Information may not want to be free, but it certainly wants to move around.
Since computers first got online, file transfer has been one of the untold stories: less sexy than email or the web but essential to business and consumer alike. It's also triggered one of the great commercial and cultural clashes of recent years, as content owners try to find ways to stop people transferring files, at the same time as the technology and business models of the internet keep making things easier.
The latest tool for data movement is online storage, typified by Dropbox and Microsoft's SkyDrive and, according to rumour, the imminent Google Drive. The concept is simple: by making storage in the cloud look as much like local storage as possible, it works seamlessly with all the applications and techniques that users know already. That's reflected in the way online storage is marketed, primarily as a tool for secure backup and sharing data between a user's different devices — two areas where the technology certainly works well.
With Google poised to join the expanding remote storage market, the number of ways to informally distribute content is increasing.
It doesn't take long for users to find other ways to use these systems: once the data is in the cloud, and providing it's made shareable, it can be sent to other users just by passing on a URL or other reference. It may take a little while to upload data to online storage, especially for those on asymmetric domestic broadband; but once it's there, it's available at full network bandwidth to as many people as want it. Not only is this possible, but its popularity means that companies are making it as easy as possible.
That's only one step away from services like Megaupload, which is currently closed following a US police action against alleged illicit content sharing. While Dropbox and others are committed to following the law and supporting action against copyright infringers, their business models depend on people getting quick access to shared resources, making it hard to trace those intent on covering their tracks. And a small amount of encryption will defeat any automated checks for infringing files, at least in the short term.
As it was before the lawyers went for Napster, before they went for torrent sites, before they went for Megaupload, and before they went for ISPs, it is simple, easy and almost entirely risk free to move data between yourself and any number of your friends, regardless of the legality.
All this underlines the basic paradox of the internet and copyright: for the internet to work, it has to copy data. The more barriers you put in, the more broken the internet is — but as long as it can still move a byte of data between any two points, someone will produce a new, more convenient way to get around those barriers. Legislate against that, and you legislate against the very heart of interconnectivity.
Which means there are two end points possible: either the content distributors get their way and effectively close down the basic functionality of the internet altogether; or, like the Soviet Union, they expire at last from attrition in an arms race they can't win against the free world.
Either end point will mean the death of a huge industry — the content distributors, or the internet.
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