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The Information Commons
A Public Policy Report

By Nancy Kranich
Senior Research Fellow, 2003-04
Free Expression Policy Project

© 2004. Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
It may be reproduced in its entirety as long as the Free Expression Policy Project is credited, a link to the Project's Web site is provided, and no charge is imposed. The report may not be reproduced in part or in altered form, or if a fee is charged, without our permission. Please let us know if you reprint.

PREVIOUS:
Contents and Executive Summary

INTRODUCTION

For democracy to flourish, citizens need free and open access to information. In today's digital age, this means access to information online. In the early days of the Internet, new technologies promised exactly that - abundant open access to an infinite array of resources that foster political participation and enrich people's lives. Indeed, the arrival of the information age in the last half of the 20th century inspired dreams of a utopia where people could connect with myriad ideas and with each other instantly, no longer constrained by location, format, cost, time of day, on-site rules, or other barriers.

But the same technology that enables unfettered access can also restrict information choices and the free flow of ideas. Instead of a utopia, large portions of the Internet were soon dominated by media corporations that developed "technological protection measures," licensing terms, and other "digital rights management" techniques to restrict access to information and control its use. As a result, much online content is now wrapped, packaged, and restricted - treated as private rather than common property.

This "walled garden" or "enclosure" online creates an inequitable and often inaccessible information marketplace. Today, many Americans have little access or ability to use the new technologies. Others find their access restricted because they cannot afford the high prices or comply with the rules created by media corporations.

Public interest advocates - librarians, civil liberties groups, scholars, and others favoring open access to information and ideas - have struggled against enclosure. Despite impressive efforts, they have faced an uphill battle to influence outcomes in Congress and the courts. Now, however, the public interest community is coming together around the emerging concept of the information commons, which offers a new model for stimulating innovation, fostering creativity, and building a movement that envisions information as a shared resource.

A commons, simply understood, is a resource, or a facility, "that is shared by a community of producers or consumers."1 The resources within a commons may be either "public goods" or "common pool resources." Some examples of public goods are streets, parks, beaches, common transit routes, stores of knowledge, and national defense. Examples of common-pool resources include fisheries, grazing areas, mainframe computers, and, most recently, information and ideas that are shared in a plethora of online communities.

In America, the public commons in cities and towns has traditionally been a place where people gather to discuss issues, exchange information, and find solutions to social problems. In the 19th century, new institutions like public schools and libraries played a major role in spreading knowledge and cultivating civic ideals. These institutions provided opportunities to participate in political debate and learn practical skills of deliberation, negotiation, bridging differences, and advocacy.2

Today, with the Internet, citizens have vastly greater opportunities to access the information and ideas necessary for civic discourse. The information commons thus offers a way not only of understanding the challenge posed by enclosure, but of building a fundamental institution for 21st century democracy. It provides a language to explain how the extraordinary public assets invested in the nation's information infrastructure can deliver opportunities for the participation of all citizens. As the journalist-activist David Bollier explains, focusing on the commons helps people recognize that public participation and freedom of expression are at stake in the battle to control the flow of information and ideas. The commons elevates individuals to a role above mere consumers in the marketplace, shifting the focus to their rights, needs, and responsibilities as citizens.3

This report starts with a necessarily brief historical overview of the evolution of the information society, the promise of the Internet, and the efforts of industry and government to control access to information. It then describes the history and theories behind the idea of the commons, and offers numerous examples of online commons that are providing new ways of storing and delivering information. It concludes with a summary of why the information commons is so important today, a discussion of strategy, and a set of policy recommendations.

NEXT:
I. Opportunities and Challenges of the Information Age
II. The Emerging Information Commons
III. The Future of the Information Commons

Appendix

NOTES [all URLs checked in March 2004]

1. Ronald J. Oakerson, "Analyzing the Commons: A Framework," in Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy, Daniel W. Bromley, ed., San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1992, p. 41.

2. Lewis Friedland and Harry C. Boyte, "The New Information Commons: Community Information Partnerships and Civic Change," University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey Institute, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Jan. 2000, http://www.publicwork.org/pdf/workingpapers/New%20information%20commons.pdf.

3. See David Bollier, "The Missing Language of the Digital Age: The Commons," The Common Property Resource Digest, no. 65 (June 2003): 1-4; David Bollier, Public Assets, Private Profits: Reclaiming the American Commons in an Age of Market Enclosure, Washington, DC: New America Foundation, 2001, http://www.newamerica.net/Download_Docs/pdfs/Pub_File_650_1.pdf; David Bollier and Tim Watts, Saving the Information Commons: A New Public Interest Agenda in Digital Media, Washington, DC: New America Foundation and Public Knowledge, 2002, http://www.newamerica.net/Download_Docs/pdfs/Pub_File_866_1.pdf; David Bollier, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, NY: Routledge, 2002.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

All material on this site is covered by a Creative Commons "Attribution - No Derivs - NonCommercial" license. (See http://creativecommons.org) You may copy it in its entirely as long as you credit the Free Expression Policy Project and provide a link to the Project's Web site. You may not edit or revise it, or copy portions, without permission (except, of course, for fair use). Please let us know if you reprint!