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The internet's original sin

In the early 1990s, a group of idealistic technologists had a radical idea: information wants to be free.

Led by folks like John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, they envisioned an online utopia - a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” as Barlow put it in his famous 1996 manifesto. On the internet, they believed, all information and content could be freely accessible to everyone. No paywalls, no subscriptions, no barriers. Knowledge and art and ideas would flow unimpeded to all corners of the connected world.

This ethos of openness was baked into the internet from the beginning. The inventors of the World Wide Web and early browser software made a philosophic decision: they designed the web’s core protocols to allow frictionless linking, copying and sharing of content by default. Anyone could take a file from one site and instantly republish it on another with a simple hyperlink. The web’s very architecture encouraged the free exchange of information.

And for the first decade of the web’s existence, free content reigned supreme. Napster and MP3 dot com enabled users to share music for free. Blogs and online forums let anyone publish their writing to a global audience at no cost. Newspapers put their articles online free of charge, assuming online advertising would support them as print ads once did. The internet was an open frontier of free-flowing ideas and information.

But the utopian vision collided with economic reality. Creating high-quality content, it turns out, takes time, effort and resources. Writers, musicians, filmmakers and journalists need to earn a living. As more content shifted online, traditional business models that supported its creation - album sales, book royalties, subscription fees - began to crumble. The abundance of free content trained internet users to expect everything to be free all the time. Why pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provided an endless stream of free content created by users themselves. Who needs professional entertainment when you have a billion status updates, home videos and hot takes at your fingertips? Social media giants built multi-billion dollar empires by monetizing their users’ attention and personal data, all while flooding the internet with free content that made it even harder for traditional publishers to compete. The reliance on advertising to bridge the gap led to a decline in content quality, perverse incentives, surveillance capitalism, user abuse, privacy violations and the fracturing of an entire democracy.

Now, thirty years into the web’s existence, the free content model has, effectively, failed.

Newspapers are shuttering and journalists are losing jobs as digital advertising proves to be a poor replacement for print revenue. Musicians are fucked by Spotify’s royalties, which are, realistically, unsustainably low. YouTube’s recommendation algorithms incentivize creators to churn out clickbait and misinformation to rack up ad views. The glut of free, low-quality content is polluting our information ecosystem and damaging society itself.

Is it too late to change course?

Can we reshape the norms and incentive structures of the internet to support content creation and reward quality?

Honestly - the jury’s still out.

Some believe the solution lies in reinventing business models. Services like Patreon and Paragraph allow creators to support themselves directly through voluntary payments from their fans. Publishers are putting content behind metered paywalls, providing some free articles as a gateway to subscriptions.

But the response from consumers has been…less than positive. Writer share paywalled articles and are abused by readers who feel entitled to their work. Patrons are few and far between. By my own calculations, Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans theory only works with an estimated non-true-fan audience of 20,000, even assuming a (very generous) 5% conversion rate.

There's an argument to be maid that openness should still be the internet’s default, but better mechanisms for voluntary support need to be built in at the protocol level. For example, micropayment systems could allow users to automatically tip creators a few cents whenever they read an article, listen to a song, or watch a video. It’s worked on decentralised protocols like Farcaster. But it hasn’t scaled to the wider internet.

The more civic-minded believe that only regulation can fix the problem at this stage. After all, relying on companies, platforms and protocols to self-regulate or to self-fund creators has been fucking disastrous. Advocates for regulation want to reform laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make platforms liable for compensating creators when their content is shared. There's a growing movement to impose taxes on devices and internet service to fund the arts, journalism and the creative middle class - a kind of digital cultural fund.



There's no one answer.

Yes, there should always be a place for both free and paid content on the internet. Wikipedia, open educational resources and public media demonstrate the power of open access to information. But at the same time, if we want a thriving creative and intellectual economy, the internet’s defaults will need to shift. Frictionless collaboration and sharing should be balanced with seamless ways to support and reward creators.

The internet’s original sin of free content may not be fatal, but it will take sustained effort to absolve it. We need to consciously build an online ecosystem that fairly compensates creators and incentivizes truth and quality. The openness of the internet is a feature, not a bug - but it’s a feature we can evolve to create a more vibrant, veracious and sustainable commons.

Information still wants to be free, but those who create it deserve to be paid.

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