code and design from others, the content of sites stayed closed by copyright.

There were many thoughts of freedom in the original web, but the structure gave more freedom than the law, and the easy copying inside the new medium still didn't reach the slow legal body of our offline communities.

Online, though, laws were first ignored, then bent and finally used to create new rules within the laws themselves.

Thus came free software a quarter of a century ago, even before the web spread its basic property of cheap infinite copying into the mainstream society, when coders realized that the traditional copyright didn't fit their way of cooperating and curtailed their creative work. Free Software spread and became the base and foundation of todays internet infrastructure, with Apache webservers on GNU/Linux computers serving its content - unbeknown to most of its users.

And from the same spring came creative commons, about 20 years later, used by artists who realize that the traditional rules do more harm than good to them.

The new digital world began before the internet was started by making the copy an integral part of even looking at data, but it grew with the internet which pushed the effects of this new technology right into the face of our societies. And so the digital world which currently finds its most well known expression in the internet is an ownership breaker by design, and many battles were fought over this most beloved and most hated feature.

You can no longer control what people do with things you put into the internet, as long as you allow them to see them. Once they saw them, if even for a moment, they could have a copy. You can only use social rules to keep them from passing on their copies, or take over their computers.

Even while I write this comment, I don't do it on your website. I write it in a local copy of your website which is stored by my browser, and I could go on writing it long after your website disappeared, as long as my computer kept the copy.

The only way around this is to go back to the analog age, where showing doesn't equal handing out a copy, or to allow some entity complete control over our computers to enforce certain rules - and over our lives which more and more move towards the digital space.

To come back to the question: The web is not too good for us. It provides more openness than many people want to provide, and far more than the law offers, but this openness gave rise to movements which shaped the openness into freedom by establishing the rule that whatever is freed must never be shackled again. They took the single inherent freedom of copying and added the freedoms of changing and using. From that source came free software which drives the internet and the Wikipedia which provides the worlds largest publicly accessible knowledge base. Creative Commons walks a similar path by always allowing the copying of the creative works, but it allows for much more control by the creator.

The internet removes the restriction on copying which is inherent in our analog world. Our societies and legal systems, though, will take time to adapt. If we're lucky they'll accept the internet as freedom and adapt as free software and the wikipedia did. If we're unlucky they'll try to limit the openness, either through technology or through laws. They could turn that openness from an openness for people into an openness of people, because copying doesn't only go one direction. They can just as well copy a record of every move me make and use this to create an almost perfect surveillance system with all its implications on freedom.

And they wouldn't necessarily need to establish rules based on punishment which we currently have as laws. They could just as well use digital shackles, which not just disallow some action, but make it impossible. The rules could be like a car which makes it impossible for me to drive faster than the law allows while my child bleeds to dead on the backseat.

So the web is neither good or bad. It's simply a world which operates on slighly different rules than the physical world, and we're still in the process of learning the implications, promises and dangers of that tiny change of rules.

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