Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Internet Commons

The current ruckus over Internet neutrality has been framed by the mass media in a highly biased way (as might be expected). It is described as a pitched battle between Internet users in general, who want free unrestricted access to the Internet and some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who want a proprietary right to give faster access to some of their high-volume commercial users. In short, it is framed simply as a conflict of self-interest between two disparate groups.

This seriously distorts the issue by ignoring the fact that the Internet is a commons. Although the idea of the commons can be traced back to Roman times, it currently gets relatively little attention in the media, in politics and even in contemporary works of political theory and philosophy. As a result, the general public has at best a rather cloudy understanding of the concept. (I include myself in that category.) The lone exceptions might be found in some works on environmental preservation and related utopian thinking about alternative futures. This is regrettable. The commons are actually very valuable attributes of most contemporary societies but in predominantly capitalist countries like ours, they are under constant threat of enclosure by mega-corporations that have undue influence over lawmakers. Internet neutrality is just one such case among many. For a good account of the scope of the threat, see David Bollier’s Silent Theft.

Rather than attempt a careful definition of the commons (I don’t have one), I will focus on two of its central features worth noting. A commons is a highly valued public asset or pattern of behavior that is (a) regarded as of such high value that it is felt by the public that special effort ought to be made to ensure that it can be experienced or practiced by future generations in perpetuity and (b) it cannot be privately owned or controlled without risking deleterious consequences to its value as a common public asset. The commons are, or should be, off-market. Some commons are publicly owned (parks, rivers, lakes, forests), other commons are unowned but their use can be regulated in ways that preserve their value to the public (the human genome, Antarctica, the free electoral process in democracies, basic scientific research).

The Internet is clearly a commons of inestimable value. Thanks to the technology, it is probably the first truly international commons. It has made information on almost every conceivable subject readily accessible to a significant and rapidly growing portion of the world’s population, along with the opportunity to engage in an open-ended electronic conversation about the reliability and significance of that information. The desire of some ISPs to fast-track – at their discretion – some of the more lucrative Internet sites would clearly diminish the value of the Internet commons to all other users. And if such a special permission were granted, it would very likely not be the last.

Moreover, fast-tracking would be profoundly unfair. The ISPs did not create the Internet. It was the work of a research arm of the Defense Department along with the collaboration of some American research universities, mostly taxpayer financed public entities. Nor did the ISPs build or pay for the satellite infrastructure that is the backbone hardware of the Internet. The ISPs just dropped in at the end of the line to make the connections between their microwave towers and individual homes and offices. Fast-tracking would be an outrageous enclosing of an invaluable commons.

One possible objection to this argument for Internet neutrality is that it turns a blind eye to the vast amount of Internet traffic that is far from anything one could reasonably consider a common public good, e.g. the streaming of Hollywood movies, pornography, and the widespread us of the social media for trivial ends. The point can be granted but it does not detract from the fact that a substantial part of the Internet serves the commons. We can all live with the fact that another part of the Internet serves relatively trivial personal ends.

Clifford Anderson
Professor Emeritus
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Cliff, thanks for this timely piece. I find that I am emotionally disposed toward net neutrality, but it seems to me to be a complicated issue and I think its philosophical (as opposed to political and ideological) proponents should be more willing to acknowledge this.

    It is true that nobody owns the internet protocol suite that enables communication between billions of computers worldwide, but an enormous amount of the hardware is in private hands. So, while the internet certainly satisfies your characterization of a commons, it is, nevertheless, a peculiar one.

    I think it is a virtue of your characterization of a commons that it does not rule out offering different grades of access at different prices by definition. But I think that means your claim that a commons must be off-market needs some further argument. (I am not actually entirely sure what you mean by "off market" since the internet is clearly already on market in many ways that other more prototypical commons are not.) To me it is at least conceivable that mechanisms like different levels of service may actually help us to satisfy your first principle (a), by creating market incentives to make the internet work better. Historically one of the important factors driving technological innovations has been the initial willingness of enthusiastic early adopters to pay lots of money for them.

    Beyond that, I’d suggest that there exist commons now for which it is common practice to allow differential pricing of the sort advocates of neutrality find objectionable. The most obvious one is a close cousin to the internet, the U.S Post Office, where we can elect to send our packages and letters faster by paying a higher rate. There’s lots of things wrong with the Post Office, but I’m not sure that’s one of them.

    1. Randy: Good observations. Thanks. I'm not sure your analogy of the Postal Service is a good one because those willing to pay more for faster delivery does not come at the expense of the rest of us in terms of slower service - at least as far as I can tell. But the ISPs that want to fast-track some favored customers would mean slower service for the rest of us. My larger worry is that that would put the system on a slippery slope to more and more restrictions. How long would it be before the ISPs start charging us all a monthly fee for the privilege of using "their" internet?

      Yes it's true that much of the internet is market driven, but I don't think it has to be that way. In some other countries (S. Korea for one) a public agency plays the role of an ISP and they provide much faster service for all users. Why couldn't individual states or counties in the U.S. do the same?

  2. Cliff, those strike me as very legitimate concerns. I'm just not sure why the ISP's can't be regulated so that they have to obey some sort ofi mini-max formula whereby any improvement offered to higher paying customers must come with an improvement to lower paying ones. That would effectively mean that they couldn't offer better service to higher paying customers without improving service for everyone.

    You bring out a nice analogy between the internet and medicine in your second paragraph. And in both cases it's just hard to see how to get there from here.

    1. Randy: Philosophically you make a valid point but practically I don't see that happening under our current political system in which mega-corporations pretty much get what they want. Revolution anyone?

  3. Perhaps some of the complexity in figuring out how to allow everyone fair access to the Internet, while making making it as useful as possible, can be resolved if we treat it more like an infrastructure by which we make use of the commons, which isn't the Internet itself but a worldwide public square that the Internet makes possible. Just as we use an infrastructure of roads and bridges to convert vast tracts of land into navigable, productive places, we can manage the Internet as if it's the same sort of thing, for the same sort of purpose

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