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The Scarlet & Black

“Give us Free”: Examining how freedom relates to free culture

“This Tree which Knowledge so affords,
Inquisitors with flaming swords
From Lay-Approach with Zeal defend,
Lest their own Paradise should end.”

– from Benjamin Franklin’s poem “On Freedom of the Press” in Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1757

Upon reading this column’s title, the Franklin quote and the rest of this introductory paragraph, most readers will expect this column to be an argument for a principle you probably agree with. Yet the discussion on internet freedom does not appear to rank highly on the agenda of the Grinnell community. We should be debating whether or not we should keep the internet free. Even though Grinnell College has demonstrated a responsive commitment to social justice and intellectual freedom, we have crawled when it comes to what should be fast-paced intellectual redirections and movements for internet freedom. Its necessity is obvious. When we think of questions of internet freedom as questions of free culture (like YouTube or Grooveshark), free information (like Wikipedia and various blogs), and of the free market (EBay,, and advertisements), we arrive at a point that I hope we can agree on—liberalism—to elucidate the core of my argument that we ought to begin the discussion on internet freedom.

Free culture on the internet has privileged our student body in making media more accessible than ever before. I buy music and think everyone should buy music, but many people spend more money to attend the concerts they would like to see than they do on purchasing albums. There are a variety of reasons for this phenomenon and I do not support those that violate the law, but YouTube represents a favorable example of free culture’s utility and importance. Every reader has seen YouTube. Recently the online video giant posted “Runaway”, a 35-minute video produced by and featuring hip-hop icon Kanye West. This post-modern, high-art, short film sent a rather controversial tremor through the airwaves. Pop culture critic Ken Tucker of NPR said, “[Mr. West] covers more ground in his cultural references than any other pop musician under 40. He’s also, depending on your point of view, a sensitive soul or an egomaniac.” Whatever opinion readers take on the film does not concern this article, the fact that it was provided free and accessible to everyone lies at the crux of why we need to start talking about society on this and other college campuses. You know you love some Grooveshark.

Critics of this article could point to the criminal activity fostered by YouTube and other free content providers. That is a fair and accurate criticism. The website certainly has had some problems with copyright infringement, but it does try to regulate itself with prudence and consistency. Oftentimes videos that have not been authorized to be posted get blocked or silenced by YouTube, though many others manage to slip through the cracks. As a function of everyday human life, free culture on the internet is very young and therefore in the early stages of its development. IT will get better at following the law. So it follows that Grinnellians would engage the topic because Grinnell has supported a pioneering spirit since the beginning, and continues to do so. This publication was the first college newspaper west of the Mississippi, and now it is available free online, as are most other college newspapers. At the very least, we should pioneer discourse if not movement for free culture.

Most people have grown to understand Wikipedia’s usefulness and to appreciate the Huffington Post for what it is, and evidence two examples free information that might get people to think about it. The Wikipedia articles on the “freedom of the press” and “sorting algorithm” introduce these topics well to their respective audiences. Every reader is not going enjoy both articles, but many would find one or both of them worthwhile.

Understandably, the technical density of much of the literature on the topic makes the general public wary of discussing net neutrality because that can be uncomfortable—it seems natural for one to feel uncomfortable when discussing an idea they think they know little about. and some publications are not offered free online. Soon, if not already, most online newspapers will be accessed via mobile phones and e-readers. We ought to begin the discussion on free information because that is a manifestly vital and powerful source of information in our lives.

To anticipate other critics and expand the parameters of discussion, I appeal to the very thing so many fear losing amidst talks of free things—the free market.   Free software facilitates development and charges large corporations to lower the prices of their products. Free software also offers consumers alternative software solutions if they cannot afford to buy pricey-popularized titles. Just smash your Windows, bite a chunk out of your big Mac, and then, after all your other options are gone, switch to the Linux operating system. That is, if you are looking for something new but don’t necessarily want to buy something new, you know, with money. If you still prefer Mac or Windows, that’s fine.   The free market’s role in the internet is easy to prove, but it will only improve if we begin the discussion.

Do not think of the movement as complicated and beyond the general public’s understanding because the effects of an unfree network affect us all. When broadened, the “net neutrality” is not all about a “tiered service model,” which could have implications in not so technical terms, like slow pages versus fast pages, fee pages and free pages, or even unlimited pages and prohibited pages. Who knows what the internet could become if the United States codifies and further expands an already existing hierarchy in information dissemination. This article probably would load slowly because it does not defend corporate interest exclusively, but also speaks in defense of the people. In capacious encompassment, this is America, the land of the free. On a micro and immediate level, this is Grinnell College—an institution of freedom’s defenders, founded by abolitionist. I do not advise that readers break the law in their lives or in their habits, thereby compromising livelihoods and safeties, nor can I advocate for readers to sit back and wait for the law to contradict itself. But we are still free to engage in dialogue, and that is exactly what we must do.

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