Our society primarily grapples with this problem though the idea of fair use and meme copy. And it is within this context that I seek to show that the tragedy of the anti-commons reaches deep into the culture of the internet. To be fair our society has always had some true form of copy power dating back to the first printing presses; however, as a pragmatic matter modern IP has evolved a new “meta” problem.
This problem, just as it has in the past, in many ways highlights the issue of status and community. I am specifically choosing to address this angle as most of the articles that I have found relating to this problem are mostly philosophical exercises or are concerned with the legal ramifications for large technology companies.
I think that there is some truth to the anti-commons contention when related to public interface with big business; however, given the nature of the online interaction I think that the actual spirit of an anti-commons reaches deeper into the culture of the internet. How is this possible? I have dealt with this in many previous posts on my blog. The website owners retain the publishing rights for their website. It is with this in mind that I question the idea that comment sections are effectively part of a broad intellectual or cultural commons.
This as I've discussed before holds true for almost every other webpage with a comment section. A certain degree of moderation should be expected. However there has been no research into whether moderators systemically exceeded their mandate and actively removed those who might just be honest folk who simply disagree. The idea of griefer comes to mind. Grief is a very low threshold. After all think of how each human has their own internal standards as to what they might or might now consider grief. In meatspace we are taught to simply ignore the cause of our grief; yet online this somehow becomes grounds for removal from the discussion.
It is in this privatized space that practices reminiscent of an anti-commons grows: only this is culture and not law. It is the lowest form of online vetting and somehow akin to getting bounced out of a location by the security staff. As I've pointed out before many different sites have different standards ranging from free-for-alls to constant deletion but most have found a resonable level.
However, no matter how reasonable site policies might be, our online comments are not made in a culturally “common” or culturally “free” space. It is worth noting, some have argued that the commenter retains the copyright to their text, but the site owner/operator maintains the right to publish those remarks. This is a matter where the comment text is technically part of a shared domain, however that public domain is trumped by the privately maintained (“our sandbox”) site culture. So in essense a commenter does not rely on writ policy but rather the moderator's situational judgement.
If our comments are not made in a common cultural space then what of the culturally blessed site content posts? Here I am considering the actual “Post” to which all the comments then follow. Does this by its nature fit into the same rule-structure that governs the comments below?
We can consider that these comments by their public nature do fit into a sort of shared space. Even if this space has higher barriers to entry then the sub-domain of the comment section. But is this space a culturally shared space or a strange new hybrid entity? Once again we raise the specter of community. Is there anything that would qualify this space as a communal or “common” space.
In my mind we may exclude web “posts” from the definition of commons as understood in the metaphor: first, these web pages are privately held and though we may be invited to graze there is no strict requirement for us to do so. In fact a large number of web page owners are making good use of paywalls and their clientele and thus excluding that content from the “commons.” So in this sense we might technically call the internet a “commons” however this in no ways implies “common” access.
Aside from the anti-common issue of private holding of websites the internet also cannot fit the overall definition of a “commons.” There are just too many barriers to entry. People must own hardware and have an ISP. It might be easier for many to see this as an analogy:
- Internet : "Commons" :: Apple App Store : "Commons"
So in this manner I think it is more correct to treat the internet more like a toll road and less like a “commons.” You are charged a monthly access fee (a toll) just to get past the first gate, and then depending on your habits you might pay a little more money to get past one or several more. This fact in and of itself strongly rebuts the idea that the internet is a commons in the sense that many activists make use of it.
So like almost everything else in life, even with technology, things haven't really changed that much. As before the internet there were still economic barriers to access of knowledge (namely the price of whatever book I wished to buy or course I wished to take). This is still true in many ways so though I reject the rampant abuse of the idea of “commons” I do think that education and availability of information is a good thing. These issues must be worked out in an appropriate manner. We just should be wary of those who wish to use any generalized or metaphorical notion of a “commons” as a panacea.