Internet Commons – The next tragedy? -Camille

How does the theory of the commons relate to internet, community or politics?

The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin relates to the concerns over population growth. Although this article was printed in 1968, we can gain further understanding of our age by applying Hardin’s concepts to the Internet. The Internet is often touted as the commons of our age; a free place to exchange ideas, find people with common interests and a place to organize social protest or other forms of political involvement as Kollock and Smith discussed last week. The Internet functions as a commons, in that, once accessed, there is freedom to roam and partake of whatever of these priorities might interest us. Is the internet truly a commons?

Hardin would feel that because we have instituted certain controls over it, that the Internet is not a true commons because it is not truly accessible to all. Everyone may have the right to access the Internet, but it is not free. Internet access costs money. Hardin might conceive of financial access as a method of control in essence moderating the Internet’s usage. Access is certainly limited by money and in essence denies the lower classes or poorer countries from access to the Internet commons. In addition, infrastructure also moderates access to the Internet commons.

There are places in the world where infrastructure does not exist and therefore access is denied. Deterrents to access in essence create a greater divide between the haves and have-nots. Ironically, this financial and infrastructure barriers, according to Hardin, are likely what also promoted the Internet’s growth amongst affluent countries. According to Hardin, cattle owners are obliged to increase their herds in order to “maximize their gain.” Could we not say the same of internet retailers who have pushed their way into the web for an additional bite at the profit pie? Intuitively, we can say “yes!” In turn, further traffic to utilize the net for shopping and other entrainment activities also pushes additional companies and advertisers to seize their corner of the web regardless of how it might over pollute the Internet commons with spam, phishing and other annoyances. Standards or “legislated temperance” has somewhat moderate this problem. Anti-spam laws have helped to diminish but not totally obliterate nuisance emails from your inbox. However, laws governing the internet are sparse.

For now, there is relative freedom of the Internet. The Internet’s relative freedom has been its major appeal to users. There are opportunities to meet people with common interests and goals in a “safe” environment. A great many of the communities are self-policed which means they are utilizing conscience and the morals of our day to moderate communities. Hardin would be well pleased with appealing to human values of the day in order to moderate Internet usage. In our age, we are always looking for technical solutions to our problems. Hardin states that a change in human values or morality is the only thing that can save us from the destruction of the commons. The Internet is not the technical solution to all social ills but it does provide a social benefit in its current state. The Internet allows those with common goals and interests to find one another. However, it does not equally benefit all because of lack of access. As time goes on such barriers may cease to exist. Ironically, this universal access might mean the destruction of the Internet commons. However, this is for another generation to fathom.


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