The top news stories of any year often spotlight knowledge – new discoveries, for instance, or technological achievements. In 2013, however, I’d say that some of the biggest debates centred on control of knowledge. Are all means to gain knowledge ethically acceptable? Who are the appropriate gatekeepers for access to knowledge, and how fierce is the fence they erect? Who gains and controls the benefits that come from knowledge? Who owns knowledge?
Probably the hottest controversy has flared up over government control of information, with debate over what the public has the right to know – or possibly in a democracy the responsibility to know. On one level, this is a story of government secrecy and individual whistleblowing, with Edward Snowden considered, depending on the perspective, either the villain or the hero of the year. Certainly, like other whistleblowers before him, he has met the wrath of his own American government, which has punished those who reveal wrongdoing more severely than wrongdoers exposed. (35-year sentence for Chelsea Manning’s revelations in WikiLeaks!)
Yet it is part of the content of what Snowden has revealed that makes this story doubly about knowledge: he has exposed massive data collection that the American government has made on its own citizens, and spying that it has carried out on allied world leaders. British and Canadian governments also share the scrutiny. The questions that emerge from this blaze are urgent ones, ethically and politically: What information should a government possess about its citizens, and what information should citizens possess about their government? Who should determine the answer to these questions, and according to what criteria? What are the political and practical implications of accepting particular perspectives? Taking a little distance from this particular news story, we can frame some broad and general knowledge questions: Who owns knowledge? How can we determine, ethically, when knowledge should be shared and when it should not be shared? What is the relationship between ethics and politics?
Although the whistleblowing story has been given far more coverage in the media, other significant stories of 2013 equally centre on the struggle to control knowledge — in the form of copyrights or patents. One event that has passed comparatively quietly is the legal ruling last month that Google is entitled to scan books and share them on the internet, regardless of copyright ownership: “Google’s Book-Scanning Is Fair Use, Judge Rules in Landmark Copyright Case”.
Passing far too quietly for their potential impact, according to many sources, are trade deals being worked out by governments with “unprecedented levels of secrecy”. It is WikiLeaks, not governments, which has shared with citizens the draft “intellectual property” section of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which is reported as proposing “sweeping reforms including to pharmaceuticals, publishers, patents, copyrights, trademarks, civil liberties and liability of internet service providers.” For example, intellectual property rules under negotiation would give pharmaceutical companies longer monopolies over drugs, such that cheaper generic drugs that would save lives would be rendered illegal. The international organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) calls the TPP “the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries, unless damaging provisions are removed before the deal is sealed”. At the heart of this controversy is ownership of knowledge, with trade rules carrying huge implications for life and death.
Knowledge matters, and it matters who owns it and who controls it. Ownership of knowledge matters to citizens in a democracy who want to accept legitimate secrecy with clarity over what that is, and who, at the same time, want to hold their governments accountable for the actions done in their names. Ownership of knowledge matters to creators of knowledge who want to benefit from their work, to businesses that want a return on investment in research, and to consumers and citizens who want their own lives and wellbeing to count in the balance against corporate profits. In some of the news stories of 2013 – especially in those that pitted secrecy against sharing – we can see that the concept of “shared knowledge” in TOK is a dynamic one, and can be even a hotly contested one within a social context.