Paying For Information, Asymmetrically


Harrison Ainsworth

The most reasonable way to pay for information is right in front of us

How can information production be funded in an internet world? Everyone expects free, but business can't understand that, and can only think of intellectual-monopoly restrictions. So what are the underlying essentials of this problem, and can analysis of them show the bounds and general form of any possible solution? Yes, and the result is very practical. In summary:

  1. ISPs add a levy to all subscriptions.
  2. Copyright is abolished on the internet – everything is freely available.
  3. Usage and preference of internet content is measured statistically.
  4. Producers compete for popularity.
  5. The ISP subscription levy is distributed to producers according to the measures.

The crucial start for resolving this problem is realising: copies should be free, production cannot be (which is close to what Stewart Brand said in 1984). Business consistently (and deliberately, really) conflates copies and production, but seeing that they are separate is the key.

And the problem rests on understanding two things: the content of the internet – information; and the mechanism of transaction – payment.

Payment is derived from and set by the character of physical reality. It is a transaction dependent on discrete identifiable chunks with simple behaviours: physical things are clear, stay the same, move from A to B. But look at a web site: pieces of data of every size and kind are grouped and connected in many complex, and changing, structures of relation. The essence of information is to have no solid, persistent, separate identity, form, movement, or relation.

Information has no identity or cohesion, it can be infinitely copied and varied and limitlessly recombined. But payment is defined by the identity and cohesion of its transactants, and without them it is impossible, a mechanism that cannot be applied.

The core truth is: You cannot pay for things when there are no ‘things’ anymore. Trying to pay for information objects is like trying to pay for parts of a river. The internet is a Heraclitean world. And trying to make big isolated chunks out of the contents of the internet – with site pay-walls, item-transactions, and intellectual-monopoly rules – runs completely against the medium. You cannot have both proper internet content and proper payment.

The only solid, discrete chunks involved are the parts outside: the network as a whole, and the people and organisations using it. These are the only parts where payment can properly be attached. So: we can pay for access and use as a whole, and the pay goes to people and organisations for effort to produce. We must have an ‘asymmetrical payment’ system. This is implemented with various statistical measures of use and preference, to allocate the money in various ways. Producers compete for popularity unhindered by intellectual-monopoly/copyright restrictions.

There is little cause to worry after all. Ways of doing this are basically straightforward, and already have incipient forms. The main means is already half established as ISP subscriptions. A partly good example is televised football. People pay satellite-TV subscriptions, satellite-TV pays football league organisations, and they pay football teams according to popularity, as measured by playing success. Though the particular parameters are doubtful, structurally it appears to work well.

There may be other seemingly plausible ways to pay for information production: there is still some solidity and identity in information ‘products’, and some foothold for intellectual-monopoly law. But building payment on these will always be vulnerable to dissolving with innovation, or be the cause of suppressing innovation and use with unnatural restriction. The funding system that works with, not against, the essentials – as above – will be the most appropriate, durable, publicly beneficial, and fruitful of further development.