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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of  September 5 - 11, 2001

  Opinion Column

The next great battle

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

During the agricultural and industrial eras, the control of the respective resources determined the balance of wealth and power in the world. Landowners ruled the day in the former and the manufacturers dominated the latter. To the extent those resources were fluid and changed hands easily determined the degree to which different elements of our population attained socio-economic equality.

There is every reason to believe that the same situation applies with regards to the control of information and knowledge. This time around, however, the stakes are quite a bit higher. Certainly money and power are in play. More significantly, lives are in the balance, as is something nearly as important: democracy.

The battle over information and the control of it is occurring because of dramatic advances in technology. They are advances that have happened so quickly and unfettered that the public and its government haven’t figured out how to deal with the future consequences. In the arenas of science and free speech, the issue is pressing

Intellectual property laws have served us well up until now. Patents, which generally guarantee the owner of one 17 years of exclusive rights to a novel idea ("design" patents are good for 14 years), provide an economic incentive for innovation. And, in theory, everyone benefits from innovation, sooner or later.

Later is all well and good when we are talking about mouse traps and widgets or drugs for hair loss, but what about drugs for AIDS, or some future vaccine for AIDS, or a drug to fight anti-biotic-resistant tuberculosis? Should Eli Lilly or whoever controls the patents for AIDS drugs be allowed a patent lasting 17 years, be able to set the price of them, and therefore determine who lives and dies? Should a corporation be able to hold a monopoly on that knowledge for all those years when the cost of honoring those patents is registered in lives?

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out at the recent Sun Valley Writers’ Conference that, during the 20th century, markets proved themselves to be far more effective than central planning. And I think he was right when it comes to basic goods. But markets do not accommodate ethical considerations. Even if they did, patent law puts a 17-year hiccup in the free market system. At what point do we, as a society, sidestep the economic incentive argument and inject our ethics into the equation? It’s true that drug companies have invested billions of dollars in solutions to health care problems. But the world has changed; millions of people will die sooner than they should without access to certain drugs at an affordable cost.

Stem cell research provides another example. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund holds the only American patent to the human embryonic stem cell. Should they have a monopoly on the potential keys to life or death? I don’t think so.

Further, President Bush, in setting his stem cell policy, put a choke hold on the free flow of knowledge. He set an arbitrary date of Aug. 9, after which no additional stem cell lines may be created from surplus embryos and still qualify for federal funds. The stem cell lines he tapped with his magic wand exist in 10 labs worldwide, only two of which are in the U.S. Any scientist will tell you that the great problems in science are solved when there are a wide range of minds working on them. The structures of scientific knowledge are generally built brick by brick, each brick being placed by a different scientist. President Bush—perhaps unknowingly—has charged just a handful of scientists with building what amounts to a gargantuan structure.

It seems clear that public policy and the very notion of intellectual property, at least as far as medical knowledge is concerned, needs to be revised. I’m not sure that doing away with medical patents is the solution, but the issue needs to be discussed. Perhaps the duration of patents should be shortened, or perhaps there should be special dispensations when it comes to medical crises. Perhaps there are more creative solutions out there. Ultimately, I think, we are going to have to choose between the speed of innovation and progress and the democratic nature of our innovations. We have to answer the question: who gets access to our great knowledge and at what price?

The unfettered flow of knowledge and information is nearly as critical in the workings of democracy. Up until now, free speech has been the great leveling force of our democracy. The advent of computer technology, communications systems and the Internet has been, in general, a boon to our system of government. Free speech has exploded on the Internet. The world wide web has provided a relatively inexpensive and accessible forum for the free flow of ideas. Some of it may seem horrific and distasteful, but that’s the nature of the beast. That the Internet has no editor, or rather that it has hundreds of millions of editors, is its greatest strength.

Still, there are serious questions about communications and the control of it. While there is technology that allows wireless communications and other such wonders, that same technology allows the government or Microsoft or whatever organization controlling a given system to easily monitor, control or censor communication.

The irony of electronic communication, say e-mail or cell phone technology, is that it seems more secure than traditional forms of communications. It isn’t, of course. Computer systems are always built with redundancies imbedded in them. And any system with redundancies will be less secure than those without them.

Large companies routinely monitor their employees’ e-mails and forays on the Internet. This may seem like paranoia, but what if you knew someone was always listening to your conversations, or your conversations were being recorded in some electronic form or another? What if your medical records were floating around the electronic ether for insurance companies or employers to freely mull over? Would it affect your sense of free speech? I think so. Free speech is implicitly tied to a sense of privacy.

The dilemma we face is that, like the knowledge base in science, communications services—television, Internet, cable, phone, satellite and cellular—have become consolidated and interconnected. The assets of our time—knowledge and information—flow through the hands of relatively few organizations. And that makes the flow subject to disruptions, diversions and polluting factors.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.