13 November 2011

Why we need the Internet to stay a Commons

Thanks to Sir Tim Berners-Lee's vision we have the hyperlinked online network that we call the Web, in which we share information and ever more engage socially with each other. Thanks to the American Department of Defence the Web runs on a distributed logical infrastructure, which gives it the character of a commons: something we use and own collectively, without a central authority to govern or dictate what goes on. This character has been under threat from two sides. The Media Industries who see their business model of 'selling culture in containers' jeopardized. They focus their grievances on the peer-to-peer networks in which content is freely shared. However, independent artists of all kinds who sell their creative products directly to their fans and customers, will in the long run be even more of a threat as they cut out the middleman that the Media Industry is. This is the real game changing event as for the first time it is feasible to also cater for the long tale of people's interests. The second threat comes from governments, which are naturally inclined to fear loss of control and use national security arguments to clamp down on an Open Net. The recent measures that various governments took to make life hard for the WikiLeaks site bear witness to this.

For good measure, I should rapidly add that existing intellectual property rights need to be respected, also on the Internet; and attempts to overthrow governments, threaten its institutions or plan terrorist attacks should be nipped in the buds, anywhere, so also on the Internet. However, this is not an all-or-nothing argument. Rather, of each measure taken benefits and drawbacks should be weighted against each other. Thus, enforcing the old model of selling music, films, books in containers that one pays for or attempting to impart such a model on Internet transactions (Digital Rights Management!) stifles innovation. It keeps transaction costs high and it disallows artists and independent small producers and publishers their seat at the table. Also, imparting too much government control on the Internet brings in its wake the Kafkaesque dangers of intransparant data aggregation, data exclusion and data distortion I discussed in my previous post.

Arguments more detailed than the ones I have given can be found in a recent paper by Yochai Benkler entitled WikiLeaks and the protect-ip Act: A New Public-Private Threat to the Internet Commons He also reveals how governments and the Media Industry indeed have joined forces in their attack on the openness of the Internet. According to him, an Open Internet, one which embraces the idea of a commons is not faultless but it offers numerous and large benefits. One of those is its support for democracy and freedom: a democracy only thrives if the populace is well educated and divergent opinions are allowed to be aired; another benefit is its support for innovation and welfare: creativity thrives in heterogeneous environments, where many people gather freely and talk openly, with whom they like, when they like. In a recent 15 minutes interview Benkler reiterates this all very succinctly and eloquently.

Finally, Internet as a Commons is also crucial for the innovation of education. In a world that needs people to be better educated and needs more of them, it is imperative to experiment with different models of learning and teaching. Even though there will always be room for formal learning as in schools and universities, this cannot be the whole story (see Tony Bates' recent blog on this). Experiments with forms of informal learning or combinations of both formal and informal learning are badly needed (see also this recent report on the Future of Learning). To the extent that these are networked - and I have argued in many blogs and papers they should be - only the Internet as a Commons offers enough room for experimentation. Open Educational Resources are a key element but run of course counter to the interests of the Media Industries. Individuals as the sole owners of their profiling data are essential (see my previous post), but runs counter to the interest of governments (who want privileged access) and the Social Media Industry (who want ownership themselves or at least give people a hard time themselves to exert ownership). Long-tail education offers unprecedented opportunities for personalization and customization, but only thrives if providers of such educational opportunities have few hurdles to take, that is, on a web that is as little regulated as feasible. The easiest and ultimately most rewarding way to do this, I believe, is to defend the current character of the Internet as a Commons, surely against attacks such as described by Benkler in his paper and interview.