Through a reference by Julian Elvé, I read Doc Searls’ talk that he gave last October and has now published, Saving the Internet – and all the commons it makes possible.
Internet Open, image by Liz Henry, license CC BY ND
First he says of the internet as commons
In economic terms, the Internet is a common pool resource; but non-rivalrous and non-excludable to such an extreme that to call it a pool or a resource is to insult what makes it common: that it is the simplest possible way for anyone and anything in the world to be present with anyone and anything else in the world, at costs that can round to zero.
As a commons, the Internet encircles every person, every institution, every business, every university, every government, every thing you can name. It is no less exhaustible than presence itself. By nature and design, it can’t be tragic, any more than the Universe can be tragic.
He then lists 9 enclosures of that commons currently visible, because enclosure is one of the affordances the internet provides.
See, the Internet is designed to support every possible use, every possible institution, and—alas—every possible restriction, which is why enclosure is possible. People, institutions and possibilities of all kinds can be trapped inside enclosures on the Internet.
- service provisioning, for example with asymmetric connection speeds. Asymmetry favours consumption over production. Searls singles out cable companies specifically for wanting this imbalance. I’ve been lucky from early on. Yes until fiber to the home, we had asymmetrical speeds, but I had a fixed IP address from the start and ran a web server under my desk from the mid ’90s until 2007 when I started using a hoster for this blog. I still run little experiments from my own server(s) at home. The web was intentioned to be both read and write even at the level of a page you visited (in short the web as online collaboration tool, in a way like Google documents). For most people the general web is preceived as read-only I assume, even if they participate in silos where they do post stuff themselves.
- 5G wireless service, as a way for telco’s to do the same as cable companies did before, in the form of content-defined packages. I am not sure if this could play out this way in the Netherlands or the EU, where net neutrality is better rooted in law, and where, especially after the end of roaming charges in the EU, metered data plans either have become meaningless as unmetered plans are cheap enough, or at least the metered plans themselves are large enough to make e.g. zero-rating a meaningless concept. 5G could however mean households might choose to no longer use a fixed internet subscription for at home, and do away with their own wifi networks, I suspect, and introducing a new dependency where your mobile and at home access are all the same thing and a singular choke point.
- government censorship, with China being the most visible one in this space, but many countries do aim to block specific services at least temporarily, and many countries and collections of countries are on the path to realising their own ‘data spaces’. While understandable, as data and networks are strategic resources now, it also carries the risk of fragmentation of the internet (Russia e.g.), motivated ostensibly by safety concerns but with a big dollop of wanting control over citizens.
- the advertising-supported commercial Internet. This is the one most felt currently. Adtech that tracks you across your websurfing habits, and not just in the silos you inhabit
- protectionism, which Searls ties to EU privacy laws, which I find a very odd remark. While GDPR could be better, it is a quality instrument with a rising floor, that is not designed to protect the EU market, but to encourage global compliance to its standards. A way of shaping instruments the EU uses more often, and has proven to be a succesfull export product. The cookie notices he mentions are a nuisance, but not the result of the GDPR, and in my mind more caused by interpreting the (currently under revision) cookie law in a deliberate cumbersome way. Even then, I don’t see how privacy regulation is protectionism, as it finds its root in human rights, not competition law.
- Facebook.org, or digital colonialism. This is the efforts by silos like FB to bring the ‘next billion’ online in a fully walled garden that is free of charge and presented as being the web, or worse the internet itself. I’ve seen this in action in developing countries and it’s unavoidable for most if not all, because it is the only way to access the power of agency that the internet promises, when there’s is no way you can afford connectivity.
- forgotten past, caused by the focus on the latest, the newest, while at the same time the old is not only forgotten but also actively lost as it gets taken offline etc. I think this is where strong opportunities are arising for niche search engines and also search engines as a personal tool. You don’t need to build the next Google or be a market player even, to meaningfully erode the position of Google search. For instance it is quite feasible to have my own search engine that only searches all the blogs I subscribe and have subscribed to (I actually should build that). At the same time, there is a slow steady and increasing effort of bringing more of the old, just not the old web, online by the ongoing digitisation of physical archives and collections of artefacts. More of our past, our global cultural heritage, is coming onto the web every day and it is really still only at the start.
- algorithmic opacity. This one is very much on the agenda across Europe currently, mainly as part of ethical discussions and right now mostly centered around government transparency. The GDPR contains a clause that automated algorithmic decision making about people is not allowed. At the very least having explainable alogrithms, and transparent usage of them is a likely emerging practice. Asymmetry of decision making also plays a useful role. This one too is closely tied to human rights which will help bring in parties to the discussion that are not of the tech world. At issue with what we currently see of algorithms is that they are used over our heads, and not yet much as personal tool, where it could increase our networked agency.
- the one inside our heads, where we accept the internet as it is presented to us by those invested in one or more of the above 8 enclosures. With understanding what the internet is and how it is a commons as a public awareness need.
Go read the entire thing, where Doc Searls describes what the internet is, how it connects to human experience and making the hyper local key again when there is a global commons encompassing everyone, and how it erodes and replaces institutions of the 20th century and earlier. He talks about how the internet “means we are all authors of each other“.
At the end he asks What might be the best way to look at the Internet and its uses most sensibly?, and concludes “I think the answer is governance predicated on the realization that the Internet is perhaps the ultimate commons“, and “There is so much to work on: expansion of agency, sensibility around license and copyright, freedom to benefit individuals and society alike, protections that don’t foreclose opportunity, saving journalism, modernizing the academy, creating and sharing wealth without victims, de-financializing our economies… the list is very long”
I’m happy to be working on the first three of those.
Walled garden, image by Ron Frazier, license CC BY