January 21, 2011

The Commons that Was the Internet, & Why the Creative Explosion It Gave Us May Soon Be Over

Lawrence Lessig has a new article at Foreign Policy summarizing important factors behind the explosive growth of the Internet, and the imminent threats that could end it:

A “commons” is a resource to which everyone within a relevant community has equal access. It is a resource that is not, in an important sense, “controlled.” Private or state-owned property is a controlled resource; only as the owner specifies may that property be used. But a commons is not subject to this sort of control. Neutral or equal restrictions may apply to it (an entrance fee to a park, for example) but not the restrictions of an owner. A commons, in this sense, leaves its resources “free.”

. . . . But within American intellectual culture, commons are treated as imperfect resources. They are the object of “tragedy,” as ecologist Garrett Hardin famously described. Wherever a commons exists, the aim is to enclose it. . . .

For most resources, for most of the time, the bias against commons makes good sense. When resources are left in common, individuals may be driven to overconsume, and therefore deplete, them. But . . . . [s]ome resources are not subject to the “tragedy of the commons” because some resources cannot be “depleted.” . . . For these resources, the challenge is to induce provision, not to avoid depletion. The problems of provision are very different from the problems of depletion—confusing the two only leads to misguided policies.

* * * * *
. . . . [T]he Internet was born at a time when a different philosophy was taking shape within computer science. This philosophy ranked humility above omniscience and anticipated that network designers would have no clear idea about all the ways the network could be used. It therefore counseled a design that built little into the network itself, leaving the network free to develop as the ends (the applications) wanted.

The motivation for this new design was flexibility. The consequence was innovation. Because innovators needed no permission from the network owner before different applications or content got served across the network, innovators were freer to develop new modes of connection. . . . Since the network was not optimized for any single application or service, the Internet remained open to new innovation. . . .

* * * * *
Every significant innovation on the Internet has emerged outside of traditional providers. . . . This trend teaches the value of leaving the platform open for innovation. Unfortunately, that platform is now under siege. Every technological disruption creates winners and losers. The losers have an interest in avoiding that disruption if they can. This was the lesson Machiavelli taught, and it is the experience with every important technological change over time. It is also what we are now seeing with the Internet. The innovation commons of the Internet threatens important and powerful pre-Internet interests. During the past five years, those interests have mobilized to launch a counterrevolution that is now having a global impact.
The article's not super-long but contains much more that's well worth reading.

UPDATE: Great audio of Lessig here discussing the policy considerations underlying copyright law and some reforms we might consider that could actually afford greater compensation to artists while de-criminalizing non-commercial re-mixing and other uses.

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