Electronic Commerce and Free Speech
University of Michigan Law School
For commercial purveyors of digital speech, information and entertainment, the biggest threat posed by the Internet isn't the threat of piracy, but the threat posed by free speech -- speech that doesn't cost any money. Free speech has the potential to squeeze out expensive speech. A glut of high quality free stuff has the potential to run companies in the business of selling speech out of business. We haven't had to worry about this before, because speaking in a meaningful way to a large audience was expensive, and people couldn't afford to do serious mass speaking for free for very long. The Internet has made it much cheaper. It doesn't take much to give out information to the whole world, every day, for free, for years. And people do. If we are trying to increase the abundant dissemination of information, free speech is good. If we are trying to increase commerce in information, free speech is arguably bad, in that it competes with pay speech. Information merchants would obviously prefer that the only speech in the marketplace be pay speech.
In the past two years, commercial content owners have scored significant progress in herding free speakers off the Net. There's an important synergy between persuading the government to give your industry some friendly new laws or regulations, and using new and old legal tools to make life more difficult or expensive for inconvenient competitors who aren't necessarily doing anything illegal. Recently, businesses have been able to combine the two strategies to make the Internet a much safer place to sell speech, by making the Internet a less friendly, more dangerous place to give away speech for free.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 26
JEL Classification: K1
Date posted: April 13, 2000
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