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Impending Tragedy of the Digital Commons?

Antonio Lambino's picture

Earlier this month, the Financial Times published a piece by Misha Glenny entitled “Who Controls the internet?”  The article tells the story of USCybercom, the military command in charge of securing vital U.S. interests from attacks on the web.  Last week, it was widely reported that U.S. Legislators asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for more information on the revelation that third-party applications running on the ubiquitous social network he founded were transmitting personally identifiable data to private companies.  It may not be immediately apparent, but these two stories and others like them are inextricably related.  These developments run counter to the realization of a global digital commons, one envisioned to enable an unprecedented number of people around the world to freely express themselves and come into contact with the ideas and opinions of others.

Freedom of expression finds its fullest flowering in the verdant pastures of public debate and deliberation.  It has been argued by many advocates that the internet has the potential to serve as this digital global commons.  Under this utopian vision, competition and contention can lead to innovation and the cultivation of informed public opinion.  Protecting these spaces from encroachment by selfish vested interests is especially critical in places where bad things happen to those who speak truth to power.  And not only does the internet have the potential to enable individual voice, it also can help those who wield power to be more transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs and preferences of their constituents.  However, both the desire to monetize the internet and control it for security purposes erode its potential for meaningful encounter and engagement.

Those who would like to take advantage of the commercial potential of sites with high user traffic seek to tap into the network structure of online communities and mine these data rich environments.  This flies in the face of individual privacy and the security of personal information.  There is tension between wanting to know as much as possible about individuals and their affinity groups in order to make tailored product pitches, on one hand, and the amount of information those individuals and groups are willing to share about themselves beyond their own networks, on the other.  Even people who want to reach broader audiences on matters of public interest are not necessarily open to making known their browsing and purchasing habits.  So we find ourselves in an era where personal privacy and security are in competition with the desire of commercial firms to monetize the ability to capture and codify individual and network behavior.

In this same space, those charged with protecting national security find themselves locked in a digital arms race with technologically-savvy groups that seek to carry out cyber espionage and terrorism.  It’s a befuddling technological arena, the underlying codes and modes of which very few comprehend.  And the policy implications are far-reaching.  As Glenny writes:

Very few people understand cyber security.  It is technologically complex and the network environment in which it operates changes at lightning speed.  So governments are granting themselves new powers to intervene in computer networks without anyone, including themselves, fully appreciating what their implications are.

I fear that those implications include dampening the very spirit of openness and expression that are the driving impulses of a digital global commons -- through the chilling effect of constant surveillance and the stemming of cross-border information flows via national firewalls.  I believe there are direct relationships between what individuals are able and willing to express, how much information they are able to access, and whether they can choose anonymity whenever they feel this might be necessary.

So with the global commons under assault on multiple fronts, what might be done by those who wish to protect and pursue its original vision?  A little less than a decade ago, John Naughton, Professor of Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University in the United Kingdom, issued this very prescient exhortation:     

Global civil society has a vital stake in ensuring that the values which shaped the original Internet remain at the heart of its evolving architecture. The struggle to keep it open, free, permissive, and uncontrolled is too important to be left just to geeks and engineers.

Naughton is surely not proposing that all those who care about the current and future state of the internet become technical experts.  What I do take away from this quote is this: to the fullest extent possible, the relevant regulatory and security policy debates on the internet should be as open and multifaceted as the very vision of a digital global commons.

Photo credit: Flickr user qgil

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