Saturday, December 17, 2011

Free Information Is a Human Right

As human rights go, this one would be a no-brainer were it not such a relatively new concept, and were it not that it's not universally adopted for various insidious, evil, and, occasionally, ethical reasons.

For example, Hollywood doesn't want information to be free if that means letting crackers steal and redistribute their "intellectual property." The same goes for the record company moguls that shudder at the idea that music should be free. Then there's the whole host of software companies that believe their products should be paid for, too.

I have no quarrel with any of them, even if they fight their own citizens more than, say, the Chinese or Indians. I suppose that's for practical reasons, though some are political, as well.

No, the kind of information I'm speaking to relates to the general category of communication, which has by now become a subset of information technology, though a rather large one at that. Information technology, including cell phones, SMS (messaging), laptops, tablets, PCs, servers, and the whole area of server farms that host the "cloud," add up to an earth-shaking, transformative, on-going event that will irrevocably change life as we know it.

I was listening to NPR late in the night when a broadcast of the World Affairs Council had a program on innovation in communication, and the show presented three entrepreneurs whose ideas were emblematic of the power of information and of the revolution underway. One, microWorkers, was the brainchild of a young woman whose non-profit offers micro-work to the four billion (her figure) who exist on three dollars or less a day. This micro-work, each unit being worth 10 to 25 cents or so, involves data-processing on one level or another. Each task has to be simple, repeatable, and easy to evaluate, allowing good workers to accrue reputations for reliability. Naturally, this effort was aimed at alleviating poverty.

Another man had helped create Ushahidi -- the Swahili word for witness -- that mapped crises using Google maps and then set up a multiple-channel crowdsourced system using the cloud to accumulate and then distribute real-time information during a crisis. It currently operates in 133 countries.

The third man's contribution -- from Qualcomm -- was the use of cell phones linked by Bluetooth and other interfaces to simple diagnostic devices such as blood-pressure and blood-sugar meters to allow remote diagnostics in rural regions anywhere in the world.

Oximeter connected to cell phone for diagnosing pnuemonia

Each venture spoke to a widespread need for which communication devices could offer solutions in very human areas of conflict resolution, hunger and poverty, and healthcare availability. Who would have thought that cell phones -- now affordable and widely available even in rural, impoverished Africa -- could lead to solutions as disparate as those above?

And this is only the beginning of an explosive period in technology development. Even five years from now we'll be living in a brave new world, this one, I hope, more benevolent than that envisioned in the book of the same name. And it will be, if information is free.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring were greatly enabled by social media, and even the recent protests over election fraud in Russia might have been quashed were it not for the fact that, from this time forward, the whole world is actually watching. Where information is free, the people have a better chance to be.

Without cell-phone video, would the UC Davis pepper-spray incident have had such resonance? Pick your own example. They're now everywhere to be found.

Where information is successfully closed off, as in Syria and Iran, it's harder for movements to gain traction. However successfully the Green Revolution was quashed, the world will never forget how the masks were pulled from the faces of the Ayatollah and his minions: the Islamic Republic is ruled by bloodthirsty murderers. Such a public outing accrued to Bashar al-Assad, even with his more successful closing of the communications networks in Syria. Even the Arab League and close allies like Turkey and Russia have had to repudiate him. Hopefully, his days are numbered.

The U.S. is guilty on a number of levels in making information unfree. The national-security label is over-used, and Congress has for years, under the guise of protecting decency or, more recently, "intellectual property," tried to restrict information flow. Usually there's a Republican hand leading this, but there are plenty of Democratic enablers, to be sure.

Whatever your opinion of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is, the enterprise is a worthy one. Hopefully, a better business model will emerge and a better entrepreneur will step forward to expose government wrongdoing wherever it occurs.

China is a whole topic unto itself. I wish for every breakthrough in dismantling its Great Firewall. Hopefully, communication technology will rise to the occasion in this very important struggle.

Tiananmen Square 1989. What would have happened were it today?

Free information is revolutionary and transformative. Nowhere, for practically any reason, should its flow be curtailed. It is, undeniably, a human right, one that affords little comfort to despots, be they third-world despots or white-collar criminals like Jon Corzine. We can now know -- and in the future, by what factor multiplied? -- what's going on everywhere in near real-time.

I'm not such a rosy optimist that I think we're on the brink of world peace. We're just as likely on the brink of extinction (think global warming). But as each day passes, another innovation can bring opportunities for good health, decreasing poverty, better education, increasing transparency, freer people, broader knowledge on issues and crises, and so on.

Free information is good for us, notwithstanding the occasional lost dollar from piracy and counterfeiting. But the alternative, where information is strictly controlled, either on national security grounds or to protect the 1%'s almighty dollar, is bad for us. Fight control of information at all costs.

Free information is a human right.

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