Andrew Orlowski of The Register (U.K.) recently posted a very interesting essay making the case for treating online copyright and privacy as essentially the same problem in need of the same solution: increased property rights. In his essay (“‘Don’t break the internet’: How an idiot’s slogan stole your privacy“), he argues that, “The absence of permissions on our personal data and the absence of permissions on digital copyright objects are two sides of the same coin. Economically and legally they’re an absence of property rights – and an insistence on preserving the internet as a childlike, utopian world, where nobody owns anything, or ever turns a request down. But as we’ve seen, you can build things like libraries with permissions too – and create new markets.” He argues that “no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that.”
And so, he concludes, we should set aside concerns about Internet regulation and information control and get down to the business of engineering solutions that would help us property-tize both intangible creations and intangible facts about ourselves to better shield our intellectual creations and our privacy in the information age. He builds on the thoughts of Mark Bide, a tech consultant:
For Bide, privacy and content markets are just a technical challenges that need to be addressed intelligently.”You can take two views,” he told me. “One is that every piece of information flowing around a network is a good thing, and we should know everything about everybody, and have no constraints on access to it all.” People who believe this, he added, tend to be inflexible – there is no half-way house. “The alternative view is that we can take the technology to make privacy and intellectual property work on the network. The function of copyright is to allow creators and people who invest in creation to define how it can be used. That’s the purpose of it. “So which way do we want to do it?” he asks. “Do we want to throw up our hands and do nothing? The workings of a civilised society need both privacy and creator’s rights.” But this a new way of thinking about things: it will be met with cognitive dissonance. Copyright activists who fight property rights on the internet and have never seen a copyright law they like, generally do like their privacy. They want to preserve it, and will support laws that do. But to succeed, they’ll need to argue for stronger property rights. They have yet to realise that their opponents in the copyright wars have been arguing for those too, for years. Both sides of the copyright “fight” actually need the same thing. This is odd, I said to Bide. How can he account for this irony? “Ah,” says Bide. “Privacy and copyright are two things nobody cares about unless it’s their own privacy, and their own copyright.”
These are important insights that get at a fundamental truth that all too many people ignore today: At root, most information control efforts are related and solutions for one problem can often be used to address others. But there’s another insight that Orlowski ignores: Whether we are discussing copyright, privacy, online speech and child safety, or cybersecurity, all these efforts to control the free flow of digitized bits over decentralized global networks will be increasingly complex, costly, and riddled with myriad unintended consequences. Importantly, that is true whether you seek to control information flows through top-down administrative regulation or by assigning and enforcing property rights in intellectual creations or private information.
Let me elaborate a bit (and I apologize for the rambling mess of rant that follows).