Information wants to be free, but not if the National Labor Relations Board or Apple can stop it. This week two news items surfaced showing how scared big organizations are about free content.
First up, the U.S. labor board told employers that it’s OK to prohibit workers from sending union-related emails on the company email system, since the email is corporate property. Next up, Apple–our beloved, uber-consumer-centric Apple–shut down a web site called Think Secret run by Harvard student Nick Ciarelli. Think Secret was in the business of investigative journalism, scooping Apple’s upcoming product releases, and Apple didn’t like this. We wonder if Ciarelli got a sweet payoff, er, settlement in exchange for walking away.
Whatever one’s politics, these types of actions should give us pause–not because either is morally wrong, but because both prohibitions are inefficient.
It’s a good thing if news flies that Apple has a hot product coming, because that news helps the entire technology industry advance more rapidly. It’s a good thing if employees can speak openly about work issues, since eventually it helps problems surface and be resolved more quickly, to remove friction and boost future profits. We’re not talking about stealing, lying, or misappropriating intellectual property. We’re talking about the speed of communication.
Let’s examine the corporate email issue more closely. What if, instead of a union message, you email your colleagues a proposal to sell more of Widget A and make the company $10 million in new profits? Ah, but unbeknownst to you, Widget B is a competing product and the Board is focused on that. Your proposal has undercut the other corporate initiative. Perhaps you’ve just abused company property. But at a higher level, your new idea, if adopted, could change your business for the better.
You see the point–prohibitions block innovation. Freedom of communication has moved beyond a human right into a larger role as the engine of capitalism. Consider what drives a healthy stock market: A buoyant technology sector, perhaps, led by Google, and Google sells the free transfer of information. If you really think about Google’s model, it is stealing the first three lines of content from every web site in the world. Do you mind? Put the brakes on that information flow, and search engines, and the entire internet, and then the S&P 500 and Nasdaq will all take a tumble.
Unfortunately, what is good for the economy as a whole–free data–is not always good for individual companies. Industry has a right to protect its creations, to be sure, which is why we don’t agree with today’s college youths that stealing music or video online is OK. But when industry tries to stop individuals from sharing news or opinion, it steps too far. No matter. In the end information will be free, and businesses who can’t learn to profit from that dynamic will sink back into the tar pits, where all dinosaurs belong.