The Internet Commons

The Internet Commons

Written by

Dylan Holmes

2018 Jul 25

In an opinion article for Communications of the ACM, Prof. Moshe Vardi puts forth the view that “hippies destroyed the Internet”. To summarize the argument: since its beginning, the Internet has been operated as a commons, meaning that anyone with access to the Internet can access basically all of its information and services free of charge. The commons model contrasts with a hypothetical marketplace model, in which Internet users would buy access to information or services on a case-by-case basis, e.g. subscribing to Gmail or YouTube or Facebook or Wikipedia or, perhaps, various pre-packaged combinations of them. The problem with the commons model, Vardi argues, emerges because there are costs to contributing services and information to the Internet: you have to pay for electricity and hardware for the servers that display your website, for example, and you have to pay programmers to develop and maintain your software. If the Internet were run as a marketplace, companies could recover those costs by charging for access to their information and services. But because the cultural (legal?) precedent has established the Internet as a commons, they are precluded from doing so and have consequently resorted to more perverse methods—namely, ubiquitous advertising and the concomitant marketization of individuals' personal data.

As a society, we pay hugely for this surveillance economy. Among other things, such surveillance empowers governments to find and persecute people they dislike; it empowers corporations (and others with power over us) to exercise increasingly detailed influence over what we think, discover, believe, and do; it abridges our human right to a private life; and, through threat of scrutiny, it dampens our ability to exercise fundamental freedoms such as to protest, to associate with whomever we like, to read and believe whatever we like. And Vardi points out other lesser harms such as how ads lead to diffuse, opaque costs.

Why not instead, Vardi argues, place the costs up front? If we end up paying for our “free” Internet in insidious ways—if corporations generally recoup the costs of free Internet services by exploiting us through a surveillance economy whose costs are hidden, diffuse, and non-negotiable—why not instead arrange to pay for those services in a concrete, transparently negotiable way (i.e., with money up front)? That way, we can decide for ourselves whether we're personally willing to pay the cost of doing business online, and so that we can control (through our purchasing decisions) what that cost is, rather than having hidden costs forced upon us in unaccountable ways?

I think this expression of the marketplace idea makes the case as compelling as it can be. Although I find some strong practical and theoretical issues with Vardi's chosen solution, I share Vardi's fundamental sense of the wrongness and urgency of the surveillance problem and the need to do something about it.

Building an Internet marketplace

To evaluate Vardi's marketplace proposal, it's important to figure out what the proposal consists of, what problem it directly solves, who or what would need to change in order to implement the proposal, and what's stopping us from implementing it right now.

If I understand correctly, Vardi's marketplace Internet consists of Internet users paying directly and minutely for all of their Internet services and information, with prices that are modulated by competition. Visiting a website might cost a small amount, and websites would generally have paywalls, subscription costs, premium services, and so on. But of course, each of those paid models already exists: online newspapers put up paywalls, email providers like protonmail offer upgraded features for pay, and video streaming services charge a subscription fee for continued use. The only feature I haven't personally seen is charging visitors a fee for just stopping by (which would help recoup the cost of showing visitors a paywall); the Brave web browser might be an approximate example.

It seems that many examples of Vardi's marketplace ideals already exist—so what's preventing the Internet marketplace from being more fully, universally realized today? No autocratic authority seems to be enforcing the free-of-charge nature of the Internet or browbeating corporations who would begin charging for their Internet services, and in fact I doubt legal barriers are a problem because so many unassuming examples of paid web services already exist. Technological barriers might be more of a problem—perhaps we lack an Internet-payment template or a uniform micropayment protocol without which each individual corporation would have to implement their own. But despite all that, I suspect that the practical obstacles to creating an Internet marketplace are secondary to the fundamental social aspect: people hate paid websites. I don't have the data to back this up, but my impression is that with a few exceptions (notably, movie-streaming services), people have a near-universal animus against paying for Internet information and services. We expect the Internet to be free.

If Vardi views the animus against paid websites as the main crux of our Internet problem, then the people are the problem. Specifically, the original hippie architects designed the Internet to be free-of-charge, which meant that all Internet transactions were later, messier, imperfect additions. Furthermore, we Internet users perpetuate the problem; we have a self-defeating, misguided desire for free Internet which has entraped us. By insisting on free-of-charge Internet, we have unwittingly forced the hand of corporations who have thus been obliged to exploit people through advertising and nightmarish surveillance in order to remain solvent. For our own good, we must give up our idealism—and soon—so we can recover some measure of freedom and privacy for ourselves. To be clear, Vardi doesn't specifically blame anyone in the article; but given that the practical obstacles to a marketplace Internet seem so minor in comparison, it seems that these idealists must be the primary blocker and that Vardi's call to action is to raise awareness of the hidden costs of free Internet so that we rethink our priority for free stuff over privacy.

How markets might help

Vardi intends to promote an Internet marketplace as a way for corporations to recoup the costs of doing business on the Internet without resorting to exploiting people via ads and surveillance. Currently, companies must(?) offer Internet info and services free of charge; many choose to defray the cost by allocating part of their webpage so that other companies will pay them to put up an ad there.

One general problem with ads (not just online) is that ad-buying companies may pass costs onto the consumer, leading to more opaque pricing: when company B buys ad space from company A, company B may fund the bill by raising its own prices; thus people who buy from B are unknowingly paying a little extra money which is funneled to A. When essentially everyone is offering ad space, as on the Internet, then everyone else is buying ad space and so these advertisement surcharges to hidden companies proliferate.

One specific problem with online ads is that they are now universally equipped with surveillance tech: the technology that serves ads is so easily adapted to track users' microscopic movement patterns online, and such personal data is so lucrative, that many companies choose to trade in it. Surveillance is, of course, a scourge to freedom (see next section), and so Vardi argues that if we can pay companies more up front, they may feel less inclined to sell ad space, and so ads will become marginally less profitable, and surveillance will correspondingly become less stupendously lucrative.

While I do believe that free-of-charge Internet directly “incentivized”1 companies to create the surveillance infrastructure and sell ad space everywhere, I have some reasons to suspect that commercialization will not effectively undo the damage. First, I think that one reason the Internet has ubiquitous ads is because the Internet is a fantastic medium for advertisement. It is a fantastic medium by virtue of connecting so many people, and it will continue to be a fantastic medium regardless of whether it is run as a commons or a marketplace. A marketplace might mean that fewer companies consider it necessary to sell ad space and personal data in order to remain solvent; nonetheless I expect companies will continue to find ads highly profitable. Sure, some companies might choose to sell less ad space and/or buy fewer ads and spend the excess budget on lowering prices for consumers—perhaps for competetive advantage. Against these possibilities, there are many reasons why Internet companies might sell Internet ad space even if they didn't need to in order to remain solvent: because they can become more wealthy by doing so, or because they can charge other companies more for ad space than they can charge atomized customers for access, or because they want to defray other costs, or because, fundamentally, they're unaffected by the consequences of the high, opaque costs they create—when company B pays A for adspace, A gets an opportunity to lower access costs for its users, and users don't blame A when B raises its prices. As for surveillance, I see no reason why it would abate at all: given that the infrastructure for surveillance and advertisement has now been developed and is firmly in place, we may need to do more than try buying off misanthropic companies. If we already grant that they are sufficiently sociopathically self-serving to do whatever is most profitable, we have every reason to expect they will take our money and continue offering ads and selling our data besides.

Moral considerations

What's at stake here are two moral values, apparently in conflict. On the one hand, we have the value of the free-of-charge Internet commons. On the other hand, we have the value of privacy. (And Vardi might add other specifically marketplace benefits such as more transparent pricing.) Vardi views the Internet commons and the right to privacy as being in competition with each other in this case because privacy-destroying surveillance is being used to defray the costs of free-of-charge Internet services. Arguing from this perspective, Vardi asserts that given a choice between a free-of-charge Internet commons and a world free of surveillance, we should be willing to buy off Internet companies to induce them not to exploit our information for profit.

But let's not dispose of the Internet commons just like that. The value of the Internet commons is that it provides a large part of the sum of human knowledge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, free of charge. Vardi's quip that “Of course, we all love free information. The question is whether information freedom is good for society” seems to situate free-of-charge information as a nice perk (i.e. a totally optional bonus). But I argue that the role of a free Internet commons is much closer to the role of free public education: it empowers people to become citizens of the world. It mitigates the unfair circumstances of our birth by extending the same access to anyone with an Internet connection. The benefit of having freely-accessible online courses and free videos on any subject and free encyclopedias and free search engines is that any person in the world—whether they are rich or poor—can learn, can participate in worldwide conversations, can read the news, can play games, can buy and sell things, can learn a skill, can share new ideas with the world, can discover new ways of thinking, can access a large part of the sum of human knowledge. If the Internet commons is not free, then it cannot effectively perform this public duty. It becomes a walled garden instead of a public park, where the world's knowledge and services are accessible not to the whole community but only to people who happen to have the money.

Freedom from surveillance is another social good, and a necessary component of a free and flourishing society. There are pragmatic reasons to quash surveillance (and not just online): first, when powerful people collect detailed information about others, they can use that information to find and persecute those whose identities, activities, or thoughts they dislike. Second, widespread surveillance limits our ability to act in opposition to the state and other powerful observers: to protest anonymously, to express dissent, to organize strikes, to read opposing views, to seek asylum, to associate with undesireable people. Whether dominated by a corporation or an abusive spouse, we must have recourse to activities that powerful people might resent. Third, surveillance lets those in power control what we know, believe, and do. Especially on the Internet, targeted manipulation of our opinions, desires, addictions, information sources, and activities have become the norm. (Witness this truly harrowing prospectus enthusiastically detailing how video game designers could use social psychology hacks to expertly and deceptively bleed vulnerable people of their money.) Underlying these pragmatic reasons, there are deeper principles of justice. I believe that as human beings, we are entitled to live private lives—that a natural part of human flourishing involves maintaining and cultivating private spheres of life. We are entitled to keep our thoughts and activities private, to keep our movements and our assocations private, to live life on an intimate scale. Additionally, widespread surveillance in practice limits our ability to exercise many other freedoms we already recognize and value—freedom of association, freedom to read and believe whatever we like, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly in opposition and protest, freedom from discrimination, freedom of movement, freedom from tyrrany, domination, and injustice (and the right to seek escape and restitution). Widespread surveillance curtails the exercise of some of our most fundamental freedoms by eliminating the dignities and protections of privacy.

How can we reconcile the social virtues of a free-of-charge Internet commons with the social virtues of surveillance-free life? To Vardi and others, the solution is simply to scrap the commons ethos, using a thoroughly for-pay Internet as an enticement to cash-hungry Internet corporations not spy on us or accept money from people who would. But this enticement strategy raises questions about the behavior and moral standing of corporations. To my mind, when I see corporations exploiting people through surveillance as a way of recouping the costs of doing business on the free-of-charge Internet, I judge the fundamental problem to be corporations choosing to exploit people. If corporations were mere sociopathic forces of nature, it would not make sense for me to protest their behavior in this way or to interpret them as making choices. But corporations consist fundamentally of human workers/decisionmakers; if we are used to talking about reflexive “incentives” to action, it is only because corporations have been granted the power to dictate their profit-maximizing terms of engagement. When we take for granted the rights of corporations to remain solvent and seek profit wherever they find it, corporations can jettison blame for their harmful decisions onto “irresistable incentives” that others have created2. As a society, I believe that we only grant corporations the legal right to exist insofar as it enables human flourishing, and so I believe that human rights must clearly always take precedence. The problem with our Internet commons is exploitative corporations, and so the direct, just solution is for corporations to quit exploiting people.

One convenient solution would be for corporations to simply choose to quit exploiting people. Don't laugh—we should try to establish a norm that people make moral, civic-minded choices even when at work. But securing universal voluntary non-exploitation from corporations is difficult in part because compliers stand to lose money and defectors stand to make it. Alternatively, we could legally bind corporations, abolishing or restricting Internet surveillance. Many market enthusiasts (though certainly not all) recognize some foul-play exceptions to the free market ideal, excluding child labor, human trafficking, assailants-for-hire, narcotic drugs, unlicenced professionals, insider trading, monopolies, and so on. To this list, we might reasonably add restrictions on Internet surveillance. By market logic, if corporations are so fragile that they cannot remain solvent without engaging in exploitative foul play, then they should perish—we'll take the loss of variety and possible innovation as a baseline cost. Theoretically, this legal approach has the advantage that it neatly targets the root problem—exploitative surveillance—though in implementation it raises serious questions about how we define harmful surveillance and about jurisdiction, enforcement, and punishment, among others. (I'd be reluctant to seriously suggest it without studying the possible ramifications of different implementations.) I expect it is also astonishingly difficult to chastise and rein in apparently-omnipotent corporations instead of appeasing them and chastising people who resent the loss of the Internet commons. A third approach, if we're already talking about rebuilding the Internet based on our hard-won experience, would be to rebuild it in a way that makes it architecturally resistant to surveillance. We could rebuild it to make native payments possible, and we could rebuild with encryption woven into it, and we could rebuild it so that it can be constitutively both free of charge and free of surveillance.

But we might even choose to give up the fight for the commons. We might, in the end, find that the most efficient way to recover our freedoms is to accede to corporations' implicit ultimatum that we provide profitable alternatives if we do not want to be exploited via surveillance. When dominating institutions manufacture both the bad situation and their preferred way out, it is sometimes alright to refuse to yield to their demands on principle. It is also understandable to prefer a way out. But if we are to give up our Internet commons as ransom for the fundamental liberties that we used to have before Internet corporations quashed them, we should recognize that this is what we are doing, we should recognize the value of what we are giving up, we should observe where the real blame lies, and we should understand that we are engraining a societal habit of capitulating.

Points of agreement

In summary, I share Vardi's alarm at the terrible, pervasive threat that surveillance poses to our free society, and the sense of urgency that we must do something about it. I also appreciate Vardi's points about the effect of ad-based revenue on obscuring prices. If we disagree, it is primarily on four points:

  1. I'm not confident that commercializing the Internet is a direct or effective solution for reducing the amount of surveillance or its concomitant problems. Mainly, as I understand it, ads and surveillance are profitable because the Internet itself connects so many people; it will continue to be profitable independently of whether we run the Internet as a marketplace; and so I expect commercialization will not discourage advertising as much as we would hope, and will perhaps not at all discourage covert surveillance and selling of our data.
  2. I do not position the free-of-charge Internet commons as a mere perk. Instead, I argue it is an essential public good, an essential ingredient of egalitarian society, an equalizing force without which an equal-opportunity society is incomplete.
  3. I do not regard corporate exploitation as a given or morally neutral part of the solution. (Vardi does not take the opposing stance directly, but the solution of giving up the commons to incentivize better corporate behavior seems to tacitly suggest it.)
  4. Accordingly, I do not place blame on idealists for making and perpetuating the Internet-as-commons. Although I do believe, with Vardi, that corporations chose to develop our existing nightmarish surveillance/ad panopticon as a direct result of these design decisions, I blame the corporations for that choice.

In the article, Vardi paraphrases Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, as saying that information freedom is the “original sin of the Internet.” But Zuckerman's full quote carries a different meaning in context:

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.

(emphasis mine). Ultimately, I mantain a distinction between recognizing the free Internet as directly creating a situation where corporations chose to develop exploitative ad-surveillance infrastructure to make money that they couldn't make elsewhere, and blaming free information as the Internet's original sin.

I think it's likely that the people running these corporations did not originally sell ad space and implement ubiquitous tracking out of malicious greed—I sympathize with how difficult it is for anyone to anticipate and untangle moral ramifications and the evolution of the Internet in advance—but that excuse has now evaporated. If we did not anticipate how oppressive Internet ads and ubiquitous surveillance would be then, we understand it now. Corporations must stop surveilling people—and if they can't remain solvent without doing so, they should perish by default. Corporations do not have a right to survive or profit in ways that abridge human rights and freedoms; those corporations that cannot think of how to survive online without exploiting people should find another business, perhaps offline—and there are plenty.

Vardi asks “whether it is not too late to ditch the ad-based business model and build a better Internet”. It isn't too late. The onus is on corporations to ditch the ad-based business model and on us to ensure that they do.


“Incentivize” is a slippery word whose purpose seems to be to describe individuals' choices without holding them responsible for them. If x is incentivized to do y, then it's only natural that x does y, and x can't help but do y, and it is morally neural that x chooses to do y, etc. To resist this neutering effect, I'll keep the word in scare-quotes throughout.
See G.A. Cohen's book Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008) for an eloquent and spiritually similar argument.