There are some stories making the rounds that “the Internet” is a public commons built on private property. This is wrong.
Firstly, is nothing public about it. “The Internet”, as we know is, exists and is useful because it is private. Or, more precisely, it is a lot of private entities working together because they choose to.
Those private entities include the corporations that provide the infrastructure and services (ISP’s like Comcast and services like Google). They are not and have never been public property. Instead, they are self-interested organizations that choose to offer their services to the public.
Further, we are these sharing private entities, every time to write a blog post or upload a picture to Facebook. We do this voluntarily, and in your own self-interest. (Where self-interest means something that benefits us in some way — entertainment, money, or a feeling of making the world a better place.)
“Private entities, sharing” is what the Internet is, at its essence. Were it not organized this way, it would not be “the Internet”. It would not be at all.
“The Internet”, like “the market” or “the public”, does not exist. Rather, it is a shorthand for a lot of interactions, with amazing emergent properties, that we try to put our arms around.
Declaring it a public commons is a blithe exercise in semantics. It is like Beetlejuice: say it enough times, and it exists.
Now, I understand why we talk about it in this way. The arrangement works so well that it’s easy to think that it’s just a big, public thing that’s out there and does what we want. The cloud.
But here is the thing: if there is to be “the Internet”, it can be no other way.
It can either be multivariate and privately owed, or monolithic and publicly-owned — where “publicly” should be read as “state”.
Remember, there are two organizing principles by which citizens can participate with one another. One is plural (private), the other is majority-driven (government).
The implication of the above-linked article is that, post-Wikileaks, we should be concerned. After all, a bunch of private companies (such as Amazon) have refused to support Wikileaks with their infrastructure. Thus, we are at the will of self-interested, profit-seeking corporations in the public sphere.
It fails to mention that the private Internet is what made Wikileaks possible in the first place. Of course I would prefer that Amazon stood their ground and continued to publish the material. But if the Internet were run like a public commons, then the exposed organization (the state) would be the same one running the infrastructure.
(I dare speculate that Amazon withdrew its support for fear of legal trouble from same.)
To support Wikileaks-style transparency is to support a private, plural Internet.