Jaron Lanier and the Web’s “False Ideals”

Jaron Lanier’s Op-Ed in the New York Times today is a classic piece of muddled Lanier writing that allows him to train his sights, yet again, on his favorite bugaboo and strawman: ‘free content.’ And in persisting with this notion of the demand for ‘free content’ being the true threat to the ‘Net, Lanier shows that despite having successfully hoodwinked some mainstream ‘Net pundits into appointing him the Voice of the Digital Masses, he remains as clueless as ever.

In the first three paragraphs, Lanier dutifully establishes his good-guy credentials: he is against the SOPA. Phew. Now what? Well, he needs to point out that opposition to the SOPA has gone over-the-top. That’s always a good one: preaching moderation in political action to those confronted by opponents not bothered by moderation. This switch is achieved quite deftly with the classic Yes-But manoeuver:

The legislation has indeed included draconian remedies in various drafts, so I join my colleagues in criticizing the bills. But our opposition has become so extreme that we are doing more harm than good to our own cause. Those rare tech companies that have come out in support of SOPA are not merely criticized but barred from industry events and subject to boycotts. We, the keepers of the flame of free speech, are banishing people for their speech. The result is a chilling atmosphere, with people afraid to speak their minds.

I have to be honest. My reaction to this paragraph is: Are You F***ing Kidding Me? Who exactly, in this atmosphere of “Pirates are ruining America and driving artists out of work” is afraid to speak their mind? Reaction to the SOPA threatens free speech because one sub-community has decided to unfavorably norm behavior that could be threatening to its existence?

Lanier then moves on to a worthy target: proprietary social networking and its creation of walled-off spaces within the ‘Net. Bully for him. But Lanier’s analysis of why this has come about (and why it is not Facebook’s fault. Really!) segues from

We, the idealists, insisted that information be able to flow freely online, which meant that services relating to information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers


The adulation of “free content” inevitably meant that “advertising” would become the biggest business in the open part of the information economy

Pardon me if I’m confused. What does ‘information [being] able to flow freely online’ have to do with ‘free content’? The former is about open standards, free–as in free speech, not free beer–and open source software, non-proprietary protocols, network neutrality and so forth. What does that have to do with ‘free content’?

Lanier insists on enhancing a confusion that proponents, not the opponents, of the SOPA would like to perpetuate: that the battle for the ‘Net is between those who want content to be paid for, and those who want to mooch. It has never been that; it has always been between those who want to export wholesale the economic and legal machinery of the offline world to a domain that requires that the foundations of that machinery be inspected and reconfigured before application.

Lanier, after critiquing the notion of a walled-off ‘Net, then returns to displaying his conceptual confusions:

This belief in “free” information is blocking future potential paths for the Internet. What if ordinary users routinely earned micropayments for their contributions?….under the current terms of debate that idea can barely be whispered.

I hate to break the news to Lanier, but precisely those that want to keep information ‘free’–free as in free speech, not free beer– are the ones that talk about how alternative models of payment could serve as the foundations of a new economy.

Lanier concludes with a dramatic sigh:

To my friends in the “open” Internet movement, I have to ask: what did you think would happen? We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce become more about services instead of content — more about our code instead of their files. The inevitable endgame was always that we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files. We haven’t just weakened Hollywood and old-fashioned publishers. We’ve weakened ourselves.

And there we have it again. Now Lanier is back to talking about the ‘open’ ‘Net. Well, I had no idea that insisting on open standards, free–as in free speech–and open source software, and networking non-proprietary protocols and open standards would undermine copyright. This will certainly be news to people in the free and open source software world who, by their innovative licensing, have actually artfully employed copyright law to ensure their community’s flourishing.

Frankly, I find it amazing that someone like Lanier, who is so completely befuddled by the basic issues concerning the ‘Net, has access to forums like the NYT.

One thought on “Jaron Lanier and the Web’s “False Ideals”

  1. s a down side to the availability of digital content, and that.
    Just just because a link is on Piratebay does not always mean that the users are installing, and hence, the flawed
    data. Now, movies aren’t the thing that piracy trackers allow links too.

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