Tragedy Of The Digital Commons
The phrase “tragedy of the commons” was coined in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd. He used the term to describe the negative outcome of a hypothetical example of overgrazing by cattle on common land, “the commons”.
Today, “tragedy of the commons” is used to describe any scenario in which individuals in a shared-resource system behave in a manner that is contrary to the common good of everyone, including themselves, who participate in that system. When everyone in the shared-resource system acts in their self-interest rather than in the interest of the common good, that system is quickly depleted of its resources and destroyed.
For example, at our current resource burn rate, Earth will likely one day be our biggest “tragedy of the commons”. As world population increases (we’ll have just passed 7.7 billion people on the planet by the time you’re reading this) so too will demand for dwindling natural resources.
Add to that billions of individuals as well as individual nations, companies, political parties, etc. all acting in their own self-interest rather than in the common good of everyone sharing those resources and the entire system careens toward failure. The way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to impose limits on access and use of resources so that those resources are not completely depleted.
Though less tangible, the Internet is a sort of “commons”. It’s a shared-resource system. Not only is the physical infrastructure of the Internet a shared resource—computers, network routers and switches, a million miles of high-speed fiber—but so is the ultimate product of the Internet: information and ideas.
In terms of the Internet, a “tragedy of the commons” develops when individuals as well as nations, companies, political parties, etc. act in their own self-interest rather than in the common good of everyone sharing the Internet’s resources, both the physical and the digital.
This is happening right now, to one degree or another, depending on what you believe is “the common good”.
Censorship is not in the common good. It’s common knowledge that China heavily censors what its citizens can say and what information they have access to on the Internet.
Only a few corporations controlling the largest social media platforms is not in the common good. There are major issues that are playing out in the shared-resource of the Internet. Facebook, Google, and Twitter own and control most of our social media.
A handful of corporations controlling the media is not in the common good. In America, just six corporations (GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS) own and control 90 percent of the media.
• A small minority deciding what network traffic will get a higher priority than others is not in the common good. (This is what the “net neutrality” battle is all about.)
• Government entities engaging in mass surveillance of individuals and eroding privacy is not in the common good.
Just four corporations (Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon) provide nearly 80 percent of Internet services. We’ve learned from multiple massive leaks, that the NSA has increasingly been engaging in mass domestic surveillance since 9/11.
When you view the Internet as a commons, none of the above is in the best interest of the common good. In some cases, it may be really beneficial for individual shareholders or for an individual country acting in its own self-interest, but it creates a scenario in which the resources of information and ideas are depleted.
The Internet has become a very complex system that is now woven into the fabric of everything: politics, culture, the economy, etc. For better or for worse it has become our “digital commons” and being such it is subject to the “tragedy of the commons” just like any other shared-resource system.
If our current trend continues, the Internet will become a monosphere of marketing and propaganda-peddling controlled by just a few powerful entities, and that would be tragic—to say the least.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, writer, and educator. He lives on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.