The groundswell for a free Internet

Today in WorldChanging Ethan Zuckerman discusses Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ much-publicized list of “Things that Will Be Free” that lays out the open-source agenda for the new century. Ethan does a great job of summing up and contextualizing the list, so I’ll just excerpt his comments here. Do check out his post to get more information.

1) Free the Encyclopedia – Wikipedia is probably how this will be accomplished, though the Wikipedia goal involves a freely licensed, high quality encyclopedia in every language – while we’re more or less there for people who speak English or German and have broadband net access, it’s a long way away for speakers of Arabic, Hindi or Bengali…

2) Free the Dictionary – While Wiktionary is working on this problem, it’s proved harder to accomplish than Wikipedia. One reason – dictionary data is highly structured – every entry has certain things (an authoritative spelling, a derivation, a pronunciation…) while encyclopedia articles are less structured. A new version of MediaWiki software that better supports structured data is in development, and Jimmy thinks this will move the project forward.

3) Free the Curiculum – Free textbooks and curicula, from kindergarten through the university level. Jimmy’s done some work on this with the WikiBooks project, though the project is, again, not taking off with the same rapidity as Wikipedia. Jimmy recognizes that WikiBooks hasn’t been progressing rapidly, and mentioned that Wikibooks has moved to a “book module” model, encouraging people to write sections of books rather than the whole thing. Jimmy believes that public school textbooks in some US states would be easily built under the module model, since the modules are clearly specified by state standards – this would allow teachers to contribute small sections of curiculum and rapidly create free books.
(There’s a lot of enthusiasm for “free the curiculum” around Berkman, especially given the H2O project’s new Playlists feature.)

4) Free the Music. Most of the great works of classical music are in the public domain. But most recordings of them aren’t. And many scores and arrangements aren’t. The Free the Music project would encourage community orchestras to create freely licensed recordings of great works.

5) Free the Art. Again, many of the great sculptures and paintings that represent our collective cultural heritage are no longer copyrighted. But many photos of these works ARE copyrighted. Jimmy tells a story about receiving complaints from museums that Wikipedia contains “unlicensed reproductions” of works that they hold in their collections. These complaints aren’t quite cease and desist letters, because the images on Wikipedia might be photos taken by Wikipedia users and released under a free license. But they are threats, designed to deter users from reproducing works of art that are in the public domain. Jimmy’s response to these letters is to write back letters encouraging museum directors to feel a sense of shame in locking away cultural works from the public… he’s not gotten any responses to these letters.

6. Free the File Formats – Jimmy argues that proprietary file formats are worse than proprietary software. If your data is in a proprietary format, you’re trapped if you want to stop using a particular piece of software. Wikipedia uses Ogg Vorbis instead of MP3 due to patent concerns and fears of being locked into a proprietary format.

7. Free the Maps – As Google Map hackers are proving, there’s tremendous interest in building GIS-enabled services. Open source hackers are concerned about building services on Google Maps because Google owns the underlying data – Jimmy believes that hackers will build their own maps database and start creating GIS and GPS enabled services on top of this data.

8. Free Product Identifiers – If you link to a book on, you have two choices in constructing your URL – an ISBN number (non-proprietary) or an ASIN number (proprietary). Jimmy recommends you link using an ISBN, so if you decide not to continue selling books as an Amazon affiliate, you can migrate to another bookseller, rather than being locked in by proprietary product identifiers. He’d like to see a world where there’s a full set of free product identifiers where people could more easily participate in the world of “long tail” sales by getting an LTIN: a “long-tail identification number”. (There was more than a little skepticism from the group at Berkman on this one – yes, it’s worrisome that Amazon numbers are non-transferrable, but will open product ID numbers really help people sell to a global market?)

9. Free the search engine – Jimmy believes we’ll see an open, transparent, ad supported search engine in the future. Unlike Google, its ranking algorithms will be published and won’t rely on security via obscurity. This prediction/proposal was independent of proposals for the long-promised “semantic web” – this is more a prediction of/call for a non-proprietary search engine in the model of Google.

10. Free the Communities – The terms of service agreements at many online community sites (like my former venture, Tripod) include text giving the community host either ownership of or a perpetual license to any content you create. Jimmy believes that projects like WikiCities will start creating new community spaces where users own their content and can decide whether or not hosts can use it.

11. Free the TV listings. If you want to build your own digital video recorder, like MythTV, you need a good source of data for what programs are on when. It’s not hard to believe that a group of end users could discover and enter this data on a free basis.

12. Free academic publishing. Jimmy says he’s slowly but surely coming around to the Open Access model for academic publishing advocated by Peter Suber and others. Under this model, peer-reviewed academic journals are free to readers (like journal First Monday) and are edited either by volunteers or supported by publication fees paid by authors included in the journal.

There’s so much to say about all of these initiatives. It’s always been my philosophy that if we don’t wish and work for lofty ideals, nothing good will ever get done. It’s a response to cynicism, which in my mind is almost as rotten as pure nihilism.

That said, it will be a mighty challenge to enact all of these goals, but the work has already begun and there have been successes like Wikipedia to make us hopeful.

The reason for all of this free stuff is twofold, in my mind: 1) Freeing information from corporate control frees it from the profit-making motive, which will inevitably sell out innovation for the bottom line, and 2) a collaboration among an open community fosters more and better innovation than corporate-controlled innovation, because it is produced for the interests of the community alone, not for profit.

We’re at a point now where this open movement can steer the Internet away from the problems that have befallen all other mass media, that is, from non-democratic commercialism that pushes a product on people without asking them if they want or need it. That’s why the idea of the open-source search engine is so important. If we go to Google, Amazon, or any other commercial engine we aren’t getting unadulterated search results; we’re getting results produced with profit-motives in mind, and that will inevitably alter them. A colleague of mine, Bettina Fabos, has written eloquently about this.

On a personal note, as textbook editor and college instructor, I’ve become disheartened at the way the textbook industry gouges prices and makes textbooks virtually unaffordable to many students— this is information they’re selling, not just products — and I have no answers when my students question why their textbook — the one I edited — costs them $75, except that the interests of the market determine those prices, not the interests of the students.

More to come…

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  1. here here, sir. I’d see a partial list of mr. wales when he was dwelling on this. thanks for posting on this. You’re right. even if not all of these come true, progress is real and matters. The world is worth fighting for.

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