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The Internet is a public commons erected on private property (theatlantic.com)
102 points by panarky on Dec 24, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments



I am annoyed by some people failing to see the difference in privacy for governments and people. People have an inherent need for privacy, while government has an inherent need for transparency, by virtue of their public service.

Something completely unrelated, but that is a very well designed (print) page.


Let's be clear: we need governments to be transparent because of the power differential between governments and individuals.

Bruce Schneier said it well [1]:

"All aspects of government work best when the relative power between the governors and the governed remains as small as possible -- when liberty is high and control is low.

Forced openness in government reduces the relative power differential between the two, and is generally good. Forced openness in laypeople increases the relative power differential, and is generally bad."

[1] http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/03/privacy_and_po...


Your same argument can be applied to the power differential between modern corporations (often amoral agents) and individuals.


Corporations have nothing to do with morals. It is business, not personal.

The film's assessment is effected via the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV; Robert Hare, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and a consultant to the FBI, compares the profile of the contemporary profitable business corporation to that of a clinically-diagnosed psychopath. The documentary concentrates mostly upon North American corporations, especially those of the United States.

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/The_Corporati...


I think that is the point webelos was making.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/amoral


Bruce spoke about the liberty vs. control dimension at CFP in 2005 in Seattle. David Brin had been on the opening panel giving his take on the transparent society so it was a great compare-and-contrast.


Can you recall any of Brin's ideas on the subject?

(It's funny since I just started reading Sundiver the other day!)


Pretty much what he said in his book [1]: that the state won't allow any privacy in the future and so the only solution is to require a two-way transparency. There are some good insights here but in the end it ignores the power dynamics (state and corporate power is so much greater than individual citizens', and there's so much privilege for the wealthy and tech-savvy , that transparency's value applies asymmetrically) and presupposes a choice between two bad options.

The book continues to be very influential and so is worth reading -- just take it with a grain of salt, remembering that he's writing as a wealthyish white guy who's never had to face unpleasant consequences from being on the receiving end of transparency.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Transparent_Society


It's extra annoying that this was referred to as the "nerd ideology" by Mr. Lanier. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of geek culture knows that while it advocates institutional transparency, it also advocates personal privacy.


That article was nothing but link bait.

As soon as I saw the headline submitted to HN, I knew that its purpose and that I should not click it.


Lanier is well-known for being a bad writer (and convoluted thinker) who somehow still manages to get published.


He is turning into the go-to quote machine for scaremongers. He is legitimately a hacker and yet is guaranteed to hold opinions that provide vague justification for the most ignorant fears about the internet. He also sees everything as a recapitulation of his own disillusionment with 1990s cyber-ideologies; he doesn't acknowledge that there are any other stories to tell.

I used to enjoy the exercise of thinking about Lanier's contrary positions, but then I saw him comparing Wikipedia to Stalinism in the documentary "Truth in Numbers?" It's a point he makes at length in his new book You Are Not A Gadget. Uh yeah, ok, whatever, dude.

His function is now to demonstrate what side of an issue to not be on.


The argument is flipped in a fascist context. Hint: look around.


There's a lot of really good stuff in here, but I think it's important to note that it's a private commons erected on public land that is then leased/rented back to the public. It's not actually a public commons.

(And that is the whole problem.)


the term "public commons" doesn't appear in the article ... "public sphere" has a different meaning, tying back to Habermas and others. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_sphere

the original title "Wikileaks Exposes Internet's Dissent Tax" is a much clearer summary of the argument.


Which public land are you referring to? Because the article is referring to things like the Amazon terms of service. What public property is Amazon taking advantage of?


Public land that has privately owned network cable on it.

Though you're right in principle; that is a small piece of what Amazon does. I was just trying to fend off the oft-repeated notion that the Internet backbone was entirely the work of private industry, and the government has no business regulating it.


That stopped being public land when we sold the right-of-ways.

Moreover, what possible connection could there be between cable right-of-ways and the terms of service for Amazon's own servers?


Some of those lands you refer to are leased for for the fiber optic conduits. Lvl3 has 12 ducts on one side of a US Highway not far from me (it also has a state highway number). Lvl3 is paying a periodic lease (probably annually) for the right to be there.


"Private commons" is an oxymoron.


Not really.

If you go back and read Habermas, who coined the term "public sphere" (which was what was used in the article), the first public spheres were private salons, coffee houses, and cafes. The discourse of the public sphere was also carried out in the (privately owned) media of the time (newspapers and pamphlets).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_sphere#J.C3.BCrgen_Haber...

Another (less readable) book on the subject is Badlands of Modernity, which discusses distinct spaces in which social orders are changed. The Palais-Royale in Paris, the private residence of Louis Philippe II d'Orléans, was one such site in which the ideals of the French Revolution were acted out before the revolution itself.

http://books.google.com/books?id=B0D0EOJoyMsC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais-Royal#The_Palais_Under_t...

Private spaces are just as capable of being inclusive, liberal, open commons as public spaces. Indeed, in times of oppressive government, it is private spaces that become the refuge of the remnants of openness. This is one reason why liberal theorists from the Enlightenment era regarded the ownership of private property as a right essential to the maintenance of liberty.


Hence the issues described in TFA.


I wish this article had been submitted under the original headline, as it much better describes the argument.

That said, I was surprised at the contents of the article. When the author described the "Internet Dissent Tax," I don't think he's describing anything new. Controversial materials have always been more costly and challenging to publish--witness Lolita, which didn't find an American publisher for years.

Rather, the dissent tax I find more interesting is the one brought about by 4chan and company--where loosely organized groups of internet users show their general disagreement with the actions of a company by attacking their servers.

It seems like companies doing business on the internet who take some action that could be unpopular with some of the internet's "defenders" must now take into account the "tax" they will pay for that decision, by having to deal with the attacks that could arise. One has to think that Paypal and MasterCard will be taking this risk into consideration in the future.

That itself is an interesting new social dynamic that I don't think we've really seen before, since it goes well beyond boycotts or sit-ins by affecting thousands of "regular" users, not just the companies.


(seconding your claim that this is an interesting new social dynamic)

In the quasi-whimsical view of Anonymous as a legitimate internet-dwelling mentality, it's these definedly group actions act actually constitute the speech (a vector of communication) for that entity. Every textual or video message signed "Anonymous" is quickly interpreted as the speech of an individual or small group of collaborating authors, relatable on human terms. The attacks, despite their sit-in level overall effectiveness, are inherently aggregate, as opposed to that-13-year-old or that-15-year-old-and-his-botnet.


Good point about how Anonymous and the boycotts are attempting to introduce a tax in the other direction.

As to how new this is ... on the one hand I don't think anything about Wikileaks is fundamentally new; we've been talking about it in the civil liberties community since the early 90s. On the other hand it certainly highlights the realities dramatically. The Internet lets anybody speak ... if you can survive DDOS attacks and afford the network infrastructure, and if the services that you rely on don't decide to boot you off. I don't think it had really sunk in to a lot of people.

BTW The author is a she.


The Internet is a landscape... not a business.

Speech, association, politics, mutual assistance (charity), etc... are transactions between humans that pre-date the commercial transaction.

The first ICT was perhaps a bird call constructed out of a leaf made by a hunter to notify his mates of where the prey was…

And the first journalism was Ooga running into camp and announcing she’d just seen the first spring sprout on a favorite berry bush.

And if the message was false, misleading or dangerous… the onus certainly didn’t fall upon the air through which the information was transmitted!

There was no gatekeeper, no intermediary…

ICT AND JOURNALISM were BOTH strictly peer-to-peer.

The same could be said for politics and charity within the hunter-gatherer world... peer-to-peer.

The commercial transaction (and the creation of money, trade tokens, etc) arose with the need for interaction within or between larger or multiple 'social organisms'... an important and needed development.

At its root, a civilization (or any social organism) is a product of individual and group decisions (ideas+actions) operating within the confines of the physical environment and natural law.

Money was developed originally as a technology for the allocation of excess social energy where complexity (and loss of various forms of proximity) required conventions beyond the less formalized methods of a hunter-gatherer group.

I believe this suggest some re-thinking about the nature of money and capital (and capital creation) but that's another story...

The point here is that the nature of this "social energy" in a scaled organism requires that the exchange of this energy NOT be bound by transaction costs or other complications (like carrier censorship) IN AREAS RELATED TO COMMONS-DEDICATED FUNCTIONS ESPECIALLY...

These particular areas of exchange actually pre-date the need for or existence of the commercial transaction and require special attention.

This problem (which extends also into the political participation sphere especially) is directly linked to neglected scaling issues in this new landscape... and the capabilities required for Commons-oriented transactions in that space... and why that requires a viable, simple and secure MICRO-transaction.

A needed institution for a pragmatic approach to solution:

The Commons-dedicated Account Network:

A self-supporting , Commons-owned neutral network of accounts for both political and charitable monetary contribution... which for fundamental reasons of scale must allow a viable micro-transaction* (think x-box points for action in the Commons).

(I note that journalism is often a for-profit enterprise and that this presents a complicating factor. I believe this is an addressable issue.)

Re-Igniting the Enlightenment: On Building Landscapes for Decision http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2010/12/re-igniting-enl...

LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/culturalengineer

I also suggest that such a distributed account network should own and maintain its own cloud and bank(s)... giving it a certain independence and resilience.

*Re the potentials of the networked political microtransaction:

"A full 90 members of Congress who voted to bailout Wall Street in 2008 failed to support financial reform reining in the banks that drove our economy off a cliff. But when you examine campaign contribution data, it's really no surprise that these particular lawmakers voted to mortgage our economic future to Big Finance: This election cycle, they've raked in over $48.8 million from the financial establishment." ("Crony Capitalism: Wall Street's Favorite Politicians", Zach Carter, ourfuture.org)

I don't like the way money is controlling politics either. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire...

$48.8 million? It's disgusting how these special interests can network their money!

$48.8 million is less than 35 cents per registered voter... It's just a matter of implementing the technologies to harvest other sides of the debate..

Most people NEVER give to a cause or campaign. It's a hassle and unless you're giving substantial bucks you feel pretty impotent anyway.

It doesn't need to be that way. Its just a matter of catalyzing the network.

From google's blog: Governments shouldn’t have a monopoly on Internet governance http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/governments-shouldnt-...

Just trying out ideas!


The internet will be dominated, metered, measured, taxed, regulated and manipulated by big corporations, it is only a matter of time. The question becomes how will this be accomplished?

One way is for the Government to decide a certain body of information that is not allowed to be public knowledge, and when it becomes public, they will attempt to create an "internet information removal button". This obviously will fail, which will pave the way for creation of internet data police to protect and defend us from terrorists by cleansing the internet from sensitive information. The key to own the internet is to demand that it be protected, by government of course, by a data police force.

The final phase of internet takeover occurs by default, big corporations control the government, big corporations decide how the bytes that travel between computers are managed.


I wouldn't be so sure about that. The recent events prompt effort to further decentralize.

It's ironic. The more attempt to control, the more effort is made to decentralize.


I hope that's the case, but that isn't always the reaction of major players. Often, governmental attempts to control things will lead to at least some of the bigger businesses deciding it's in their interests to actively collude with the attempt.


If we need major players to act ethnically, then we are already doomed.


It's tricky to get around them, though (but I agree, not necessarily impossible). If you look at the parts of internet infrastructure not controlled by a Fortune 500 company, they're quite small and scattered.


If so, then it's all the more true that now is the time to invest attention in learning how the internet works at all of its layers. When the time comes, you can be part of those who build the next internet-like thing with full knowledge of all the weaknesses of the previous one.




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