Information: The Fourth Generation of Human Rights

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

I wrote in Jakarta Post that we, humans, have been quite successful in liberating ourselves from coercion. The liberation process can be periodized into three generations:
The first generation deals mostly with negative rights (i.e. the right not to be subjected to coercion) such as freedom of religion, free speech and the right to a fair trial.The second generation of human rights concerns positive rights (i.e. the right to be provided with something by others) such as the right to be employed, housing and health care. These rights were triggered by World War II and are encapsulated in the International Covenant on Civil, Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The third generation of rights are mostly environmental rights (i.e. sustainable development) and they are generally still in the form of loosely binding laws, such as the Rio and Stockholm declaration.
But, now is the era of Information. Why is it so important?:
Living things are biologically nothing but genetic codes and -- through molecular manufacturing -- materials are physically nothing but a set of atomic structures. Thus, in the knowledge age, reality is no different than information itself.
However, as we are now entering the "Knowledge Age", there is a problem:
One of the main problems in the knowledge age is how information is being managed by the legal system. The nomenclature used by the legal system is "intellectual property" (IP) and the name itself bears a fallacy as it attributes information to property, whereas, the characters of information significantly differ from tangible properties or "goods".
And, what differentiate information from "goods"?

The first difference is with regards to scarcity. Goods are valuable because they are scarce, once they are consumed, their values decrease. Information on the other hand is abundant. Scientists rely on information from their predecessors to create new theories and authors rely on information from previous writers to write books.

So, if information enters the public sphere (i.e. it's "consumed"), the quantities are multiplied and not reduced. The second difference is in form. Goods can exist only once in space and time and while information is abstract, it can exist in many heads and it transcends time. The third difference is with regard to its divisibility. Goods can be divided between people but information is indivisible. The fourth difference is multiplication. "Information wants to be free". The theory of memetics points out that ideas infect the brain like a virus spreading itself in an organism. This is the reason why the inquisition and the burning of books by fascists failed to stop ideas from spreading. Property, on the other hand, does not multiply itself.

But, isn't it a crime when someone "pirated" a protected information? Well yes, the current legal system says its a "piracy". But, let's have a look at the comparison I have made:

.... if someone acquires property through violent means, or through threats, they can be called a thief because they coerced the victim into parting with their belongings. Coercion, as has been discussed above, is an encroachment on negative rights or free will. For this reason, the guilty party could face criminal charges, perhaps ending up in jail.

However, if a person copies music and distributes it on the net, it cannot be regarded as theft or piracy as they did not take anything from the authors, nor coerced them into giving them something against their will. The criminalization of IPR violations is an absurdity as there are no parties that actually sustain physical or psychological injuries.

The question goes further:

"....does a person actually have the right to take, modify and reproduce information available in the public sphere? If I know a patented method for curing AIDS, do I have the right to distribute that information over the net*(and for other people to create new products based on the info)?
What would be the answer?

The answer should be "yes". Exchanging information is a form of human right, a form of negative right. The rights to education, health and housing are considered positive rights as they oblige other people to put in some effort in order to materialize these rights, for example, by paying tax. On the contrary, the right to information is a negative one as it does not in any way reduce the rights of others.

If you see the human rights trends on the first paragraph above, I am quite convinced that the liberation of Information will become the Fourth Generation of Human Rights.

Related posts:

1. Questioning the 'excludability' of information
2. Between censorship and intellectual property

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