by Nathan J. Robinson
Nathan J. Robinson is a British-American journalist, socialist, and Editor-in-Chief of Current Affairs magazine, which he founded in 2015. Robinson holds a B.A., M.A. in Arts from Brandeis University, J.D. in Law from Yale University and a Ph.D., in Sociology from Harvard University. This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Current Affairs.
Paywalls are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.
But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.
Now, crucially, I do not mean to imply here that reading the New York Times gives you a sound grasp of reality. I have documented many times how the Times misleads people, for instance by repeating the dubious idea that we have a “border crisis” of migrants “pouring into” the country or that Russia is trying to “steal” life-saving vaccine research that should be free anyway. But it’s important to understand the problem with the Times: it is not that the facts it reports tend to be inaccurate—though sometimes they are—but that the facts are presented in a way that misleads. There is no single “fact” in the migrant story or the Russia story that I take issue with, what I take issue with is the conclusions that are being drawn from the facts. (Likewise, the headline “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts” is technically accurate: the U.S. government did, in fact, say that. It was just not true.) The New York Times is, in fact, extremely valuable, if you read it critically and look past the headlines. Usually the truth is in there somewhere, as there is a great deal of excellent reporting, and one could almost construct a serious newspaper purely from material culled from the New York Times. I’ve written before about the Times’ reporting on Hitler and the Holocaust: it wasn’t that the grim facts of the situation were left out of the paper, but that they were buried at the back and treated as unimportant. It was changes in emphasis that were needed, because the facts were there in black and white.
This means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. Eric Levitz of New York is one of the best and most prolific left political commentators we have. But unless you’re a subscriber of New York, you won’t get to hear much of what he has to say each month.
Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access. (I recently gave up on trying to access a scholarly article because I could not find a way to get it for less than $39.95, though in that case the article was garbage rather than gold.) Academic publishing is a nightmarish patchwork, with lots of articles advertised at exorbitant fees on one site, and then for free on another, or accessible only through certain databases, which your university or public library may or may not have access to. (Libraries have to budget carefully because subscription prices are often nuts. A library subscription to the Journal of Coordination Chemistry, for instance, costs $11,367 annually.)
Of course, people can find their ways around paywalls. SciHub is a completely illegal but extremely convenient means of obtaining academic research for free. (I am purely describing it, not advocating it.) You can find a free version of the article debunking race and IQ myths on ResearchGate, a site that has engaged in mass copyright infringement in order to make research accessible. Often, because journal publishers tightly control access to their copyrighted work in order to charge those exorbitant fees for PDFs, the versions of articles that you can get for free are drafts that have not yet gone through peer review, and have thus been subjected to less scrutiny. This means that the more reliable an article is, the less accessible it is. On the other hand, pseudo-scholarhip is easy to find. Right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Mackinac Center, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation pump out slickly-produced policy documents on every subject under the sun. They are utterly untrustworthy—the conclusion is always going to be “let the free market handle the problem,” no matter what the problem or what the facts of the case. But it is often dressed up to look sober-minded and non-ideological.
It’s not easy or cheap to be an “independent researcher.” When I was writing my first book, Superpredator, I wanted to look through newspaper, magazine, and journal archives to find everything I could about Bill Clinton’s record on race. I was lucky I had a university affiliation, because this gave me access to databases like LexisNexis. If I hadn’t, the cost of finding out what I wanted to find out would likely have run into the thousands of dollars.
A problem beyond cost, though, is convenience. I find that even when I am doing research through databases and my university library, it is often an absolute mess: the sites are clunky and constantly demanding login credentials. The amount of time wasted in figuring out how to obtain a piece of research material is a massive cost on top of the actual pricing. The federal court document database, PACER, for instance, charges 10 cents a page for access to records, which adds up quickly since legal research often involves looking through thousands of pages. They offer an exemption if you are a researcher or can’t afford it, but to get the exemption you have to fill out a three page form and provide an explanation of both why you need each document and why you deserve the exemption. This is a waste of time that inhibits people’s productivity and limits their access to knowledge.
In fact, to see just how much human potential is being squandered by having knowledge dispensed by the “free market,” let us briefly picture what “totally democratic and accessible knowledge” would look like. Let’s imagine that instead of having to use privatized research services like Google Scholar and EBSCO, there was a single public search database containing every newspaper article, every magazine article, every academic journal article, every court record, every government document, every website, every piece of software, every film, song, photograph, television show, and video clip, and every book in existence. The content of the Wayback Machine, all of the newspaper archives, Google Books, Getty Images, Project Gutenberg, Spotify, the Library of Congress, everything in WestLaw and Lexis, all of it, every piece of it accessible instantly in full, and with a search function designed to be as simple as possible and allow you to quickly narrow down what you are looking for. (e.g. “Give me: all Massachusetts newspaper articles, books published in Boston, and government documents that mention William Lloyd Garrison and were published from 1860 to 1865.”) The true universal search, uncorrupted by paid advertising. Within a second, you could bring up an entire PDF of any book. Within two seconds, you could search the full contents of that book.
Let us imagine just how much time would be saved in this informational utopia. Do I want minute 15 of the 1962 Czechoslovak film Man In Outer Space? Four seconds from my thought until it begins. Do I want page 17 of the Daily Mirror from 1985? Even less time. Every public Defense Department document concerning Vietnam from the Eisenhower administration? Page 150 of Frank Capra’s autobiography? Page 400 of an economics textbook from 1995? All in front of me, in full, in less than the length of time it takes to type this sentence. How much faster would research be in such a situation? How much more could be accomplished if knowledge were not fragmented and in the possession of a thousand private gatekeepers?
What’s amazing is that the difficulty of creating this situation of “fully democratized information” is entirely economic rather than technological. What I describe with books is close to what Google Books and Amazon already have. But of course, universal free access to full content horrifies publishers, so we are prohibited from using these systems to their full potential. The problem is ownership: nobody is allowed to build a giant free database of everything human beings have ever produced. Getty Images will sue the shit out of you if you take a historical picture from their archives and violate your licensing agreement with them. Same with the Walt Disney Company if you create a free rival to Disney+ with all of their movies. Sci-Hub was founded in Kazakhstan because if you founded it here, they would swiftly put you in federal prison. (When you really think about what it means, copyright law is an unbelievably intensive restriction on freedom of speech, sharply delineating the boundaries of what information can and cannot be shared with other people.)
But it’s not just profiteering companies that will fight to the death to keep content safely locked up. The creators of content are horrified by piracy, too. As my colleagues Lyta Gold and Brianna Rennix write, writers, artists, and filmmakers can be justifiably concerned that unless ideas and writings and images can be regarded as “property,” they will starve to death:
Is there a justifiable rationale for treating ideas—and particularly stories—as a form of “property”? One obvious reason for doing so is to ensure that writers and other creators don’t starve to death: In our present-day capitalist utopia, if a writer’s output can be brazenly copied and profited upon by others, they won’t have any meaningful ability to make a living off their work, especially if they’re an independent creator without any kind of institutional affiliation or preexisting wealth.
Lyta and Brianna point out that in the real world, this justification is often bullshit, because copyrights last well beyond the death of the person who actually made the thing. But it’s a genuine worry, because there is no “universal basic income” for a writer to fall back on in this country if their works are simply passed around from hand to hand without anybody paying for them. I admit I bristle when I see people share PDFs of full issues of Current Affairs, because if this happened a lot, we could sell exactly 1 subscription and then the issue could just be copied indefinitely. Current Affairs would collapse completely if everyone tried to get our content for free rather than paying for it. (This is why you should subscribe! Or donate! Independent media needs your support!)
At the end of last year, I published a book on socialism, and at first some conservatives thought it funny to ask me “if you’re a socialist, can I have it for free?” They were quieted, though, when I pointed out that yes, they could indeed have it for free. All they needed to do was go to the local socialized information repository known as a public library, where they would be handed a copy of the book without having to fork over a nickel. Anyone who wants to read my book but cannot or does not want to pay for it has an easy solution.
I realized, though, as I was recommending everyone get my book from the library rather than buying it in a bookstore, that my publisher probably didn’t appreciate my handing out this advice. And frankly, it made me a little nervous: I depend for my living on my writing, so if everyone got my book from the library, it wouldn’t sell any copies, and then my publisher wouldn’t pay me to write any more books. We can’t have too many people using the socialized information repository when authors are reliant on a capitalist publishing industry! In fact, a strange thing about the library is that we intentionally preserve an unnecessary inefficiency in order to keep the current content financing model afloat. Your library could just give you DRM-free PDFs of my book and every issue of Current Affairs for free, but instead they make you go to the magazine room or check out one of a limited number of copies of the book, because while we want books and magazines to be free, we cannot have them be as free as it is possible to make them, or it would hurt the publishing industry too much. (Libraries preserve the fiction that there are a select number of “copies” available of a digital book, even though this is ludicrous, because abandoning the fiction would hurt publishers. They could offer every book ever written to anyone at any time. They just can’t do it legally.)
I also realized, however, that I wouldn’t care how many people got my book for free if my compensation operated on a different structure, where I was paid by the number of people who read it rather than the number of people who bought it. “Impossible!” you say. “Where would the money come from?” We can imagine such a set-up quite easily, though. We have our universal public knowledge database, and anyone who wants to can type in the title of any of my books and read them for free.** But the number of people who read the book is tracked, and I am compensated two dollars for every person who reads it (a pittance, but that’s about what authors get for their sales). Current Affairs, likewise, is granted a budget proportional to its readership. Compensated from where? Budget from where? Why, from the universal public knowledge database of course. But from where do they get their money? Why, from taxes.* Free at point of use services are not some alien concept. The NHScompensates doctors while charging patients nothing. (Of course, compensation for producers wouldn’t even be that much of an issue in a society with a Universal Basic Income and where the basics of life were guaranteed. I wouldn’t care about making any money on my books if I could live decently regardless.)
Now, I am sure there will be those who argue that any universal knowledge access system of this kind will inhibit the creation of new work by reducing the rewards people get. But let us note a few facts: first, dead people cannot be incentivized to be creative, thus at least everything ever created by a person who is now dead should be made freely available to all. The gatekeepers to intellectual products made by the dead are parasites the equivalent of a private individual who sets up a gate and a tollbooth in the middle of a road somebody else has already built and starts charging people if they want to pass. Actually, since parasites latch onto the living, they are better compared with corpse-eating worms.
Second, creators are already exploited: Spotify is very much like the universal searchable information database for music, it just operates for profit rather than for artists, and rights-holders get a fraction of a cent Spotify play, an amount that must itself split between the label, the producer, the artist, and the songwriter. The CEO of Spotify has said that if artists want more money, they should make more music. (He is worth $4 billion.) And if you ever want to make a professor laugh, ask how much they make from royalties on their published academic articles. As Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor for research at the University of Johannesburg explains, academic publishing is a “completely feudal system”:
“The costs of the research production are borne by the universities, and as a result, by public monies, in most cases. Then, private companies publish the research, and charge the universities and public institutions for the very research outputs that they paid for. This is effectively the subsidy of the private sector by public money. There is a myth that this is an example of entrepreneurialism. In my view, all it does is facilitate enrichment at public cost with huge consequences for those most disadvantaged.”
This problem has not been fixed by the rise of “open-access” scholarship, because it hasn’t removed the profit motive, so poor countries are still getting screwed by the existing publishing model.
Third, when considering the free information repository’s effects on content creation, you cannot look only at one side of the equation. The question of how much productivity would be inhibited by the state declining to enforce the copyrights of academic journal publishers and Getty Images must be weighed against the phenomenal unleashing of human productive power that universal free access to all human knowledge would create. You must add up how much researchers could do with the time that they now have to spend trying to track down and access things. No more would a certain thing only be in a certain library and accessible through an inter-library loan request. No more would librarians have to spend any time managing subscriptions rather than helping with searches. Researchers in the developing world would no longer be utterly unable to compete with American libraries that can afford vast fees. (I can tell you, personally, that as someone who is constantly having to find obscure used books for research and then order them and wait sometimes weeks for them to arrive, I could produce far more quickly if I could see the full content of the book in ten seconds, and I am constantly exasperated by Google Books’ “snippet view.”)
Furthermore, we would have to consider what would happen in a society where the relative accessibility and cost of truth versus lies was adjusted. What if every online course was free? What if textbooks cost nothing instead of $200? What if we made it as easy and cheap as possible to find things out and were guided by the desire to create the greatest possible access to knowledge rather than by economic considerations? I do not know what would happen, but I hope some rogue state (or microstate or seastead) that doesn’t mind pissing off the world’s most powerful corporations and governments tries to storm the Bastille of information and free every bit and byte from its artificial prison. The only thing stopping them is law, and what is law but a threat?
The good news about our times is that the possibilities for democratizing knowledge are greater than ever. We could not have started Current Affairs in 1990 unless we had about ten times more money than what we actually had. Sharp left YouTubers are fighting hard to combat propaganda and debunk bad arguments, there are tons of great podcasts, and even Twitter has its uses. (Where else do you get to yell at powerful and influential people and personally tick them off?) But it is still true that Fox News and PragerU and the American Enterprise Institute have a hell of a lot of money to blast out their message as widely as possible. There is nothing on the left of remotely comparable size and influence.
But we are working on it. We are a long way from the world in which all knowledge is equally accessible. Hopefully someday our patchwork of intentionally-inefficient libraries will turn into a free storehouse of humanity’s recorded knowledge and creativity. In the meantime, however, we need to focus on getting good and thoughtful material in as many hands as possible and breaking down the barriers we can. At Current Affairs we have no paywall, even though this might cost us some money, because we are trying to make it as easy as possible to hear what we have to say. This is what the right does. They tell people what to think, offer them books and pamphlets and handy five-minute YouTube videos. On the left we are not nearly as slick.
We can’t afford to keep our reach to those who like us so much that they are willing to pay money to listen, because then the free bullshit wins. It’s hard for small media institutions to figure out the right balance of depending on ads, paywalls, and donations. The money has to come from somewhere, after all. A lot of the times, that means a heavy dependence on ads—the traditional model of magazines has been ad-revenue based, not subscription-based—so that paywalls are actually the less corrupted model; a podcaster who sells their product on Patreon rather than giving it away but filling it with mattress and “box-of-shit-a-month” ads has an important kind of freedom: they only have to please the audience, not the sponsors. At Current Affairs, we sell subscriptions to keep the lights on, but even one person who could have read an article and doesn’t is a loss. (I wish I could give my book to everyone too but my publisher won’t let me. I did make another one free, though.) The Guardian and the Intercept provide a lot of valuable material to the public for free because they don’t have paywalls, but the Guardian is funded by a trust and the Intercept by a benevolent billionaire. (Such funding sources make things much easier. Attention benevolent billionaires: we have a donate page.) Perhaps paywalls can help publications like the New York Times and the New Statesman from having to partner with “branded content” suppliers like Shell Oil and Cigna, but at the expense of limiting reach. More reason to have publications funded by the centralized free-information library rather than through subscriptions or corporate sponsorship.
Creators must be compensated well. But at the same time we have to try to keep things that are important and profound from getting locked away where few people will see them. The truth needs to be free and universal.
* I will not be reading angry emails from Modern Monetary Theorists. I am assuming a country without a sovereign currency, so there.
** You could, of course—and I am sure many people would want to—offer the universal database with a paywall and something like an “allowance” each month (e.g. 5 books, 100 newspaper/magazine articles, 50 scholarly journal articles, 20 films, and as many court records as they like) above which there would be a cost, and waive that cost for anyone below a certain income level. But this would involve means-testing, which makes everything needlessly complicated and inevitably means that some people will not access things who otherwise would. We do not means-test the public library and we should not means-test the universal public knowledge database.