The Information Commons
By Nancy Kranich
Contents and Executive Summary
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
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.
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.