April 28, 2012

Governing the Internet Commons

Recently, I've been watching a terrific series called America: The Story of Us (12 episodes)--from the History Channel. 

It is a beautiful portrayal of the the founding and history of America.

One theme though that repeats again and again is that as a nation, we use the common resources and deplete them until near exhaustion. 

The show portrays an America of lush forests with billions of trees that are chopped down for timber, herds of 30 million buffalo slaughtered for their hides, rollings plains of cotton for a thriving clothing industry that is over-planted, a huge whaling industry used for oil that is over-fished.  

Unfortunately, as we know, the story is not just historical, but goes on to modern-day times, with fisheries depleted, whole species of animals hunted to extinction, energy resources furiously pumped and mined to a foreseen depletion, city streets turned into slushy slums, and national forests carelessly burned down, and more. 

The point is what is called the "Tragedy of the Commons"--where items held in trust for everyone is misused, overused, and ultimately destroyed. With private property, people are caretakers with the incentive to maintain or raise the value to profit later. However, with common property, people grab whatever they can now, in order to profit from it before someone else gets it first. 

This phenomenon was first laid out in the Torah (Bible) with a law for a "Shabbath Year" called Shmita mandating that people let fields (i.e agriculture) lie fallow for a full year every 7 years and similarly, the law of Jubilee (i.e. Yovel), that slaves be freed and loans forgiven every 50 years. I think that the idea is to regulate our personal consumption habits and return what the historical 
"commons" back to its normal state of freedom from exploitation.  

This notion was echoed by ecologist Garrett Harden in the journal Science in 1968, where he described European herders overgrazing common land with their cows to maximize their short-term individual profits at the expense of longer-term term societal benefits. Harden suggested that regulation or privatization can help to solve the "Tragedy of the Commons." 

In the 21st century, we see the modern equivalent of the commons with the Internet, which is an open, shared networking resource for our computing and telecommunications.Without protection, we have the Wild West equivalent with things like spam, malware, and attacks proliferating--clogging up the network and causing disruptions and destruction, and where some people use more than their fair share 

Here are some examples of the Tragedy of the Internet:

- Symantec reports that even with spam decreasing with the shutdown of spam-hosting sites, in 2011, it is still 70% of all emails.

- McAfee reports that malware peaked as of the first half of 2010, with 10 million new pieces.

- Kaspersky reports that web-based attacks were up to 580 million in 2010--8 times the amount of the previous year.

- Verizon Wireless reports 3% of their users use 40% of their bandwidth.

If we value the Internet and want to continue using and enjoying it, then like with our other vital resources, we need to take care of it through effective governance and prudent resource management.  

This means that we do the following:

1) Regulation--manage the appropriate use of the Internet through incentives and disincentives for people to behave civilly online. For example, if someone is abusing the system sending out millions or billions of spam messages, charge them for it!

2) Privatization--create ownership over the Internet. For example, do an Internet IPO and sell shares in it--so everyone can proverbially, own a piece of it and share financially in it's success (or failures). 

3) Security Administration--enhance security of the Internet through public and private partnership with new tools, methods, and advanced skills sets. This is the equivalent of sending out the constable or sheriff to patrol the commons and ensure people are doing the right thing, and if not then depending on who the violating actor(s) are take appropriate law enforcement or military action.

Only by managing the Internet Commons, can we protect this vital resource for all to use, enjoy, and even profit by. 

(Source Photo: here)


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