Our digital commons is broken

This post is adapted from a recent rant in my e-newsletter Web 3.0 Weekly. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every Sunday.

We urgently need to fix our commons, starting with our understanding of what one is in the first place.

As in many things, Wikipedia is by no means the final word on this question but does provide a pretty good starting point. Here is their definition of a commons, with some added emphasis of my own:

“The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”

The internet was also envisioned as a commons, of course. But that vision has gotten quite muddled in practice over the last few decades. We’ve seen the confusion on full display recently as Twitter and Facebook have taken tentative moves toward labeling disinformation on their platforms more clearly, especially content related to the upcoming U.S. election.

To hear various critics tell it — notably President Donald Trump, who’s been on the short end of Twitter’s fact checks in particular — this increased moderation is an egregious affront to free speech. In other words, a violation of the commons.

But it really isn’t, because the major social platforms aren’t true commons in the first place since they’re owned privately. It doesn’t matter how many users are active on these services — the characteristic that seems to cause the most confusion here — because the more pertinent criterion is ownership.

Granted, Twitter and Facebook are often called “public companies” in Wall Street speak, which also muddies the waters a bit. In that context, the term refers to their shares’ availability for trading on regulated exchanges where anyone can participate — in theory.

In fact, a shrinking minority of Americans actually participates in the stock market, so those listings have by no means led to ownership of the social platforms by everyone, or even a broad swath of the population. The latter is what the term “public” really means in the dictionary sense, not as stock-market jargon, so we’re right back to square one. These platforms are owned privately, not publicly, in the dictionary sense of those terms.

As a result, if Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and/or his fellow shareholders want to fact check you in a space that they own, yes, they certainly have a right. And, no, they’re not censoring, because they’re not restricting your access to the real commons, which is the internet itself. That’s the space that everyone truly owns.

In other words, you can always start your own damn website, and there’s nothing @Jack or any other Silicon Valley executive can do about it. That’s the real digital commons.

To use a metaphor from the physical world, it’s the difference between the management of a bar having the right to kick you out for getting too rowdy versus you having the right to walk down the sidewalk outside the bar. One space isn’t really a commons; one clearly is. See the difference?

Of course, what we have often had on the internet is somewhat the opposite, the social platforms’ recent fact checks notwithstanding. More often, they’ve tended to pretend they are the sidewalk itself and abdicated almost any responsibility whatsoever for checking reprehensible behavior in the private spaces they control. Then that poison sometimes festers to the point that it spills out into the actual commons (the internet itself and sometimes even the offline world) and hurts everyone.

Right now, there’s literally a deadly virus spreading through the world, the economy is in deep recession, and America’s streets are in tumult. Every one of these crises is exacerbated by misinformation and hate that spreads too easily online because we grossly misunderstand and mismanage everything I described above about digital commons.

We need to get back to building a better digital commons, either directly if you’re an engineer or entrepreneur, or by voting with your feet as a user, which plays a grossly underrated role as well.

Simply refuse to support companies that harm our true commons — the open internet. If that means a little extra inconvenience, so be it. (Again, this seems to be a major hurdle for many people, in my experience.) To be frank, we’re all going to need a stronger stomach for a little inconvenience to get through our current challenges anyway.

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Peter A. McKay

Peter A. McKay

I publish the newsletter #Web3Weekly. Former Head of Content & Writer Development at Capsule Social. Other priors: WSJ, Washington Post, and Vice News.