Why have Freedom For Information?
Because knowledge is a process, not a given.
Like many scientists nowadays, I though that episodes like the trials of Galileo were a thing of the past. And as a citizen born and raised in a modern industrialized democracy, I felt shielded and immunized from censorship and propaganda. Further, having witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web, I thought that the doors of human progress had been burst open, and the future looked bright. Furthermore, like far too many people today, I thought I was right. I thought I knew where the truth, or at least the most rational position lied on most questions.
Well, not any more, I don’t. Firstly, I am no longer sure I have the full picture about anything I used to believe. A bit like David Hume, I realize that most of what I see as my own thoughts just happened to be a digested version of information I have stumbled across in life, via the books I happened to find, the news I was able to read, and the conversations I had been lucky to have. That is fine, I think, as it gives me wisdom and equipoise. But then, in order to even start to form an opinion, I need to make sure that I or anyone who might try to understand a problem on my behalf, has access to as much information as possible. And this is of course where the problems being.
The increasingly evident censorship on social media, public discourse and – most troubling of all to me – in Academia, are making it painfully obvious that information is not as free as we think, and its liberty needs to be fought for. Too many efforts are being made to suppress it, control its flow, sanitize it and model it to satisfy the interests of some. Who these “some” are it depends and is often a complex matter to unravel. Commercial and political interests are typically at the root of most controversies surround censorship today.
The relevance of commercial interests raises a second interesting sense in which information is not as “free” as we think – an economic sense. Transferring bits of information is actually extremely “cheap” from a physical point of view, but our ability to access it online without paying upfront is notoriously paid indirectly by us, with information about ourselves. One could see it as the ultimate manifestation of a barter economy, a merry regression to pre-coinage times. But it is a perverse and oppressive economy, to the extent that the exchange is not transparent and to the extent that the monopoly and power imbalance is such that one side gets a rough deal.
The relevance of political interests raises the last, important sense, in which information is not “free”: it is not free from control, scrutiny and abuse by political powers.
“Who cares if the NSA or Facebook spy on me? I have nothing to hide!” has been my standard response for years to any concerns raised about the growing deterioration of privacy online and offline. Now, technically that is still true for me today: I don’t think I am important enough to be concerned about Big Brother spying on me. But, as an interview of Richard Stallman helped me realize, there are, could be, and will be people whose voices are relevant and need to be heard. People, in other words, who have important information to share – whistle blowers, investigative journalists, activists, scientists who make uncomfortable discoveries… – and who will only be able to do so in one of the possible versions of our future world. The version in which citizens have the option to preserve their privacy, to travel, buy things and enter places with no mediation of electronic tools that, in the wrong hands, could force anyone into social imprisonment.
Whether or not we shall live in such a world depends on the collective choices of ordinary people today, people like me and (most probably) you, who have nothing special to hide but who chose to support services and actions that preserve privacy and support the free circulation of information.