I have thought that there ought to be a documentary film about the Open Access issue, and that I could add something to it.
But I would be able to add more to it if the concept were expanded to cover the entire topic of “Free Content”, which has become a practical expectation for consumers and speakers since the mid 1990s with the Internet, especially with the development of modern social media.
I think this concept would work better as a cable series for a channel like Discovery on A&E or even HBO.
So I have to narrow down the concept and unify it.
Back around 2012, Reid Ewing had produced a web series of three videos with Igigi Studios called “Reiding”, with the three films called “It’s Free”, “Free Fish”, and “I’m Free”. I don’t know why they are not available now. But the first of the films was set in a public library and set up the exploration of the question “What in life is free?” It would be possible (after negotiating copyright licenses) to introduce the series with these films, of at least the first one.
The very existence of public libraries suggests that we think some basic knowledge should be “free”. That extends to the idea that public education should be offered to all minors (even immigrants), which is controversial with some conservatives. But even the idea of school choice could be seen as ratifying the idea of education as a basic human right (so that’s one episode).
I think a good title for this series, then. Should be “What in Life Is Free?”
We also have to contend with the way people are used to getting knowledge. It has typically been passed down through familial (often patriarchal), religious, and political hierarchies. The use of propaganda by authoritarian leaders (which Vladimir Putin openly admits in defending Russia’s 2013 anti-gay “propaganda” law) presumes that the public and the masses aren’t capable of discerning “truth” for themselves. The use of religious scriptures, and the objection of religious leaders to challenges to interpretation of scripture, dates from a time when science could not explain a lot of things and when people depended on a “priesthood” to get knowledge for them from “God”.
I experienced some of this pressure as a young boy, when I would challenge my father’s authority based on things I had read, even in reference books lying around the house (like on medicine). I started to question why boys had to do dangerous and risky things. My father would complain “you read”.
Yet, a lot of this reference information was sold in a conventional way, through middlemen. We bought our set of World Book Encyclopedias, in 1950, from a door-to-door salesman (remember those colorful state relief maps, no longer published). Later, when I was taking piano, we bought a Sherwood Music School course from a similar salesman.
My own narrative fits in best here, because the availability of “free knowledge” increased with the evolution of self-publishing.
Here would fit the entire narrative of the self-publication of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (in 1997), originally motivated by the lowering cost of desk-top publishing (book self-publishing through “subsidy publishers” had been known since the early 1970s but had been a very expensive and usually not successful process). I would start placing my content online, and by mid 1998 I was “competing with myself” by offering the book free in simple HTML online.
I did sell out my first printing, and went to POD (print on demand) publishing (with iUniverse) in 2000. But it was the online availability, for free, that allowed me to become known and for my own unique arguments on how to deal with the ban on gays in the military (“don’t ask don’t tell”) to become effective in the growing debate. It was the way search engines (not just Google) worked, at the time giving advantage to very simple sites like mine, that became relevant.
Eventually, years later, I would be pestered by my self-publishing companies about actually getting serious about selling books in physical stores (helping people keep their jobs, Trump-like) or directly from me, rather than just through Amazon and BN online (including just from Kindle and Nook).
Several legal developments had the potential to affect self-publishing in this mode. The first was the Communications Decency Act, or Telecommunications Act of 1996. The controversial censorship sections were struck down in 1997, but one portion, Section 230, actually helped the Internet along by shielding Internet service providers (and later publishing platforms) from potential secondary liability.
Congress would try to pass a more “acceptable” censorship bill with the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA). Working through Electronic Frontier Foundation, I became a plaintiff challenging it; eventually prevailing (after two Supreme Court cycles) in 2007 in a trial for merit in Philadelphia.
In the meantime, a parallel concern over copyright infringement followed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, with the safe harbor provision that protected intermediaries (in 230-like fashion) from downstream liability for copyright-related accusations.
I developed an online presence in concentric fashion, covering most policy topics from a libertarian perspective, with simple HTML and free search engine exposure (indeed, to quote Reid Ewing, “It’s free!, it’s free!”)
Important concepts along the way were how web hosting companies work, and how domain name assignment works.
Legal risks for speakers include possible frivolous litigation: SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against pubic participation), which can cause the speaker to spend money defending the self against vindictive claims; copyright trolls (like Righthaven), and possibly trademark litigation over domain names (which is not the same problem as patent trolls).
A major development in the “free content” model was modern social media. Originally email list servers had served a social media function in the 90s, but then came Myspace, and then Facebook (with Instagram) and then Twitter. Originally social media (with the idea of “friends” and then “followers”) was intended to build somewhat closed social circles online, but gradually some of them migrated to alternative blogging platforms with news aggregation, morphing eventually into the “fake news” area where some people tend to receive only news that fits their own bubbles.
Blogging platforms (like Blogger and WordPress) were somewhat intermediate, first emphasizing the idea of “followers” but gradually (especially WordPress) migrating into content management systems.
On the other hand, some social media services tended to facilitate harmful and dangerous exploits. These included not only conventional viruses and scams (like phishing) through older email platforms, but also cyberbullying and child pornography distribution, and even terrorist recruiting. But most of the terror recruiting followup occurs on “the dark web” in encrypted fashion on offshore servers, away from the reach of common user-friendly social media. In the days right after 9/11, there was also fear that amateur sites could be hacked by terrorists to spread messages through steganography.
Small businesses, especially “bricks and mortar”, giving personal services (especially contractors), and even some medical providers, would rebel against consumer review sites for unfavorable reviews, as driving them out of business. Individual consumers would be hit with frivolous suits, although the review sites were protected by Section 230.
A related development all these years (from about 1996 to now) was the gradual evolution of network neutrality. The concept was arguably necessary to prevent telecommunications companies from charging some content publishers more than others to be hooked up to their networks. In practice, the hookup has always been “it’s free”, even for amateurs. Trump’s new FCC chairman could undo network neutrality practices put in by the Obama administration in 2014, but it’s unclear how much difference this would make. Are “fast lanes” like “toll lanes” on Interstate highways?
The logical outcome of what I had developed was free web references, most of all Wikipedia, which was created in January 2001. The documentary could examine how “volunteer” and “amateur” writers and editors can provide a reliable “free” online encyclopedia (which does not allow advertising but which does ask for contributions An important concept in Wikipedia is “notability”: how does one properly get a page created to make oneself known.
Other competing “compendiums” were proposed, which would require more peer review before publishing. Encyclopedia companies had to fight back.
In parallel came the development of “open source” software, even including the browser Mozilla.
The most “publicized” controversy in the “free content” area would occur with what we call “open access” This development focused mainly on peer-reviewed science and medical (and sometimes social science) journals, compared to the amateur, non peer-reviewed content covered so far.
The most famous case, of course, is the tragic history of Aaron Swartz (the film “The Internet’s Own Boy”). Aaron’s “career” had started with an attempt to make PACER court documents, which arguably should be free and public domain anyway,, but then exploded when he downloaded illegally some JSTOR server documents.
Science journals were built around a business model of high subscription prices. It has gotten to the point that university libraries can’t afford all of them. Recently, some government agencies, like NIH, have enforced agreements requiring release of peer-reviewed papers to public domain after about one year. It’s unclear if this would continue under Trump. Likewise, some foundations (as with Bill Gates) require open access.
Younger scientists need access to peer reviewed science documents. Jack Andraka, who developed an inexpensive pancreatic cancer blood marker test for a science fair, has written about the problem. Although he could arguably have gotten a subscription through a university (like Maryland), he argues there is a catch 22: he could not have gotten far enough in his early research to convince a university to give him one, without open access.
Overseas, Alexandra Elbakyan (from Kazakhstan) would start “Sci-Hub”, as a compendium of papers, and attract litigation.
Does the “Tragedy of the Commons” apply to Open Access? Not really.
Another controversy in the “free content” area is the hard times that newspapers have find competing online, especially keeping print profitable Paywalls are conceptually the same devices that science journals use, but for ordinary news content are normally much cheaper.
Many newspapers have gone to paywalls for their online subscriptions, and this idea is catching on with more local papers, which would make local news harder to get. However broadcast networks and news sites have generally remained free and depending on advertising.
Over time, consumers have often become irritated at online advertising, and have installed “do not track” tools, which often come free by default with modern browsers. Many consumers click less often on ads than they used to, which would make one wonder about the ad-based business model (derived from broadcast network television) which made so much free content – most of all user-generated content — possible.
Still another controversy has played out more in Europe than in the U.S. – “the right to be forgotten”. Since news stories about obscure people remain indexed online, people have claimed the right to demand that search engines remove these references after a certain amount of time, to avoid trivial small incidents from affecting their lives.
The “right to be forgotten” goes in hand with another concept called “online reputation”, which started to become trendy around 2006, with companies (like Reputation.com) offering to help people maintain their online impressions.
(Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST)