Is it time to Rethink our Faustian Bargain with “Free”?

There is legislation brewing in Europe that could upend digital media.  They’re considering making the major platforms like Google, Facebook et al, pay copyright fees for all the content that they now freely distribute and monetize.

It may seem nuts and I never thought I’d agree with such a scheme. But perhaps the time really has come to think the unthinkable and reconsider our Faustian bargain with free.

According to legend, Faust traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.  And it is just such a bargain we have made with tech – the applications we use and the industry that spawns them.

The problems start with Free; the assumption that information wants to be free, as tech luminaries famously proclaimed, that we want it to be free, and that society benefits from all of this.

It is the reality that Internet culture has given us today; where content is there for the taking, to be riffed on, often ripped off, repackaged, bookmarked, collated, aggregated, discovered, linked, shared and curated; in which content is commoditized and journalism has been torn asunder.

Free has created a world in which we blithely volunteer our info and ditch privacy to access addictive apps and social platforms; it’s grown in synch with big tech, companies that call the shots and don’t play by the same rules, e.g. if you are an online service vs. a media company, you are not bound by the CDA (Communications Decency Act).  That means you risk less but reap the rewards of distributing content.  (But it is not fair just to blame tech, or the ad tech ecosystem, as who doesn’t like Free?  We have met the enemy and they are each and every one of us).

It is the reality that pollutes our discourse, ironically isolates and has wrought havoc on creative fields like photography, music, and writing.  Free and unfettered access is behind the ads that help pay for all this; which feeds our dopamine-fueled, basest instincts, playing off instant gratification, fear, emotion, and hype.

It has created the Frankenstein mess we are in now.

You may think there is no way to walk this back. But soon, there may not be a choice.

The EU recently defeated the Copyright Directive. The proposed legislation included provisions that would force online platforms to pay publishers before linking to their stories and to screen uploaded content for copyright infringement, according to this story in TheVerge.  But the vote was reasonably close; they’ll go back to the drawing board and vote again in September.

So, it is very possible that some form of regulation compelling tech to pay the piper will be signed into law.  For those who think “that’s just Europe, it can’t happen here,” consider GDPR.  The European rules governing personal info ownership and access – which many considered Draconian and hurtful to big tech – are happening here, as California has adopted similar legislation.  It is indeed a very small world online and hard to compartmentalize.

Perhaps it is time to put the ketchup back in the bottle and rethink our Faustian bargain with free.

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