The battlecry of digital speech advocates – which is pretty much anyone who understands the value of the data revolution – is “information wants to be free.”

It’s also considered the core of the hackers ethos (however apocryphal it’s origins might be1), a philosophical justification for the actions of hackers, hacktivsts, whistleblowers and others who have spilled private and/or secret information into the public sphere.

As a journalist, it certainly drives my default outlook as well, with built-in caveats for any information that may inflict unnecessary harm on someone. I’ll fight long, drawn out and exhausting battles with government agencies over obtaining the data hidden away in their dungeons, if for no other reason than it belongs to the citizenry, not subterranean bureaucrats.

Many have risked their lives and freedom to liberate information for the public good, from Daniel Ellsberg2 to Aaron Swartz3 to Edward Snowden4 or any of the other flood of leakers that have emerged in Washington this year.

It seems that freeing information, more often than not, results in a more informed public. And the expression ‘information wants to be free’ goes hand-in-hand with another common phrase: the truth always comes out.

Like rivers seeking their lowest point, information doesn’t like to be kept secret, regardless of how hard one might try to repress it. You can only run from it so far, for so long.

But a lot of information isn’t free, and maybe not all of it should be?

For-profit journalistic institutions charge for access to much of their information, even while essentially giving away the most important and timely bits. Journalism is difficult, full-time work and funding it somehow is imperative (something I’ve believed long before becoming one of them). New ways to subsidize news reporting may emerge in the future, but for now, there is a fee to entry in the form of subscriptions and digital paywalls and that’s unlikely changing anytime soon.

More controversally, there are still repositories of publicly-funded scientific and medical research that ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers5. It’s been long argued all research that receives taxpayer dollars should be open to the public.

Of course, there’s the vast ocean of secret, classified information held by world governments that’s kept sequestered away in the name of national security – whether all of it should be or not.

And because some information can be extremely damaging to private individuals or society as a whole, one could argue that even if it eventually gets out, there should be efforts undertaken to minimize its impact for as long as possible.

Even if one prescribes to a worldview involving radical transparency, there are limits on freedom of speech and information. Reasonable people can argue over where those lines should be drawn. I’ll always err on the side of more flexible rules and greater transparency, particularly from powerful institions like governments, corporations and academia.

But at the end of the day, quality information takes time, money and other resources to produce and sometimes has far-reaching implications. So it’s a reasonable conclusion that even if information wants to be free – if it even wants anything at all6 – not all of it can be free all the time.

  1. Levy, Steven. “The Definitive Story of ‘Information Wants to be Free’” Backchannel. November 14, 2014. Link 

  2. “Wikipedia: Daniel Ellsberg” Link 

  3. “Wikipedia: Aaron Swartz” Link 

  4. “Wikipedia: Edward Snowden” Link 

  5. Hargarten, Jeff. “Publisher draws researcher boycott” Minnesota Daily. March 29, 2012. Link 

  6. Hayhow, Thomas. “Does information want to be free? Should it be?” Permaculture Research Institute. November 8, 2016. Link