The Cost of a Free Internet: The Price on Our Heads

by tophtucker

Note: this is partially about what SOPA & PIPA are partially about, but it is definitely not about them. I have not read them but I hear they’re very poorly written and I bet they are super boring.

“Information wants to be free.” Or, at least, a lot of people want information to be free — and not just selfishly! Free universal access to information enriches the world enormously. Because it’s non-rivalrous (my “consumption” does not impede yours, so it’s hardly “consumption” at all), the gains are not zero-sum. Moreover, information in an Information Age world is extraordinarily difficult to keep contained anyway, so it seems profoundly foolish to try to cling to old ways.

That makes it very hard to “monetize” — for “content creators” to get paid for creation. They don’t need to be paid in compensation for goods transferred, because piracy does not remove their content from them. But they need to be paid for labor, and if we want to efficiently allocate resources to those who use it “best” (as judged by the semi-free market).

Yes, musicians can freely release music as a loss leader to draw people to scarce priceful concerts. Publications can bring speakers to conferences. But I don’t think those sorts of things can scale to bear the weight.

When information is post-scarcity, what can be sold?

Well, network resources are scarce. Perhaps we should abolish these all-you-can-eat plans and pay proportionate to the resources we consume. Then service providers would want you to consume — not information, which is inconsumable, but bandwidth. And then there could be revenue-sharing with the content sites, who are, after all, the ones on the front lines trying to push you kilobytes. But it would be easy for content providers to take advantage of (by, say, being lazy about serving content to you indiscriminately and ringing up a big bill), and, in any case, it hasn’t happened.

So, when information cannot be kept scarce, the only scarce thing left in the system is eyeballs. When you can’t charge for content, what you get is what we see now: an internet almost entirely paid for by advertising. And, as they say, when you use ad-supported products, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold. If they can’t sell content to you, they’ll sell you to content.

One long-term problem with that is that industry growth potential in eyeballs is limited by birthrate. We will hit peak population and peak attention. In the interim, huge successes like Facebook are successful almost entirely at the expense of others. As Chris Dixon tweeted, “The stunning speed with which new websites get traction and take share from other sites actually makes them all less valuable.” Since scaling is so cheap, it seems to be the nature of any successful web service to achieve natural monopoly, and the market will just bounce from monopoly to monopoly, indefinitely — serial winner-take-all contests, highly volatile.

Secondly, and of more immediate concern: I’m kind of sick of the ad-powered web. Pity our irrational reptile minds, played like fiddles by persuasion algorithms. It will get worse. So, I would gladly pay content/service providers as much as they’re currently making off me in advertising (i.e., as much as they can charge for my eyeballs). Jeff DeChambeau wrote today that, for Facebook, it comes out to about $4 per user per year. I’d pay that.

But payment systems are incredibly difficult and high-friction on every side, and have to be awkwardly bolted atop the web. There’s no way to just automatically and universally post a microbill to all outbound links and receive micropayment from every http referrer. But — can you imagine?

What about if I could frictionlessly pay the photographer of that lovely and apt photo I found on Google Images and want to use in a blog post? Pay something like a fraction of a cent per page view? If I could in turn benefit from frictionless revenue-sharing for works derivative of my IP, I’d be down. Not because it’s “fair”, or because anything is being “stolen” — I’m not worried about fairness, and nothing is being taken away from its owner. No, I just like the idea because I think introducing some sort of price system could more efficiently allocate resources in the ecosystem to original content creators, and not parasites.

But that’s not possible, no matter how far you go — short of wiring a secure HDCP line straight into the brain (which will probably happen).

Suppose you started a new walled-off Paid Internet, where every IP address was instead something like an International Bank Account Number (IBAN), and the network itself enforced payment to the registered cryptographically-signed owner of every packet. Well, users could still move information in and out of the technically-closed system by analog means. They could take a photo of the screen, or transcribe information by hand and distribute it across pirate peer-to-peer mesh internets. You could make the free flow of information very tedious and expensive, but you could not stop it.

And so we humans must, over the coming century, resign ourselves to being among the only scarce things left in existence, and thus the chief commodity that will be bought and sold.