Back to the Land

Despite the feudal labor arrangements it enables, the internet has never been a “digital commons”

This year, on July 12’s “Internet Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality,” advocacy groups circulated images of what the internet would look like if the FCC revoked net-neutrality rules and allowed internet-service providers to block, speed up, or slow down web content or entire websites at their discretion.

For the action day, website administrators were urged to download and install a “Battle for the Web” app, which would then show visitors to their sites one of four prophetic pop-up banners. One, topped with a dollar-sign icon, instructed visitors, “Please upgrade your plan to proceed.” Another, featuring a loading wheel icon, read, “Sorry, we’re stuck in the slow lane.” The fine print on these banners explained that visitors could still access the site “for now,” but, without net neutrality protections, which Trump’s FCC is moving to repeal, companies like Verizon and AT&T could force sites to pay to have their content load at normal speeds or require consumers to pay more to access certain content. Built into the banners was a form the visitor could then fill out to send a letter to the FCC in support of net neutrality.

The threat these banners tried to simulate for visitors was the enclosure of a commons: Between internet users and their digital grazing lands, the telecoms would build a fence where none had stood before. In a 2002–04 paper for the American Library Association, David Bollier promoted the commons as “a metaphor that can help us understand the importance of the new kinds of ‘open social spaces’ made possible by the internet (and to a lesser extent, other digital media).” He called it “an unfamiliar term” for most Americans, “conjuring up images of village pastures,” and the word indeed derives from the 15th-century English for “land held in common.”

The twin conceptions of the internet a distinct space and collective enterprise makes it analogous to pre-modern agricultural commons. The metaphor is one that web users have embraced

This metaphor seems apt, given how the internet has, in many quarters, been regarded since its conception as a collaborative venture. As this Forbes history of the internet notes, in 1967 ARPANET co-designer Larry Roberts promoted the system that would become today’s internet by arguing it would “foster the ‘community’ use of computers.” Originally, though, that network  facilitated information sharing between only a small, pre-established group of scientists. As the internet developed and its user base expanded, groups met and formed whose members had no previous offline connection. People began to speak of the internet as a place itself. William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in 1982; in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee called his editing and browsing program the “World Wide Web.” Critically, though, even as the internet expanded beyond an elite group of professionals, users were still seen as having the ability to contribute to its information pool. The twin conceptions of the internet as both a distinct space and a collective enterprise makes it seem analogous to pre-modern agricultural commons, which were also distinct spaces set aside for shared use. As resources like Wikimedia Commons, Flickr: The Commons, Creative Commons, and the Digital Library of the Commons make clear, that metaphor is one that web users have embraced.

However, by the time the term commons was coined, most “common” land was actually owned by lords who merely allowed peasants to use it to keep themselves alive for work. There are examples of successfully-managed resources that are truly community owned, such as the pastures of the Swiss village of Torbel. Nonetheless, it is the English model that Bollier evoked when he pressed “the commons” into service, because it carries with it the threat of owners taking the land away: “The history of the commons as it was privatized and commercialized by the landed classes of England illuminates a similar enclosure today: the privatization and commercialization of information, creative expression and media infrastructure,” he wrote.

In Bollier’s rhetoric, the idea of the commons comes to serve as a conceptual skeuomorph, linking the pre-industrial, pastoral past to the post-industrial, digital present. But, by evoking a simplified, nostalgic view of the historical English commons, Bollier missed the complexities of his own metaphor, ignoring the similar kinds of exploitation that both unenclosed English pastures and open internet access help facilitate. Instead, he chose to allude to a “golden age” when farmers could feed and warm themselves outside a market economy, overlooking that, in their feudal context, they couldn’t aspire to much else.

This golden-age rhetoric carries over into the defense of today’s internet commons against the enclosure of net neutrality. Take Free Press’s action call, which claims, “The internet without Net Neutrality isn’t really the internet. Unlike the open internet that has paved the way for so much innovation and given a platform to people who have historically been shut out, it would become a closed-down network where cable and phone companies call the shots and decide which websites, content or applications succeed.” As dystopian as a net-neutrality repeal would be, the internet as it stands today is hardly a paradise of equal access. Not only is internet access itself unevenly distributed, but any user or group’s reach on any given platform is typically shaped by money and power and pre-existing influence. And people’s access to network resources are often organized not through cooperative arrangement but by companies that profit from the data their users generate while leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and harassment.

But net-neutrality defenders tend to lump all internet platforms and users together against the telecom companies, ignoring the very real power differentials between them. “Without Net Neutrality, the next Google or Facebook would never get off the ground,” warns the Free Press call to arms. But would another Facebook really make the internet a better place?

There’s no denying that the historical enclosure of the commons in England did real harm to countless people. But it was also part of a transition between one kind of exploitation and another. In The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology, Derek Wall explains how, as mentioned earlier, the Medieval English commons were transformed after the Norman conquest from truly communal properties into communally used properties owned by feudal lords. These lords allowed peasants usufruct rights — literally, the right to the fruits of the land — permitting them to graze cattle or collect firewood, so that they might sustain themselves while paying rents or providing agricultural labor.

Social media sites replace the patriarchal hierarchy of feudalism with the seeming egalitarianism of a hangout session, so that if we decide to disengage, we seem to reject not our oppressors, but our communities

The process of stripping commoners of their usufruct rights began in the 16th century and accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries as England transitioned from feudalism to capitalism. Landowners enclosed pastures and had them farmed or grazed for private profit; their former tenants, no longer able to sustain themselves, were forced into urban factories or abroad, where they became foot soldiers in the fight to enclose indigenous commons in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, as Wall tells it, the history of colonialism can be seen as one long process of enclosure.

The rise of the internet has also coincided with a major economic shift. But this one seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Massive private fortunes have been built on  providing people access to the internet as a sort of quasi-commons. As Jeremy Antley pointed out in “Data Serfdom in the Digital Age,” the relationship between large “data lords” like Facebook and those of us who “toil” on their platforms could be described as feudal. Just as medieval peasants were given access to commons in exchange for rents or work, we are given usufruct rights to sow and harvest our identities on these platforms, in exchange for the data this work creates.

The exploitative nature of the arrangement led artist Laurel Flack to propose “Wages for Facebook” in a 2013 manifesto: “By denying our Facebook time a wage while profiting directly from the data it generates and transforming it into an act of friendship, capital has killed many birds with one stone,” she wrote, getting to the heart of the social-media business model.

Though Flack calls out capitalism here, that representation of exploitation as an “act of friendship” recalls feudal ideology, which treated bonds of servitude as natural expressions of quasi-familial duty. Facebook and other social media sites replace the patriarchal hierarchy of feudalism with the seeming egalitarianism of a hangout session, making themselves the means by which we keep up with our peers, so that if we decide to disengage, we seem to reject not our oppressors, but our communities.

As much as social media companies thrive on the illusion of creating commons, in practice this means delimiting a space where they can harvest the value created without taking responsibility for users’ well-being. They inadequately enforce harassment policies, haphazardly apply content-moderation standards, and rely on further labor from users for policing other users’ violations. This is partly because their business interests directly conflict with the kind of space they promise to provide. As Mike Montiero points out, Twitter won’t ban Donald Trump, despite his violating its terms of service with abusive language, because those same tweets keep the company in the news. Zeynep Tufekci explains how Facebook’s decision to maintain a smaller, cheaper staff led to its using algorithms to accommodate ad buyers (meaning they could choose to target “Jew haters,” for instance, as ProPublica reported). It also saves on paychecks by depending on users to report “inappropriate content,” a practice which results in inconsistent enforcement as well as further abuse when the reporting system is used as a means of harassment and silencing.

Elinor Ostrom, an economist who won a Nobel for her work on commons, outlined eight principles for the successful management of common-pool-resources; among them are, “Define clear group boundaries,” “Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules,” and “Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.” Needless to say, social media platforms do not attempt to live up to these principles. They have no interest in limiting the number of users to a clearly defined community, they provide no formal mechanism by which users can shape policy, and, while they do sometimes rely on users to monitor other users’ behavior, there is no system in place to ensure this is done consistently and fairly.

This means that life on social media looks more like what Garrett Hardin famously described as the “tragedy of the commons” in a 1968 essay. Using the example of common grazing land, Hardin argued that the commons would always be over-exploited, since each individual, acting rationally, would allow their cattle to graze as much as possible, overtaxing the pasture. As Wall points out, Ostrom challenged the inevitability of Hardin’s vision, calling it a tragedy of the “unmanaged commons” and arguing communities can and do manage shared resources as effectively as private or government owners. But social media platforms don’t accommodate such common management of the spaces they provide; their prerogative dictates the terms of service. This doesn’t lead to an overuse of resources in the classic sense, but it does mean that trolls and unscrupulous advertisers can pollute the conversation, while other users have no meaningful ability to address the system that permits it. Call it the tragedy of the unmoderated comments section.

If the people affected could participate in crafting policies rather than merely implementing them, this would approach an actual commoning of these social spaces, along Ostrom’s lines, and would make the internet work more like the democratic utopia net neutrality advocates evoke.

For-profit web platforms, too, are making their choices, but doing so unilaterally while using commons rhetoric as a cloak

Given how the internet currently operates, however, it seems disingenuous when privately owned platforms link with nonprofits like Wikipedia, and Silicon Valley giants like Amazon and Ebay get to play underdog and join forces with the ACLU in fighting the common telecom enemy. Both Silicon Valley and the ISP-industrial-complex are made up of wealthy corporations looking to exploit the average internet user. Like the feudal barons and the industrial robber barons, they simply have conflicting models of exploitation.

The telecoms see internet users (both content makers and readers) as mere consumers to be nickeled and dimed for access to the content they want. Silicon Valley sees them instead as prosumers, creating valuable content and other data as they consume, and further exploits them as potential gig-economy-go-getters who will accept an extra Lyft passenger on their way to the hospital to give birth.

It’s hard to imagine ISPs winning this battle, even if the FCC does repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections, as Trump’s appointee Ajit Pai wants to do. Because who can afford to pay AT&T more for web access if their ability to drive for Lyft or host on Airbnb is stuck behind a paywall? Like the agricultural commons of old, the internet has allowed users to sustain themselves in order to pay rent, but if people are barred from today’s commons, where are the factories or colonies to absorb them?

Perhaps the difficulty some might have imagining such an enclosure is simply a sign that the commons metaphor has done its work. Using a pastoral, historical point of reference gives a sense of naturalness and inevitability to an online culture that is relatively new. In fact, that naturalness is an illusion. As Ostrom spent her career demonstrating, commons are actively chosen, not passively inherited. Writing about Torbel, for example, she draws on scholarship to show how the Swiss villagers were not trapped by tradition, but were familiar with many types of property arrangements and deliberately assigned different arrangements to different areas. For-profit web platforms, too, are making their choices, but doing so unilaterally while using commons rhetoric as a cloak.

And beyond that, app makers seek to use network technology to overwrite earlier arrangements for the use of public space with their own. Someone with access to a parking app, for example, now has an advantage when it comes to using city-wide resources over someone who does not.

Or take the case of Mission Playground in San Francisco. Before the park was renovated in 2012, locals, many of them Mexican immigrants, had been playing soccer on the asphalt for years with a free, self-regulating system. After the renovation, the Parks and Recreation Department allowed a group called San Francisco Pickup Soccer to rent the field every Tuesday evening. Users of its mobile app could now reserve field time in advance, for a fee.

The app isn’t to blame for the city deciding to start charging rents, but the story does show how the internet can be part of a process that displaces physical communities, allowing wealthier invaders to create new rules.

The internet can be a means of creating commons on and through screens, as well as managing and connecting ones that originated offscreen; it is important to defend net neutrality so that the internet can continue to play this role. However, the internet as it exists now, with net neutrality in place, is not a utopia of sharing between equal stakeholders. The “Battle for the Web” shouldn’t begin and end with net neutrality; instead, it should challenge all the ways the internet can be used to exploit or enclose, and fight to turn it into the kind of commons Ostrom describes, where all users have a meaningful role in governing their shared experience.

Olivia Rosane has a master’s in art and politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. For her dissertation, she completed a multimedia imagining of communities surviving in a climate-changed London. She spent her 20s working and organizing at a bookstore and writing about drones and internet literature for The State. Her work has also appeared in the New InquiryYes! Magazine, and the Dissent blog.