The new sharing ethic in Cyberspace

Andrés Guadamuz González



This is the motto of Eminence, one of the many groups of Internet hackers that provide small applications for breaking copyright protection in computer software. Groups similar to this one are made up of individuals who are highly skilled in programming, probably even employed throughout the computer industry, but who spend large amounts of time and resources circumventing software defences to be able to provide free software. This is just one of the many examples of a new ethic that is on the increase thanks to the rise of the Internet, and which I call the “New Sharing Ethic”, which is opposed to traditional ideas of strong protection of ideas and of the proprietary nature of information.

The rise of the Internet has proved to be the perfect ground for this new sharing philosophy to develop because one of the basic ideas that gave birth to the Internet was the free flow of information.

Some of the best examples of the new sharing ethic can be seen throughout the often demonised hacker community. Contrary to common belief, there is actually a philosophy and a set of ethics followed by hackers throughout the Internet. Hacker philosophy is established by the fact that the Internet is a free medium that cannot be regulated; it is a virtual anarchy. In this scheme of things, the general feeling is that the Internet has no laws, but hackers achieve a sense of community in which sharing of information becomes essential. In fact, the first rule of hacker ethics actually states that “information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible”(1).

Hacker philosophy and ethics find their maximum expression in the Free Software Foundation (FSF). This is a project that advocates that all software should be free, and has actually made steps to prove that it is a possibility. This movement distributes free software and encourages programmers to use copyleft, which is a way in which software code is passed on, but anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. This places a burden to the person transferring the software; the burden is that the software must remain free. This is different from just placing software in the public domain because the person making use of the free code can subsequently copyright it.

This raises the question of whether or not this recent phenomenon of sharing is only a trend that can be seen in some extreme and anarchic Internet fringes. Mainstream users are also finding the benefits of the new ethics of sharing information, a myriad of people leave their computers on 24 hours a day to allow other Internet users to download anything from digital music to the latest movies from their hard drives using technologies like Napster or IRC chat servers, and yet these people are not earning a penny for their efforts. Many other users, including many academics, professionals and researches, provide help in specialised Usenet newsgroups in fields as varied as literature, law, astronomy, physics and biology. Knowledgeable users usually do not have any problems in providing help to less experienced newcomers. In message boards all across the Web, people are sharing ideas without and posting information knowing that they will not earn any copyright from their writings. It is also common to find pages where the information provided is made available to the public with the only requisite that the author is identified. Music groups, new writers and small software companies have no qualms about offering their creations for free over the Net, hoping that they will be noticed.

Perhaps the most successful example of the success of the sharing ethic is the open source code revolution spearheaded by the Linux operating system. Linux began as a hacker project by programmer Linus Torvald, who created a clone of the UNIX operating system and placed it on the Internet for free. The code has been subsequently improved many times, and being free, many companies are now distributing their own Linux version.

This new sharing ethic is the subject of the proposed paper, as the phenomenon raises some very interesting questions, which will be addressed directly. Is it ethical to share information that does not belong to you? What are the benefits of sharing information over the Internet? Are we witnessing the end of the ownership of ideas as we know it? Will this sharing ethic survive the increasing commercialisation of the Internet?