The Tragedy of the Internet Commons

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Like overgrazing of public lands or over-fishing of the seas, the digital space will continue to be exploited -- and that's why it needs to be regulated. 

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In 1968, the evolutionary biologist Garrett Hardin warned of the "tragedy of the commons," the damage that actions by individuals can inflict on the environment at large. Hardin's concern was with overpopulation. I am worried about everything else -- especially the effects of the Internet as interconnections proliferate and increase in strength, creating more and more valuable commons in virtual space.

Hardin illustrated the tragedy with overgrazing of commonly accessible land. He argued that property rights had been used for a millennium to preserve the commons. A "pasture open to all" could work well for centuries, he said, because tribal wars, poaching, and disease controlled the number of grazers. But once "the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality," he said, "the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy."

The most disturbing part of Hardin's theory is his assertion that the things we do in order to do good -- reaching the goal of social stability -- ends up allowing those with less social conscience to create the tragedy.

The oceans of the world, for example, continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the "freedom of the seas." Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans," their permissive catch laws cause the killing off of fish and whales faster than they can reproduce, bringing species after species closer to extinction.

Were he alive today, Hardin would no doubt have a lot to say about the explosive growth of the Internet, and the accelerated pace at which the Internet commons can be destroyed. In the past, the commons of concern existed in physical space, and the effects of "overgrazing" took a long time to show up ­­-- just think how long it has taken to destroy the fisheries of the world. This meant that there was more time to react.

But many of the commons we now value exist in virtual space, and can be exploited almost instantly. A herder 100 miles from a pasture cannot get to it easily; give him an easy way to get there, and everything changes. And the new breed of commons grazers is as voracious today as Hardin's hungry cattle were centuries ago. They are exploiting one of the inherent weaknesses of free markets.

Free markets are the most efficient and best mechanism for managing most economic activity. But when they operate in arenas in which they can exploit the commons, the logic of the free market dictates that they will destroy it. Virtual retailers, for instance, live off their bricks-and-mortar brethren. They encourage customers to search for clothes that fit properly in retail stores that pay property taxes and other overhead costs, and then to buy them online. In the process, they get fat off the bricks-and-mortar commons.

One of the areas I see being chewed up at an alarming speed is privacy -- a vital aspect of our personal commons. We spend hours filtering out junk email, updating passwords, and worrying about stolen identity.

In the physical world, laws protect our privacy, and the cost of gaining access to us is high. (It costs a lot to send physical mail.) Physical spying is expensive. But in the virtual world, we have few property rights, few laws to protect us, and spying is almost free.

In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, remarked, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Sun was a member of the Online Privacy Alliance, a group that advocated industry self-regulation.

A decade has passed. The technology industry continues to respond to the call for "self-regulation" with curious actions in virtual space. In one of the most egregious examples of a failure to self-regulate, Google bypassed Apple's iPhone privacy settings and, while engaged in photographing the physical landscape for its Street View application, "mistakenly" collected data -- much of it private communication -- for three years.

If we value the numerous commons created and facilitated by the Internet, we can no longer depend on self-regulation. As Hardin has taught us, "the inherent logic of the commons, remorselessly generates tragedy." We need privacy laws in the U.S. that are at least as strict as those currently in place in Europe, where privacy is considered an inalienable right and governments protect their citizens' personal information with the rigor it deserves.

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Bill Davidow is an adviser to Mohr Davidow Ventures and the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet.

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