What is the Net, marketplace, commons or temporary autonomous zone?

Dave Winer has issued a call for candidates to stand up for the protection of the Internet from media conglomerates who would love nothing more than to sanitize this fertile virtual ground with the salts of digital rights management and pabulum served up warm and gooey every day. Doc Searls joins in with a blast from the recent past, Saving the Net, saying, essentially, that we have to treat the Net as a public domain which is a natural habitat for markets.

Dave says there are two simple reasons for his call:

1. First, I’m part of a constituency, like many others, who are looking for a candidate to vote for who supports our primary issue. Nothing unusual about that, easy to understand.

2. But as important, it would signal that the candidate is not beholden to the media companies. I would happily give money to candidates for ads that warn that the media industry is trying to rob us of our future, and explains how important it is to protect the independence of the Internet. Use the media industry channels to undermine their efforts to the control channels they don’t own, yet.

Doc’s take is basically pragmatic, what he refers to as “conservative.” Doc and I are both thought of as liberals, but I know we are both fond of the type of rugged individualist conservatism that our grandparents practiced, sans all the socially retrograde hatred of people who are different than us. That, however, is just an aside.

My take on this issue of making the Net my primary issue is that this would be both counter-productive and destructive to the Net as a thing, since it puts the definition of the Net into the political domain when what is really at stake is a series of procedural decisions about the flow of information. The Net is a lot of different stuff, much more than a habitat for markets and much less than a civil society, since the design of the thing has relegated real freedom to a technical elite who can, like Neo in The Matrix, rewrite the rules. If we understand the Internet as a mental space where we can define new relationships for different periods of time, the experience of being connected is that of entering a series of temporary autonomous zones where different connections and rules are possible for limited periods of time before mores ossify into rigid standards. But — and it is a big qualification — for the majority of the population of the Net, the rules are firmly locked in and they like it that way, since they get a predictable and “safe” experience. The politics of fear are already well established here: porn; pederasty; terror cells and you name the flavor of fear of the day pervade the public consciousness when it comes to the Web.

Procedural freedoms, such as rules that say we will always have a choice, are minimalist conditions for freedom. What we need are freedoms which are both a means and an end, in the sense that economist Amartya Sen describes in his book Development As Freedom. This requires that one think widely and deeply about the factors that add up to our sense of freedom. Not only is free access to ideas important, so is a full stomach and an education. The Net as a primary issue is devoid of the power to transform the life of a person who hasn’t enough to eat.

Procedural decisions, such as the implementation of an end-to-end digital rights management regime, should be resisted, but they ignore the wider role of prosperity in society about which the Dean and Clark campaigns, among others, are, at least, evincing concern. As Amartya Sen writes, the real question is the kind of life we’d like to live, and I am certain that the prosperity we want extends beyond the cosmos of bits into the cosmos of atoms and stomachs and minds hungry for economic opportunity. The libertarian take on all this is severely reductionist, since it ignores the built-in inequities that shape choices in favor of the simple availability of choice. A choice between starvation and a broadband connection is meaningless.

Doc wrote that the issue of saving the Net revolves around a notion of ownership or, rather, a common ownership of this place, that is contested by neoconservative market-as-arbiter-of-social-value advocates:

Two oddly allied mentalities provide intellectual air cover for these threats to the marketplace. One is the extreme comfort certain industries feel inside their regulatory environments. The other is the high regard political conservatives hold for successful enterprises. Combine the two, and you get conservatives eagerly rewarding companies whose primary achievements consist of successful long-term adaptation to highly regulated environments.

That’s what’s happened with broadcasting and telecom.

There are barely more than 100 channels apiece on the AM and FM bands. No region can allow more than a couple dozen local signals at most or the signals step on each other–which they do anyway, as the FCC has generally relaxed interference protections over the years to allow more stations on the air. The carrying capacities of satellites and cable systems also limit the number of available channels. If you want to operate a new station of any kind on licensed broadcast spectrum, your chances of finding an opening are approximately zero. It’s a closed club.

What we really need is to make the Net an issue while preserving the ability of individuals to earn a livelihood and companies to turn a profit on the Net. We need a strong tax regime to extract the value of participation in those markets by the people in order to pay for the continued evolution of freedom. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay to live in a free society. Well, if the Net is a fine old thing, let’s keep it as free as possible while ensuring it is an environment where a commons and a profit can coexist. I am not suggesting we pay a tax for the Net or on sales made over the Net, but that we reinvigorate our taxation of corporate profits where those profits are earned (out here, in the physical world, where dollars change hands) in order to invest in preserving a vast portion of the Net for unfettered public debate and sharing of information. Let’s not reduce this communications media (for it is several media in one) to a place where commercial interests control the messages we see and hear. Let’s invest as a society in a growing commons in the context of the wider needs of society — American and international, alike — so that when we pass along this world to our grandchildren it is ripe with opportunity and not a place of built-in limits.

The Net is a means to increased freedom and free communication of ideas and opinion is an end in itself. Without the wider context of the question of an American dream of a better world for our children and an international dream of a better world for everyone’s children, free of hunger, ignorance and dogmatism, among a whole slew of human suffering that we might inflict on one another, the Net is just a distraction from the serious issues of policy that are reshaping the world as one where competition exists without cooperation.

Let’s not make the Net a single-issue constituency. Leave that kind of parochialism to the occupants of gated communities.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.

2 thoughts on “What is the Net, marketplace, commons or temporary autonomous zone?”

  1. Contrast, if you will, with the Britt Blaser thing I linked to…

    Mitch Ratcliffe: What is the Net, marketplace, commons or temporary autonomous zone? Anyone who cites Oliver Wendell Holmes, is fine by me… and to invoke taxation, no less: you know, taxes being the price we pay for a free society and all that. Mr. R…

  2. End-to-end is a political statement

    End-to-end isn’t just a technical phenomenon of the network and application architecture. It is a philosophy about value creation and efficient allocation of economic resources to meet user needs. It is also deeply political. It effectively state…

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