The BBC and a confused concept of what is free and open

One of the top 10 read pages on the BBC website today is a feature article by acclaimed computer scientist and inventor Jaron Lanier (inventor of the term virtual reality) urging the middle class to Sell your data to save the economy and your future

This particular quote stands out:

"The medicine of our time is purported to be open information. The medicine comes in many bottles: open software, free online education, European pirate parties, Wikileaks, social media, and endless variations of the above."

While Lanier makes some legitimate points about the way people share their personal data (everything from relationships to medical records) his writing in this instance seems to put concepts such as "open software" and free online education in the same basket as the abuse of medical records and the systematic collection of fingerprints and DNA samples by new-age tyrants.

Various thoughts come to mind:

  • Would he make these same claims against software that is distributed under a strong copy-left license such as the GPL?
  • Is he arguing that software engineers should work for royalties on use of our code rather than salaries paid to developers who produce free, open source software?
  • Is centralised computer power a black-and-white issue? What is to stop the middle class from pooling their resources into distributed clusters that can compete with data-center owners like Facebook? SETI@home is one particularly well known example. By joining the cloud of their choice, the public is, in a way, democratically exercising control over the way computing power is used.
  • How does he define the difference between "free online education" and the free public libraries that we all know and love? If free online education, research papers and other materials are not available, then does he also believe libraries should start charging door fees?
  • Was this article edited by the BBC in such a way that it no longer coherently represents what he aimed to say? Editing errors are not unheard of in the press.

Of course, this type of confusion is not out of place for a country that has multiple broadcast services promoted under the names Freesat, Freesat and Freeview while none of them are actually free of charge due to a controversial tax on watching TV that a whopping 22% of the population refuse to pay.