Time to kill "Information Wants to Be Free"

My latest Guardian column, "Saying information wants to be free does more harm than good" asks that we collectively kill the expression "Information wants to be free," in favor of better, more comprehensive slogans such as "People want to be free."
It's time for IWTBF to die because it's become the easiest, laziest straw man for Hollywood's authoritarian bullies to throw up as a justification for the monotonic increase of surveillance, control, and censorship in our networks and tools. I can imagine them saying: "These people only want network freedom because they believe that 'information wants to be free'. They pretend to be concerned about freedom, but the only 'free' they care about is 'free of charge.'"

But this is just wrong. "Information wants to be free" has the same relationship to the digital rights movement that "kill whitey" has to the racial equality movement: a thoughtless caricature that replaces a nuanced, principled stand with a cartoon character. Calling IWTBF the ideological basis of the movement is like characterising bra burning as the primary preoccupation of feminists (in reality, the number of bras burned by feminists in the history of the struggle for gender equality appears to be zero, or as close to it as makes no difference).

So what do digital rights activists want, if not "free information?"

Saying information wants to be free does more harm than good


  1. Information does not “want to be free.”

    What information wants is to infect new hosts.

  2. People want their culture to be free of restriction. The works and ideas in the culture are just as much theirs as they are the authors’; for without an audience, an author is just someone raving and obsessing to himself.

    1. And that’s a much better way of phrasing it. The whole conflict is about PEOPLE, and phrasing things in terms of people is harder to refute.

    2. I think bersl actually hit on a better notion: “CULTURE wants to be free”. This is what we’re really talking about–that organic, adaptive, inherently communal body of shared ideas that is the birthright of every human being. We want the right to tell our own stories and make our own art, and those must reflect our own lives, including the (often copyrighted) cultural elements that have influenced us.

      “Information wants to be free” is inaccurate and insufficient, and “People want to be free” is just too vague to have any real meaning.

  3. Information “wants” freedom, not gratuity. Free speech, not free beer. Information is free by nature and the way it naturally behaves (and the way we naturally behave towards it) is free. Keeping secrets and monopolies is difficult and artificial. That’s what the saying means. And understood correctly, it has always been and still remains true.

  4. It’s a great article, and the right sentiment, but once the meme has been co-opted by your enemies, I don’t think you can unring the bell. The movement for freedom has always been attacked by those whom freedom threatens, so don’t expect the phrase to fall into disuse simply because the light side universally agrees to stop using it.

    Even as a rejoinder your “People want to be free!” opens itself to an artful dodge: “Yeah, they want to be free to steal our stuff!” Better than trying to change the language, I hope you continue to show the value (monetary and otherwise) of freedom through your work–through your distribution schemes, through remixing, through your public speaking.

  5. I always thought IWTBF meant that it is in the nature of information to be uncontrollable.

    It’s a good phrase and neatly sums up many ideas about the internet – why censorship doesn’t work, why libel doesn’t work, why copyright doesn’t work, why blocking doesn’t work & why withholding doesn’t work.

    I don’t think ‘people want to be free’ is as good because it’s easily understood that people cannot be free to do what they want all the time.

    You can argue with people and tell them they can’t do things; the entire point of IWTBF is that you can’t argue with the nature of information.

    If IWTBF was rewritten less succintly, you might say: “People want to be free, but they can be controlled. Information wants to be free, and cannot be controlled. Therefor you cannot control people’s access to information.”

    i.e. people wanting to be free is not the important part

  6. Cory, whether or not Stewart Brand meant “Information wants to be free” in the way it is commonly understood today (as meaning that it is futile to charge for content as piracy is inevitable), the fact is the phrase is used in practice on both sides of the issue to mean exactly that. You seem to recognize this as you suggest ceasing using the phrase. This makes it different from caricatures like “kill whitey” because that was never a real catch phrase of the civil rights movement but rather a slander by its opponents.

    1. “This makes it different from caricatures like “kill whitey” because that was never a real catch phrase of the civil rights movement but rather a slander by its opponents.”

      Indeed, the objective of the civil rights movement was never to eliminate white people, while the freedom of speech (i.e., information) *is* a goal of the IWTBFers.

  7. Information wants to be free in the same sense that “nature abhors a vacuum”. It’s not an agenda or a goal but simply a personification of natural law. Just as water will pool to the lowest level, information will disseminate and spread outward from its source, from fewer to more people. That’s what it means.

  8. Stewart Brand is often quoted out of context, here’s the full quote (as it appears on Wkipedia):

    Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine – too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”
    —spoken at the first Hackers’ Conference, and reprinted in the May 1985 Whole Earth Review. The quotation is an elaboration from his book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, published in 1987.

    Which I think is still very relevant.

  9. I’ve hated that phrase since it was invented.

    Information doesn’t want anything. Information is.

    People want information to be free. Too many of those people confuse the “free speech” and “free beer” senses of the word. That confusion seriously devalues the use of the word “free” as a summary of the goal, making it easy to dismiss the whole issue as simply a bunch of lazy cheapskates.

    Drop that slogan and replace it with a statement of actual goals, what keeps us from achieving them now, and what specific actions could be taken to address that. If you want change, you have to spell out what kind of change and how we’re going to make it happen.

    1. “Information doesn’t want anything. Information is.”

      Yeah, ooobviously. That’s why the rhetoric works because you don’t expect a concept like information to have desires. It’s not meant to be taken so literally. It’s the same as someone saying ‘this car wants to go fast’ when they mean it’s designed to go fast.

  10. Unfortunately, IWTBF has been taken up as a banner by a whole population segment of spoiled jerks who have spent their lives getting every [book:album:photo:software] they have ever wanted for free. And they now co-opt this mantra as an excuse to browbeat you into giving them your own works for free too.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking on pirates here. Most pirates are actually upfront when they’re ripping something off, and a good number still do subscribe to the old “if you like it, buy it” philosophy.

    What I’m referring to are the leeches who try to argue that you don’t have any right to set a price/value (even if it’s ‘no price’) on works that have been created by your own hand, merely because “information wants to be free”. Subtext is that they just want to take your stuff for free, and are peeved that you believe your creations might have value.

    So I agree. Time to kill that meme for many different reasons.

  11. For 10 years I’ve been part of what the record and film industry invariably call the “information wants to be free” crowd. In all that time, I’ve never heard anyone – apart from an entertainment executive – use that timeworn cliche

    Really? You’re really going to start with such obvious bullshit? I guess, just maybe you haven’t literally heard anyone from the movement use that phrase, but you have certainly seen them use it and it’s not something you can just blame on the evil industries.

    It’s too bad, because you are right that the phrase is not good for a movement that should be focused much more on improving the public good. It’s also not good that the face of this movement tends to be middle-class white people who feel entitled to their entertainment free of charge or middle-class white people who won’t admit that the first party exists.

  12. the tired chiche has just been replaced

    “I’ms ins yours skynets, lollings away ats yours futiles attempts ats controllings ours internets.”

  13. Good column that gets back to the real issues.

    An observation: You write, “It’s time for IWTBF to die because it’s become the easiest, laziest straw man for Hollywood’s authoritarian bullies to throw up as a justification for …”

    I’d add that it’s actually the easiest, laziest ritual chant for the IWTBF crowd (to use the shortand). It’s sound and fury signifying nada.

    The real debate should be over copyright, information access etc.

  14. I confess that I have *never* interpreted “information wants to be free” as “we want information to be free”, but rather: “Information is going to be free whether we want it to be or not.”

  15. I guess the point Cory’s making is that using “information wants to be free” in the debate about copyright, DRM, etc sets up the issue as a technical one rather than a moral or political one. It’s basically saying “it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about it or if it’s good or bad – information just can’t be controlled! So why bother? Accept the inevitable.”

    Well, turns out that’s not strictly true. Information can’t be controlled without a wholesale authoritarian clampdown on free expression, but government and industry seem to be perfectly willing to try that route. We’re arguing against a substantially different platform than we were back in the early internet.

  16. My only criticism is this: “even if some minority of users of these tools use them to take pop songs without paying.”

    Let’s be honest here. As much as we might wish it weren’t true, I’d be willing to bet that 90+% of bittorrent traffic is from illegal downloads. When the vast majority of people here the word “bittorrent” they think “that thing that let’s me download all the movies I want,” not “that thing that downloads game updates and other large files from peers and saves companies a ton on bandwidth while increasing distro speed.”

    1. I’d be willing to bet that 90+% of bittorrent traffic is from illegal downloads.

      I believe you would lose that bet. Completely legal software distribution over bittorrent is a huge and growing portion of the traffic; for example, both World of Warcraft and Ubuntu Linux use BT for moving very large files.

      BT is an extremely efficient means of co-operative file distribution, and consequently it enjoys high respect among computer scientists and will continue to be used where other transports simply cannot scale effectively. I have never illegally downloaded anything, and I do not make illegal copies of anything. Yet I consider Bittorrent to be a highly successful and useful tool, that I use fairly frequently.

      The question that comes to my mind, is why do you have this idea that BT is primarly illegal? I have seen dozens of legal uses, and not once have I seen illegal use with my own eyes – if I were to judge only by my own experience, I’d be forced to conclude that illegal use of BT is purely mythical. All evidence to the contrary is anecdotal at best.

      1. “All evidence to the contrary is anecdotal at best.”

        . . . have you ever seen pirate bay? We can make the case that bit torrent has both legal and illegal uses, like almost all tools, but I think you’re reaching if you claim that all evidence to the contrary is anecdotal.

        1. excuse me but define “illegal” please. in my country downloading files for personal use is not illegal. so the piratebay is a site like anyother.

          in this debate there are other sides too you know. whatever the various content mafias say to try and brainwash people to think that downloading equals stealing there is an equal and opposite argument that says sharing for personal use is fair use.

          maybe “sharing is caring” is a better slogan than IWTBF. i personally prefer it and practice it.

        2. No, I have not visited/seen pirate bay. I have heard/read lots of anecdotes that claim it exists, and I’m told that some activities that take place there are illegal in my country of residence. I haven’t any desire to visit pirate bay, though, and no need to confirm or deny its existence, so it will remain wholly anecdotal to me.

          1. Sure, I’m quite willing to believe in pirate bay based only on stories others have told me. I haven’t any need for more rigorous evidence-gathering in this case.

            I assume when a great many people with no known reason to deceive me and no known prior association all report the same thing, it’s quite possibly true. Anecdotes are data, and although anecdotes from pseudonymous Internet sources are highly suspect data, a sufficiency of them will tend to indicate high probability.

            Read my recent comment history for more… I’m going to go buy my daughter a bicycle.

            My original comment was in regards to the poster who claimed that 90+% of BitTorrent traffic was illegal copying. I don’t believe that, and I think the poster is basing that idea on RIAAA propaganda or personal experience, so I wanted to point out that in my own personal experience 100% of BT traffic is completely legal. None of us has all the data and thus we are all guessing when we try to characterize how people use multi-purpose tools, let’s not project our biases too far.

  17. I will stop saying “information wants to be free” in the hopes that Cory will stop saying “the plural of anecdote is not data”. A unilateral offering, as it were, to show good faith.

    Language does matter. Catchphrases become memes, and memes use language to prevent critical thought and quash creativity. Amoral people can (and will!) grab your memes like handles and use you as a weapon against your own interests.

  18. How about: there is no such thing as information.

    There is only physical property and its physical states, and the contracts between people over its use.

    Its owners either control it or they don’t.

  19. Brand’s quote is actually, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

    I think that Brand had it wrong, and the people who say “information doesn’t want to be anthropomorphized” have it right.

    Information is speech, and vis versa. Speech doesn’t “want” to be free. It either is or isn’t allowed to be.

    Speech *conveyers* want it to be expensive. Speech *listeners* want it to be free, so they can repeat it. (The people actually speaking don’t enter into it, and never really have except as window dressing, usually for the conveyers but increasingly for the listeners.)

    So far, the conveyers are winning in the courts, but the listeners are winning on the ground.

  20. “You own your own words, unless they contain information. In which case they belong to no one.”

  21. Just as hackers still (rightfully) call themselves “hackers” despite Hollywood, the mainstream press and law enforcement mischaracterizing and misappropriating the word, people who use the phrase “information wants to be free” should continue to use it in its proper context to show what it means and assert ownership of it. Else we’ll be stuck constantly chasing the next euphemistic phrase that hasn’t (yet) lost its meaning.

  22. How about toning it down to “Information wants to be available now at low, low prices”?

  23. I think “people want to be free” is a nice slogan, but it is even less accurate than “information wants to be free”. Some people desire freedom, most don’t seem to. It is not an inherent property of people to desire freedom.

    The real problem with the sloganization of “information wants to be free” is that the actual meaning is too easily lost. Unfettered by restriction on the medium, information will be free in every sense of the word. Progress in information technology is inherently liberatory to information, blah blah blah.
    I guess in some ways it’s slogan trying to encapsulate a teleological argument about the interplay between a fundamental property of information, the medium on which it is distributed, and technological progress. You can’t really do that very easily, sloganeering just isn’t suitable for conveying reason.

    I personally prefer “fuck whitey” to “kill whitey”. If there is anything whitey really needs, it is a good fucking.

  24. right on comrade. ‘intellectual property is theft’ is a bit suspect too, nor is ‘free as in beer’ too positive a message for youngsters.

  25. “Information does not want to be free. Information wants to be tied up and spanked.” – Some Cypherpunk

  26. I’ll give a thumbs down to discarding IWTBF. Discarding rhetoric just because your opponent tries to twist it is a fool’s game, as any rhetoric can be similarly coopted. Take “people want to be free.” A fine sentiment to be sure, and yes, people do want to be free, that is, free to touch children. Do you want people touching children, Cory? Do you? I sure hope not.

  27. The rhetoric was already twisted when people decided to drop the rest of the quote.

  28. I first heard IWTBF in a different context – which was not cost, but availability. It was a Wilhem Reich worshipping Cloudbuster who used it to express that there is hidden information and that it wants to not be hidden. Now information of course doesn’t want anything, but this use is suggesting that once something is defined and set down as information, then at some point there is an extreme risk of it being taken out of its confinement and freely spread. This DOES link back to idea of cost and information, because providers want to control the distribution of some information in order to profit from it. However once it’s copied, they no longer control the distribution, it is therefore both free in the sense that it’s out of the structure built to contain and serve it up – and so because the producers have lost the means of production, they have lost the means to charge for it.

    Of course information can’t *want* to be free – but the phrase is a visceral way of suggesting that controlling, and therefore profiting from, the means of distribution is ultimately futile in the current model.

    As an aside – I note that the ReCapcha gives Weld Muhammad as the words.

  29. I’ve only ever understood IWTBF as a point about the math/physics of information — a secret is in unstable equilibrium, publicly available information is in stable equilibrium.

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