Why We Must Talk About the Information Commons

Policy Paper
Nov. 1, 2001

If Stevenson was correct in his reinterpretation of Goethe—“That which you inherit from your fathers/You must earn in order to possess”—then the efflorescence of digital technologies over the past twenty years is posing some unprecedented challenges to our democratic polity. The computer, the Internet and any other digital technologies are dramatically changing the character oforganizations, markets, the nation-state and the global economy. What is less clear is how the traditional rights and liberties of American citizens shall be re-interpreted inthe new digital landscape and find new soil in which to flourish—or wither.

Will individual citizens have the same freedoms in the emerging digital societyto express themselves as the First Amendment envisioned? Will creators be able toearn a fair reward from their creativity and reach audiences without impediment? Will everyone have access to a robust public “media space” of commercial, amateurand fringe expression, or will it be a closed, centralized system controlled by a few chiefly for commercial purposes?

These are not idle philosophical questions but urgent pragmatic matters ofsweeping importance. Unfortunately, not only are such questions not being asked with sufficient vigor and insight, I believe we do not truly have an adequate vocabulary for grappling with them. The sheer novelty and power of the new technologies have, for the moment, overwhelmed our ability to comprehend many of their long-term political and cultural implications. We have few thoughtful critiquesfor explaining how the potent new digital communications infrastructure will fortify or subvert our democratic traditions in the decades ahead. It is an exceedingly hopeful development, then, that a new language of the “information commons” is starting to gain currency.

While still a rudimentary concept, the information commons is a valuable idea because it provides a coherent framework and language for explaining phenomena that are otherwise ignored or misunderstood. By leapfrogging over a discourse rooted in an earlier media culture, the “information commons” helps us talk more cogently about constitutional and cultural norms that are increasingly threatened in the new digital environment. Beingable to name endangered values is the first step toward understanding what is at stake and mobilizing suitable responses.

This essay is an attempt to describe what the information commons is; why itis important to our democratic society; how it is jeopardized by recent developments in technology, markets and law; and how we might begin to protect the information commons in the future. I hope to demonstrate that the “information commons” is not a trendy buzzword, but a useful socio-political concept for understanding the American “ecosystem” of creativity and information in the digital age.

For the complete document, please see the attached PDF version below.

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