LA Case for the Freedom of Information
October 3rd, 2022
It seems like everything is going digital in the twenties, and for good reason. In no other time could I casually browse the most precious items in the Vatican library, have access to over thirty million books to borrow on the Internet Archive, or write a twenty page research paper on an obscure history without needing to visit a single physical archive or library. The sheer volume of information collected on the internet is growing exponentially year by year- and therein lies the problem. As this bubble of information grows, it will become untenable to preserve it all. Data is much too volatile to entrust our cultural heritage to, no matter how many backups we may produce. It is our duty as a people to preserve our culture for those who come after us, in a way that they can access. I believe this requires a decentralized collection of users and organizations across the world to preserve and maintain our culture, in addition to the proper categorization to make sense of it all.
As of today, the closest candidate we have to an institution like this would be the Internet Archive. For those of you familiar with what I do, it may stand as no surprise to you that I would gleefully bow down and pray to the Internet Archive at every waking moment. The Archive does one thing best, and that is being perfect for our current legal and copyright system. The inclusion of Creative Commons licenses directly into the site, in addition to the controlled digital lending of the Open Library, truly make the platform a standout from other... less legally established venues of information. The Archive is incredible for the public, great for authors, and even a potential good thing for publishing conglomerates- although they wont admit it. Personally, I have read many books through the Open Library before purchasing them physically, and have read many chapters of university textbooks that I may have not given a penny to. It remains a bastion of public domain texts from the Library of Congress, hundreds of universities, and Project Gutenberg. In addition, it is the one-stop-shop for everything web archiving. I would not be surprised if these words are read by more people through the Wayback Machine than on my website itself. However, where the Archive's weakness comes in is its centralization.
Any company can strike down their copyrighted content on the Archive, which is fine and well for an easily viewable media like a running TV show or a chart topping album, but for obscure and unviewable content through official means, it is a death sentence to potential lost media. Earlier this year during the summer of 2022, we saw both the complete animatic for the Tartakovsky's Popeye film, as well as the complete rough storyboards for the pilot episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Help Wanted, released for general viewing on the Internet Archive. Within hours, those vanished from the Archive for good, and are now only viewable through illegal venues. As Sony Pictures Entertainment and Viacom do not plan to release these in an official capacity, and they do not pose any threat to their business or any individual, why is it in their right to prevent the public for enjoying something non-maliciously? To prevent the erasure of this kind of media, we must expand into a decentralized network to preserve culture from copyright.
The preservation of culture and knowledge intrinsically includes the concept of copying and duplicating data created by other people. In the days of Antiquity, a Roman elite may borrow a book from his contemporary's library, give it a read, and like it so much that he may commission a copy of the text. No compensation sent back to the author, and no acknowledgement whatsoever of the original work with exception to the name attributed to the text. This is how all of the great works of Antiquity have made it to the modern era to be preserved on Project Gutenberg, they are copies of copies of copies of copies. This even includes texts such as the Bible, which you can compare our modern texts with ancient translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and other scriptures from Antiquity. For those in the future, it is imperative that out culture also be maintained in much the same way, copies of copies of copies. The illegal book sharing service Z-Library, the successor to Library Genesis, is an example of a decentralized service where copyright takedowns are near-impossible. Anyone can upload to the site (you can find copies of Forgotten Dreams uploaded there, surprisingly not by me), and anyone could potentially host it. With so many people hosting mirrors of the site, it would seem to be impossible for a large amount of data loss to occur. A potential decentralized service like this for all kinds of media, much like the Internet Archive but without the threat of a copyright takedown, would be an optimal way to allow information to be free for all people now and into the future.
The CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray have been marketed to consumers as some kind of solution to data storage, the hundred year forever solution to keeping your memories safe. While this may have been true to marketers in the heyday of the compact disc, this certainly is not true now. When helping to organize my grandfather's things after his passing, I was able to get my hands on a collection of his computer backup and photo CDs from the late 1990's and early 2000's. These CDs had been kept in a humid and relatively hot room, as hot as any in the Southern US, and had suffered a fate accordingly. Many of those discs had suffered from severe bit-rot, and when shining a flashlight through the discs, they appeared like some kind of aluminium swiss cheese. This is not exclusive to CD-Rs either, many of the Weird With It discs have suffered the same fate, one of which had its data layer completely shatter when I dropped it off my desk. Unlike texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, where we can interpret meaning out of inconceivably small amounts of ancient papyri two thousand years after their creation, a CD is kaput after just twenty years in a climate controlled Florida room. This kind of volatility is unacceptable for long-term storage of information, but permanent non-live physical media like this is the only option to be sure that our data can be preserved, given future humans are capable of figuring out how to use a CD. The M-Disk may be on potential solution, as could be tape storage. Only time will tell, in these cases.
Regarding the removal of materials, a Tom Scott video comes to mind, The Artificial Intelligence that Deleted a Century. Now, although I don't believe that memory erasure is anywhere within the reach of today's nor tomorrow's artificial intelligence, I do believe that copyright bots senselessly destroying any information owned by a large media corporation is a very valid concern for preservation of culture. Streaming services and others like them for books and music are predatory and extremely volatile, as we can most clearly see during Discovery's acquisition of Warner Brothers, where many of their properties were expunged from all services for tax write-off purposes. Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive have already implemented copyright detection measures on their storage mediums, copyright striking media that users are storing using their service. Personally, I have uploaded family home videos to Google Drive to share with my family, but nearly every single one of them has been removed due to some kind of television show in the background, the radio on in the car, or the music playing in the parks at Disney World. I have no way of sharing those videos in their original form on most sites, despite the copyrighted content contained in the videos being nothing close to a way to enjoy said content. A decentralized network may even be able to fall victim to more sophisticated copyright detection, acting as a sort of malware to destroy what could be claimed as copywritten. This would only leave physical non-rewritable media such as compact discs and tape as the sole media for preservation of copyrighted materials.
I of course am no bystander in this issue. I archive my own work, artwork, writings, music, you name it, and try to make it as easily and long-term accessible as possible. I upload other's content in the forms of my Weird With It and The Cover Art Archive projects (and although these do violate copyright law, companies and individuals do not appear to be interested in the preservation of), which you can see elsewhere on this page. In addition, I've uploaded a wealth of treasured family photos, videos, audio recordings, and documents into the public domain at the permission of those family members. I'm what one may call a data hoarder, senselessly organizing digital files of the physical items they own. Who else has a working inventory of every single object they own, and over two dozen backups of their data? Think I'm nearly alone in that one! Despite this, I still maintain that a public database of information free to everyone is an essential pillar we must maintain to curb to recession of democracy, and for the future's understanding of who we were and what that means to them.