Free Content: Like Technology, Now a Political Issue

August 3, 2020

Free content is interesting. It seems to represent a loss when compared to content that costs money. But are these two options the only ones? Nope, digital information has a negative cost. I think that’s a fair characterization of the knowledge road many are walking.

For seven years, I have produced “content” and made it available without charge to law enforcement and intelligence professionals in the US and to US allies. When I embarked on this approach, I met with skepticism and questions like “What’s the catch?”

I learned quickly that “free” means hook, trick, or sales ploy. Intrigued by the reaction, I persisted. Over time, my approach was — to a small number of people — somewhat helpful. In a few weeks, I will be 77, and I don’t plan on changing what I do, terminating the researchers who assist me, and telling those who want me to give a talk or write up a profile about one of the companies I follow to get lost.

I thought about my approach when I read “The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free.” The title annoyed me because what I do is free. I could identify an interesting organization which has recently availed itself of one of my free reports. My team and I tried to assemble hard-to-find and little known information and package it into a format that was easy-to-understand. Yep, the document was free, and it has found its way into several groups focused on chasing down bad actors.

The write up in Current Affairs, now an online information service, states:

This means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall… The lie is more accessible than its refutation.

I think I understand. The majority of free content has spin. For fee content is, therefore, delivered with less spin or without spin.

Is this true?

The reports I prepare describe specific characteristics of a particular technology. In my opinion and that of the researchers who assist me, we make an effort to identify consistent statements, present information for which there is a document like a technical specification, and use cases that are verifiable.

I suppose the fact that I maintain profiles of companies of little interest to most “real” journalists and pundits creates an exception. What I do can be set aside with the comment, “Yeah, but who really cares about the Polish company Datawalk?”

The write up states:

More reason to have publications funded by the centralized free-information library rather than through subscriptions or corporate sponsorship. Creators must be compensated well. But at the same time we have to try to keep things that are important and profound from getting locked away where few people will see them. The truth needs to be free and universal.

I think I see the point. However, my model is different. The content I produce is a side product of what I do. If someone pays me to produce a product or service, I use that money to keep my research group working.

Money can be generated and a portion of it can be designated to an information task. The challenge is finding a way to produce money and then allocating the funds in a responsible way. Done correctly, there is no need to beg for dollars, snarl at Adam Carolla for selling a “monthly nut,” or criticize information monopolies.

These toll booths for information are a result of choice, a failure of regulatory authorities, the friction of established institutions that want “things the way they have to be” thinking, and selfish agendas.

In short, the lack of high value “free” information is distinctly human. I want to point out that even with information paywalls, there are several ways to obtain useful information:

  1. Talking to people, preferable in person but email works okay
  2. Obtaining publicly accessible documents; for example, patent applications
  3. Comments posted in discussion groups; for instance, the worker at a large tech company who lets slip a useful factoid
  4. Information recycled by wonky news services; for example, the GoCurrent outfit.

The real issue is that “free” generally triggers fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Paying for something means reliable, factual, and true.

Put my approach aside. Step back from the “create a universal knowledge bank which anyone can access. Forget the paying the author angle.

High-value information exists in the flows of data. Knowledge can be extracted from deltas; that is, changes in the data themselves. The trick is point of view and noticing. The more one tries to survive by creating information, the more likely it is that generating cash will be difficult if not impossible.

Therefore, high value content can be the result of doing other types of a knowledge work. Get paid for that product or service, then generate information and give it away.

That’s what I have been doing, and it seems to work okay for me. For radicals, whiners, monopolists fearful of missing a revenue forecast — do some thinking, then come up with a solution.

What’s going on now seems to be a dead end to me. Ebsco and LexisNexis live in fear of losing a “big customer.” Therefore, prices go up. Fewer people can afford the products. The knowledge these companies have becomes more and more exclusive. I get it.

But what these firms and to some extent government agencies which charge for data assembled and paid for with tax payer dollars are accelerating intellectual loss.

The problem is a human and societal one. I am going to keep chugging along, making my content free. I think the knowledge economy seems to be one more signal that the datasphere is not a zero sum game. Think in terms of a negative number. We now have a positive (charging for information), free (accessing information for nothing), and what I call the “data negative” or D-neg (the loss of information and by extension being “informed”).

In my experience, D-neg accelerates stupidity. That’s a bigger problem than many want to think about. Arguing about the wrong thing seems to be the status quo; that is, generating negatives.

Stephen E Arnold, August 3, 2020


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