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Appropriation – and the kingdom did not fall

Richard Hillesley, wonders if the much-used aphorism that 'information wants to be free' is still prescient in the light of of current events...

This article originally appeared in issue 96 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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The preliminary work on the sequencing of the human genome was completed on 22 June 2000. The Wellcome Trust had invested £210 million in a public project led by British and American scientists with the purpose of making the data available to all.

The work, first begun in 1995, was complicated by a bid from a private American company, Celera Genomics, to win the race to assemble and patent the fragments. The public effort won the race by a matter of hours, largely due to the efforts of Jim Kent, a graduate student in biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wrote the vital 10,000-line program in a month because he didn’t want to see the genome data locked up by patents. Celera Genomics was reputed to have procured the most powerful civilian computer in history for its effort.

Kent used “100 800MHz Pentium processors with 256MB RAM each, running Linux on a Beowulf cluster, the GCC compiler, the Vim editor, a whiteboard and occasional ice packs for the wrists.”

Kent’s view was that: “The value of the genome has accumulated over 3 billion years of evolution, and it’s a value I strongly feel belongs to us all if it belongs to anyone. I view it a lot like the European discovery of the new world. Sure, it was an accomplishment learning how to build ships and sextants and so forth, so that you could cross an ocean. It shouldn’t mean that you own the continent though!”

The sequencing of the human genome was an early triumph for Linux and free software, and symbolised an important aspect of the free software movement that goes beyond the immediate objective of free software. As Richard Stallman puts it: “I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.”

The much-used aphorism that ‘information wants to be free’ is usually attributed to Stewart Brand, best known as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. At the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984 he remarked: “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. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

He later added that the tension between freedom and cost “leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’ and the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

These statements, made 25 years ago, seem remarkably prescient in the light of current events. The web is a liberating force. Anything you can reach by typing a search string into Google is open to you, wherever you are in the world. The technology that makes the web possible is free and open to anyone. But free is a word with many meanings, some of which may conflict with one another, and history has a way of repeating itself.

In the 18th Century the printing of debates in Parliament was considered seditious and a threat to public order, much as WikiLeaks is seen as a threat to the current order. As Henry Porter notes in The Guardian: “In 1771, that great lover of liberty, John Wilkes, and a number of printers challenged the law that prohibited the reporting of Parliamentary debates and speeches, kept secret because those in power argued that the information was too sensitive and would disrupt the life of the country if made public. Using the arcane laws of the City of London, Alderman Wilkes arranged for the interception of the Parliamentary messengers sent to arrest the printers who had published debates, and in doing so successfully blocked Parliament. By 1774, a contemporary was able to write: ‘The debates in both houses have been constantly printed in the London papers.’ From that moment, the freedom of the press was born.”

“It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society, a brave maverick who was constantly moving house – and sometimes country – to avoid arrest; whose epic sexual adventures had been used by the authorities as a means of entrapping and imprisoning him. The London mob came out in his favour and, supplemented by shopkeepers and members of the gentry on horseback, finally persuaded the establishment of the time to accept that publication was inevitable. And the kingdom did not fall.”

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