Why Should Everything on the Internet be Free?

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Why do people who normally wouldn't steal or cheat have no problem doing so on the Internet?

That's the question I've been asking myself ever since The New York Times launched its website paywall last year. Almost immediately, dozens of perfectly mainstream bloggers and websites posted articles on how to get around the paywall - in other words, cheat the system.

Don't believe me? Google the phrase "how to get around the New York Times paywall" and see what - and who - comes up.

Of course, this is nothing new. The recording industry has been fighting illegal downloads almost since the birth of the Internet. Hollywood has since joined the battle.

More recently, two bills designed to fight Internet piracy, SOPA and PIPA, met with virtually universal condemnation and were quickly scuttled. Critics of the bills complained that they were overly broad, but clearly there seems to be little appetite, in the public sphere at least, for any regulation of the Internet and protection of intellectual property whatsoever.

(One common refrain from critics of SOPA/PIPA was that regulation of the Internet couldn't be left to a bunch of clueless lawmakers who don't understand the web. This is an oft-levied attack, as we'll see later. But more to the point, it's a charge that makes little sense, given that the government regulates all sorts of industries - pharmaceuticals, aviation, etc.

- that are at least as complex as the Internet.)

I got interested in this issue when I started writing about the long, slow death of print journalism. Newspaper circulation and ad revenue have been heading south for years, and when the Internet came along papers made the critical mistake of giving away their content online.

Now, facing possible extinction, some papers are erecting paywalls to try to earn some revenue from the very thing readers had paid for for decades. Yet the idea of newspapers actually charging online readers has been met with widespread derision and ridicule. Critics roundly concluded that paywalls would never work, even before they were tried.

Nor does there seem to be much outrage over aggregators who essentially steal content from news sites and use it to drive up their own web traffic. In a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers a few years back, Arianna Huffington, who has used aggregation and unpaid bloggers to amass a vast personal fortune, called the idea of newspapers charging for content "antiquated." Scarcely anyone batted an eye.

Indeed, any industry that dares to challenge the everything-should-be-free ethos of the web is quickly branded by the digital evangelists as greedy, stupid, or worse. The message is clear: You're too out-of-touch or just plain dumb to understand the web, so you have no rights in the new digital age.

Record company execs, for example, were portrayed as visigoths for going after the poor downloaders. They were, the critics charged, hassling poor innocents in an effort to prop up the exorbitant salaries of rich rock stars.

Of course, as anyone who's spent more than five minutes in and around the music biz knows, the average musician's salary is quite modest indeed, but that fact seemed to matter little in the debate.

Likewise, newspaper publishers have been caricatured as a bunch of middle-aged luddites who just don't get the web. That may or may not be true, but the digital evangelists who make this claim take things a step further by arguing, essentially, that struggling newspaper companies should be punished for their ignorance by being forced out of existence.

Really? Are we truly ready to sacrifice a free press at the altar of the Internet? Because, at the risk of sounding alarmist, that's what I fear we face if we continue down this road.

The crux of the problem is this: Information isn't free. Nor are music, movies and literature.

The people who report and compose and film and write need, like everyone else, to be paid for their work.

And if we decide we don't care about protecting intellectual property or about compensating those who create it, all because we want the digital world to be a kind of wild west where everything is free for the taking, pretty soon there won't be much left to take.

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