Internet

I delivered the following remarks on May 11 as part of The Illahee Lecture Series 2011, "Searching for Solutions:  Innovation for the Public Good," in Portland, Oregon.

This evening, I’d like to get innovative about how we think about innovation itself.  The corporate cliché is to “think outside the box.”  That is such an inside-the-box way of thinking!  I say let’s get rid of the box!  Tonight I want to talk about a new vector of innovation:  how we’re going to manage our dwindling, finite natural resources and arrest the pathological growth imperatives of our economy while recovering a more sane, socially constructive way of life for human beings.  Now there’s a radical innovation challenge!

The subtext of most innovation-talk these days is efficiency and profitability.  Innovation is essentially the bigger-better-faster ethic – the next super-computer or bio-engineered cow or Segue scooter.  But the grim reality is that there are a whole class of societal problems that are not likely to become market opportunities,ever

Worse, conventional markets, in the course of creating new wealth, are generating all sorts of illth, in John Ruskin’s phrase – cost, unintended byproducts that must be put on the ledger sheet in any calculation of our supposed wealth.  Our market economy is generating whole new classes of illth such as  global warming, dying coral reefs, biodiversity loss and species extinctions.

The City of Linz in Austria has long been in the forefront of civic-minded uses of the Internet and digital technologies.  In 1979, it started the Ars Electronica festival, a showcase for cutting-edge experiments in digital and media arts, which was followed in 1987 with the Prix Ars Electronica, a prestigious international award for the most exemplary, pioneering websites and computer art.  In 2005 the city built 118 wifi hotspots in public squares so that citizens could have free access to the Internet.  Through the Public Space Server project, Linz began to provide personal e-mail inboxs on the city’s servers and to host non-commercial content on the Internet.

So it is exciting to learn that the City of Linz is now trying to take the free culture/open platform sensibility to a whole new level.  It wants to use the Internet to transform city politics, governance and culture into a vast ecosystem of commons.  Last July city officials announced that it would launch Open Commons Region Linz, a series of region-wide initiatives that aspires to make local information and creativity as open, accessible and shareable as possible.  The Green Party and politically minded digital leaders believe that by making it easy for citizens to access and share knowledge on a local basis, it will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.

DIY Policymaking

I was on a panel, “Artists and Advocacy,” at the National Conference for Media Reform Conference the other week.  The other panelists focused on innovative tactics to gain visibility and influence for pushing a policy agenda.  That's an essential task, but I decided to focus on a different way to advance our interests in a way that is arguably more durable.  Why not build our own commons-based markets and commons infrastructures? 

The existing policy process is systemically corrupted by corporate money and influence, making it a Herculean task for public-interest advocates to prevail.  Just look at the fate of net neutrality to date.  And even if you do prevail, the political winds may blow the other way and erase those gains later. 

Mind you, I am not making an either/or argument, but rather a both/and argument.  We obviously still need to persevere in conventional policy advocacy, particularly on net neutrality.  But with the Internet providing a easily accessible platform for wide-open creativity and the viral amassing of audience/participants, we should find ways to bypass policy altogether and develop our own enterprises to advance our interests.  

There is a little-known struggle going on right now over how a new series of “top level domains” on the Internet shall be used by cities of the world.  Top level domains, or TLDs, are the suffixes at the end of Web addresses, such as .com, .org and .net.  The international body that oversees TLDs is expected to announce a new series of TLDs in 2012 that would give cities their own TLDs.  So, for example, New York City would have a .nyc top level domain and Paris would have .paris.  The new TLDs could make it easier for people in the same metropolitan areas to find each other and interconnect on the Internet and in physical spaces.  

While the TLDs may be “just code” – a set of Internet protocols authorized by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for the Assigning of Names and Numbers – they will function much as parks, roadways and public squares in cities, that is, as spaces for getting around, meeting people, communicating things, and enjoying oneself.  The significant question is, Who shall have the authority to manage the city-based TLDs, and under what terms?  Very few people understand that the anticipated city-TLDs represent a world-changing urban infrastructure that could well be squandered through short-sighted privatization.

Photo of Queens street by Tony the Misfit, CC Attribution license, via Flickr.

At this point, we don’t know exactly when ICANN will authorize the use of city-TLDs.  But we do know that city governments are showing little inclination to treat the TLDs as a critical piece of common infrastructure that should be managed for the greatest public good.  It seems likely, at this point, that city governments will blindly delegate this authority to domain-registry companies, who will proceed to make a fortune selling prime domain names such as www.restaurants.nyc and www.queens.nyc.

A federal judge has ruled that Google’s ambitious attempt to digitize all books, including those for which the copyright holders cannot be found, cannot go forward as planned.  That’s great news.  It will prevent Google from claiming a de facto monopoly over millions of “orphan works” whose copyright holders cannot be found.  The company will not be able to charge exorbitant prices for access to books that ought to be free or at-cost. 

Even better, the rejection of Google’s plan means that the nation’s libraries and research institutions can now entertain the idea of building their own repository of digitized books.  It can be a real commons, and not a “free” proprietary platform that would come with all sorts of strings attached. 

Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, makes these points in a terrific oped piece in the NYT today.  After detailing why Google’s book project deserved to be rejected, Darnton asks:  Why not build a digital library better  than Google’s?  Let’s build “a vast collection of resources that can be tapped, free of charge, by anyone, anywhere, at any time,” he writes.

The Future of Work

So what do digital technologies and the Internet mean for the future of work?  That was the topic of last year’s Information Roundtable at the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program, an annual event that brings together some heavyweight businesspeople, technologies and academics to discuss a breaking issue.

It was a fascinating discussion because so many of these issues are not probed in such depth by such diverse experts.  Once again, I was the rapporteur for the three-day gathering.  My report, The Future of Work:  What It Means for Individuals, Businesses, Markets and Governments is now available online as a pdf file.  The report focuses on the concerns of traditional businesses and startups as they grapple with the new competitive environment created by digital technologies and networks.  The report examines how the technologies are altering market structures, business strategies, the organization of work, and individuals’ work lives.

One of the recurrent questions that people have about the future of the Internet is, So how are creators going to make money in the digital environment?  The good news is that the Free Culture Forum – a Barcelona-based international gathering of free software, free culture, creators and policy activists – has addressed these very questions in a major “how to” guide that was just released.   

In “Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age,” the FCF affirms: 

We can no longer put off re-thinking the economic structures that have been producing, financing and funding culture up until now.  Many of the old models have become anachronistic and detrimental to civil society.  The aim of this document is to promote innovative strategies to defend and extend the sphere in which human creativity and knowledge can prosper freely and sustainably.

This report is aimed at policy reformers, citizens and free/libre culture activists to provide them practical tools to understand the policy options and revenue models, and the importance of the commons in the new digital marketplaces.

Bring on the Participatory Sensing

For decades, Congress has delegated the fate of our public lands, the air, water and wildlife to federal agencies, where a familiar dynamic of regulatory capture and corruption quickly takes root.  It’s depressingly routine:  industry foxes are appointed to guard the chicken house, they make politically motivated judgments about scientific data, they engage in legalistic subterfuges and throw blankets of secrecy over the data and decisionmaking.  A complicit Congress cuts budgets in order to cripple regulatory effectiveness. 

So here’s an interesting idea for changing the political ecosystem of regulation:  Use Web 2.0 platforms to let citizens participate directly, and let the data be seen by everyone, in near-real time, on the Web.  Reinvent regulation as an open source project, as it were, so that everyone can participate and industry money and interventions cannot so easily corrupt the process.  

The U.S. Government’s ongoing crusade against WikiLeaks and the Egyptian Government’s shutdown of the Internet for five days force us to ask the question:  How shall the commoners retain their right to communicate with each other when their own governments intervene to stifle communications that threaten their power?

Eben Moglen, a long-time free software advocate, is promoting a great insurance policy:  decentralized, portable, personal servers.  He calls them “Freedom Boxes.”  The idea is that everyone should have a small, cheap personal server about the size of a cellphone charger.  Such devices already exist, he points out in today’s NYT, and cost about $99, and will likely become cheaper in coming months and years.  (A speech that Moglen gave on this topic, “Freedom in the Cloud,” on February 5, 2010, can be seen on YouTube here.  )

What’s missing at the moment is the software to make them easy to use.  So Moglen is calling upon the software programmers of the world to develop free software that could make the Freedom Box a viable, pervasive part of the Internet infrastructure.  We would no longer have to depend upon the good graces of a Google, Facebook or Internet service provider to reliably connect us or transact business for us.  We would have assured communications and commercial relationships without the threat of government interference or snooping, often through underhanded means.

What does the corporate enclosure of the Internet look like?  It starts with grand words wrapped in timid acts.  That's what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave the American people as he punted on the important issues that need to be resolved.  Internet users and startup entrepreneurs needed to be assured that their data-traffic would not be delayed or stifled just because AT&T, Comcast or Verizon might wish to do so. 

Given the political clout that Internet service providers have within the Obama administration and Congress, the new rules will only hasten a further consolidation of power over Internet access and a new marketization of Internet content and traffic. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without new battles that might slow or limit this outcome.  But the FCC's unwillingness to defend our interests -- in the face of telecom oligopolies with enormous political influence and legal resources -- is a clear sign of where things are headed.  Downward.

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