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The Digital Commons – Left Unregulated, Are We Destined for Tragedy?

We have heard many express concerns over the future of the Internet. One group postulates that an unattended digital commons is destined for the same troubles facing our over-fished oceans and our clogged highways. Others insist that without regulations the behemoths of the industry like Google and Microsoft will simply take control of the world-wide web, perhaps creating bottlenecks and other insidious or onerous forms of control.

On the other hand, we find we very much like what we see today. We are enthralled by the creativity that is demonstrated daily on a site like YouTube and enjoy the incredible breadth of opinion displayed by a new generation of writers called bloggers. We like the fact that no one controls what content is available to us and we love hearing the rags to riches stories of another successful entrepreneur who used their Internet connection, a computer and their own garage to create a world-wide business.

Are we simply in the Internet golden age? Is our current unfettered optimism of the net similar to the feelings of those who came to America to settle a new world? Most importantly, when we sit down with pleasure at the computer today are we doing so with blinders on as to what is to come?

The Tragedy of the Commons
In his famed 1968 piece, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin took the time to address a class of issues he called “no technical solution problems.” For Hardin, that constituted the group of problems that could not be solved with technological advances alone but would need moral clarifications as well (population control).

Hardin also explicitly discussed the noble goal of creating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” However, Hardin acknowledged the obvious, what is considered the optimum for one person might be “nothing but wilderness” while for another the optimum would “constitute ski lodges for thousands.”

Garret Hardin - WikipediaThose two discussion points formed a critical aspect of what Hardin called the “Tragedy of the Commons.” To remedy the issue, Hardin discussed a concept of “mutual coercion that was mutually agreed upon,” i.e. a set of agreed upon regulations with consensus as to how to properly enforce them.

The Town Commons

Hardin explains his “Tragedy of the Commons in the following way. “Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.

“As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another….

“But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy.

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

“The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

In 1968 Hardin was able to articulate the following example, one that we face today. Our “National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit” but “the parks themselves are limited in extent whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.”

The Digital Commons
Does the digital commons mirror this physical world? Many seem to think so.

Daniel McFadden, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2000, writes in “The Tragedy of the Commons”that “the commons that is likely to have the greatest impact on our lives in the new century is the digital commons.” And for that new commons, according to McFadden, we now face the same issues with the digital information that our early settlers faced with the town commons and our natural parks currently face from too many visitors.

McFadden notes that “information is costly to generate and organize, but its value to individual consumers is too dispersed and small to establish an effective market.” Furthermore, “the information that is provided is inadequately catalogued and organized” meaning the Internet “tends to fill with low-value information.”

McFadden - Cal BerkeleyHe concludes by providing four models as to how the digital commons might operate in the future so as to avoid a tragedy similar to that of the town commons. McFadden further insists that the “management of the digital commons is perhaps the most critical issue of market design that our society faces.”

But all of his suggestions leave us feeling hollow. Are we destined to have such poor options as a pay for connect ISP that controls content much like a newspaper of magazine of today? Can we not do better than an array of services that mirror the channel structure of cable television? And can’t we do better than a pay as you go system, however small, and instead give everyone access to the great equalizer, knowledge?

McFadden does acknowledge that “one of the enchanting features of the Internet over the past decade has been unabashed, free-wheeling innovation.” But he seems convinced that the digital commons is on a path similar to that of the town commons depicted by Hardin.

Perhaps to use Hardin’s analogy, McFadden seems to believe that the problems that the digital commons faces could in fact be an issue without a technical solution. Furthermore, McFadden seems to see the digital commons issues as mirroring the difficult Hardin discussions surrounding the greatest good for the greatest number. In the end, McFadden sees the concept of mutual coercion that is mutually agreed upon as a necessary step for the digital commons.

He does give some hope with the following: “The solutions that resolve the problem of the digital commons are likely to be ingenious ways to collect money from consumers with little noticeable pain, and these should facilitate the operation of the Internet as a market for goods and services. Just don’t expect it to be free.”

Maintaining a Free Digital Commons
In direct contrast, the Committee on Economic Development’s report, Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation: Harnessing the Benefits of Openness, touts the success of the “commons” approach: The report notes the “benefits of openness” and insists that continued openness is critical for further growth. Perhaps most importantly, the report challenges the thinking of those who view the digital world in the same manner as that of the physical world.

Certainly consumers have to be pleased with the current digital commons. Today, when we sign on to the Internet we are able to access any information we want at the fastest available speed. Essentially we are also able to use any service we want at virtually whatever time we want to access it.

This fact is dubbed Net Neutrality and it forms the underlying basis of a free and open Internet system. The concept of Net Neutrality is deemed by many as the epitome of democracy because it is so consistent with anti-discrimination laws. Internet providers may not speed up the net for one class of citizens nor slow it for some other class. Content cannot be discriminated against based on who is the owner, the sender or the receiver.

Most importantly, under the current structure, it is the consumer who is in complete control. It is the consumer that decides what content they are interested in and what applications they wish to use. Because of the free and open Internet, it is the consumer that decides the merit of a web site or a service, not some corporation.

At, we believe the current openness of the Internet is precisely why consumers find an explosion of applications and content. While some fear the clogging of the physical Internet arteries, the continued development of the Internet appears to point to the free digital commons as providing greater good for more people.

Larry Lessig and the Creative Commons
LessigThe work Larry Lessig, author of “Free Culture” and founder of the Creative Commons seeks not only the continued push for such openness, but to break down the very barriers that limit the current innovations commons from growing even further. In particular, Lessig has begun a push that seeks to rethink copyright laws as they exist today.

Lessig notes, “Free content is crucial to building and supporting new content. The free content among the ‘wired’ is just a particular example of a more general point. Commons may be rare. They may evoke tragedies. But commons also produce something of value. They are a resource for decentralized innovation. They create the opportunity for individuals to draw upon resources without connections, permission, or access granted by others.”

Lessig insists the current concerns surrounding copyright is not one about artistic freedom and protection. It is instead about control. Lessig wants to move to a world where content authors have the ability to choose how their work is to be used. Detractors insist the current copyright law prevents piracy of an individuals work.

The Tragedy of the Digital Commons
For Lessig, the viewpoint is entirely contradictory to the views of the Tel Coms, McFadden, and the legal teams representing the corporate music giants. For Lessig, the true tragedy of the digital commons would be any move to stifle or to legislate.

In “The Future of Ideas,” Lessig refers to the creation of the web thus: “If the Web was to be a universal resource, it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way. Technically, if there was any centralized point of control, it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the Web’s growth, and the Web would never scale up. Its being “out of control” was very important.”

Of the Web developers, Lessig states: “They were extremely talented; no one was more expert. But with talent comes humility. And the original network architects knew more than anything that they didn’t know what this network would be used for.”

In addition, the last thing Lessig wants to hear about is the notion of legislating because some are uncertain as to where the future of the Internet will take us. The Stanford Professor insists on just the opposite.

“In particular, when the future is uncertain—or more precisely, when future uses of a technology cannot be predicted—then leaving the technology uncontrolled is a better way of helping it find the right sort of innovation. Plasticity—the ability of a system to evolve easily in a number of ways—is optimal in a world of uncertainty. Lessig there is no doubt that the open digital commons is the right way to proceed. “This strategy is an attitude. It says to the world, I don’t know what functions this system, or network, will perform. It is based in the idea of uncertainty. When we don’t know which way a system will develop, we build the system to allow the broadest range of development. This was a key motivation of the original Internet architects.”

We agree with Lessig’s optimism and see the digital commons as an intellectual commons not a physical one. Keeping open access means that all of the great minds, those so-called great by society as well as those without the credentials, can tackle these issues in an intellectual manner.

And as for the potential tragedy that others insist is awaiting the out-of-control Internet, Lessig says simply:

“There is a tragedy of the commons that we will identify here; it is the tragedy of losing the innovation commons that the Internet is, through the changes that are being rendered on it.”

We could not agree more.

Next up we take the time to interview Dr. Ahrash Bissell of the Creative Commons.


1 Dale Eastman { 02.27.08 at 12:51 pm }

The difference between the Town Commons that Mr. McFadden writes of, and the Digital Commons is the difference of a virtual place and a real place.

It is true that the virtual place is circumscribed by a real place, specifically the server hardware, and more specifically, the storage medium within such servers and thus the limits of a real place will place limits on a virtual place.

However, the ratio of the size of the virtual place to its containing real place is very large, and getting larger, because of technical solutions. Do you remember 8″ floppy disks? 500 kilobytes of memory. Now we have USB flash drives with 8 gigabytes of memory and hard drives with 1 terabyte have just become available.

In the physical world, the tragedy of the commons is that the commons has physical limits. In the virtual world, those limits are virtually non-existent.

P.s. The source cited for the tragedy of the commons is on a web site examining the commons problem of peak oil. The requirement for energy to run servers will be the real reason for a tragedy of the virtual commons.

2 KATALOG-STRON.AZ.PL - CIEKAWE INFORMACJE Z RÓŻNYCH STRON » CC and Net Neutrality { 02.28.08 at 6:19 pm }

[…] the growing availability of Open Educational Resources on the web. In a recent post entitled, The Digital Commons — Left Unregulated, Are We Destined for Tragedy? , they explore the potential of the open digital commons, concluding that open access is the key to […]

3 menonnite { 03.19.08 at 3:49 am }

dale eastman is correct, the original finite premise doesn’t necessarily translate to the newer, semi-finite context except that you can be pessimistic about either one.

for every commons that doesn’t work out on the net, you can clone it and build another version of it differently. it’s true that there are a limited number of people to organize things, but the commons we’re really talking about is “web 2.0,” the content-driven paradigm which is built on top of the web with no version number. it’s a very young idea.

the new-world comparison is an interesting one. it’s true, we’re not living in any utopia, and anyone should know better than to think the internet will just become one, or probably ever become one.

on the other hand, the new world has brought a number of good and bad things to the world, among them, the world-wide-web itself. so if the new world can usher in an age of the internet, what can the age of the internet usher in? i’m sure it will be good and bad, but not at all pointless, and not necessarily a complete disappointment. oh and no disrespect to cern, i know you did more than help.

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