The Enclosure of the Public Interest Internet

This is the second in our blog series on the public interest internet: past, present and future.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of the public internet, the greatest worry of some of its most high-powered advocates was that it would be empty. As the Clinton administration prepared to transition the internet from its academic and military origins to the heart of the promised “national information infrastructure” (NII), the government’s advisors fretted that the United States entertainment and information industries would have no commercial reason to switch from TV, radio, and recorded music. And without Hollywood and the record labels on board, the new digital environment would end up as a ghost mall, devoid of businesses or users.

 “All the computers, telephones, fax machines, scanners, cameras, keyboards, televisions, monitors, printers, switches, routers, wires, cables, networks and satellites in the world will not create a successful NII, if there is not content”, former Patent Office head Bruce Lehman’s notorious 1994 government green paper on intellectual property on the Net warned. The fear was that without the presence of the pre-packaged material of America’s entertainment industry, the nation would simply refuse to go online. As law professor Jessica Litman describes it, these experts’ vision of the Internet was “a collection of empty pipes, waiting to be filled with content.” 

Even as the politicians were drafting new, more punitive copyright laws intended to reassure Hollywood and the record labels (and tempt them into new, uncharted waters), the Internet’s first users were moving in and building anyway. Even with its tiny audience of technologists, first-adopters, and university students, the early net quickly filled with compelling “content,” a  free-wheeling, participatory online media that drew ever larger crowds as it evolved.

Even in the absence of music and movies, the first net users built towers of information about them anyway. In rec.arts.movies, the Usenet discussion forum devoted to all things Hollywood, posters had been compiling and sharing lists of their favourite motion picture actors, directors, and trivia since the 1980s. By the time of the Lehman report, the collective knowledge of the newsgroup had outgrown its textual FAQs, and expanded first to a collectively-managed database on Colorado University’s file site, and then onward to one of the very first database-driven websites, hosted on a spare server at Wales’ Cardiff University.

Built in the same barn-raising spirit of the early net, the public interest internet exploits the low cost of organizing online to provide stable, free repositories of user-contributed information. They have escaped an exploited fate as proprietary services owned by a handful of tech giants.

These days, you’ll know that Cardiff Movie Database by another name – the IMDb. The database that had grown out of the rec.arts.movies contributions was turned into a commercial company in 1996 and sold to Amazon in 1998 for around $55 million dollars (equivalent to $88 million today). The Cardiff volunteers, led by one of its original moderators, Col Needham, continued to run the service as salaried employees of an Amazon subsidiary.

The IMDB shows how the original assumptions of Internet growth were turned on their head. Instead of movie production companies leading the way, their own audience had successfully built and monetised the elusive “content” of the information superhighway by themselves—for themselves.  The data of the rec.arts.movie databases was used by Amazon as the seed to build an exclusive subscriptions service, IMDbpro, for movie business professionals, and to augment their Amazon Prime video streaming service with quick-access film facts. Rather than needing the movie moguls’ permission to fill the Internet, the Internet ended up supplying information that those moguls themselves happily paid a new, digital mogul for.

But what about those volunteers who gave their time and labor to the collective effort of building this database for everyone? Apart from the few who became employees and shareholders of the commercial IMDb, they didn’t get a cut of the service’s profits. They also lost access to the full fruits of that comprehensive movie database. While you can still download the updated core of the Cardiff Database for free, it only covers the most basic fields of the IMDb. It is licensed under a strictly non-commercial license, fenced off with limitations and restrictions. No matter how much you might contribute to the IMDb, you can’t profit from your labor. The deeper info that was originally built by the user-contributions  and supplemented by Amazon has been enclosed: shut away, in a proprietary paywalled property, gated off from the super-highway it rode in on.

It’s a story as old as the net is, and echoes historic stories of the enclosure of the commons. A pessimist would say that this has been the fate of much of the early net and its aspirations. Digital natives built, as volunteers, free resources for everyone. Then, struggling to keep them online in the face of the burdens of unexpected growth, they ended up selling up to commercial interests. Big Tech grew to its monopoly position by harvesting this public commons, and then locking it away.

But it’s not the only story from the early net. Everyone knows, too, the large public projects that somehow managed to steer away from this path. Wikipedia is the archetype, still updated by casual contributors and defiantly unpaid editors across the world, with the maintenance costs of its website comfortably funded by regular appeals from its attached non-profit. Less known, but just as unique, is Open Street Map (OSM), a user-built, freely-licensed alternative to Google Maps, which has compiled from public domain sources and the hard work of its volunteer cartographers one of the most comprehensive maps of the entire earth. 

These are flagships of what we at EFF call the public interest internet. They produce and constantly replenish priceless public goods, available for everyone, while remaining separate from government, those traditional maintainers of public goods. Neither are they commercial enterprises, creating private wealth and (one hopes) public benefit through the incentive of profit. Built in the same barn-raising spirit of the early net, the public interest internet exploits the low cost of organizing online to provide stable, free repositories of user-contributed information. Through careful stewardship, or unique advantages, they have somehow escaped an enclosed and exploited fate as a proprietary service owned by a handful of tech giants.

That said, while Wikipedia and OSM are easy, go-to examples of the public interest internet, they are not necessarily representative of it. Wikipedia and OSM, in their own way, are tech giants too. They run at the same global scale. They struggle with some of the same issues of accountability and market dominance. It’s hard to imagine a true competitor to Wikipedia or OSM emerging now, for instance—even though many have tried and failed. Their very uniqueness means that their influence is outsized. The remote, in-house politics at these institutions has real effects on the rest of society. Both Wikipedia and OSM have complex, often carefully negotiated, large-scale interactions with the tech giants. Google integrates Wikipedia into its searches, cementing the encyclopedia’s position. OSM is used by, and receives contributions from, Facebook and Apple. It can be hard to know how individual contributors or users can affect the governance of these mega-projects or change the course of them. And there’s a recurring fear that the tech giants have more influence than the builders of these projects.

Besides, if there’s really only a handful of popular examples of public good production by the public interest internet, is that really a healthy alternative to the rest of the net? Are these just crocodiles and alligators, a few visible survivors from a previous age of out-evolved dinosaurs, doomed to be ultimately outpaced by sprightlier commercial rivals?

At EFF, we don’t think so. We think there’s a thriving economy of smaller public interest internet projects, which have worked out their own ways to survive on the modern internet. We think they deserve a role and representation in the discussions governments are having about the future of the net. Going further, we’d say that the real dinosaurs are our current tech giants. The small, sprightly, and public-minded public interest internet has always been where the benefits of the internet have been concentrated. They’re the internet’s mammalian survivors, hiding out in the nooks of the net, waiting to take back control when the tech giants are history.

In our next installment, we take a look at one of the most notorious examples of early digital enclosure, its (somewhat) happier ending, and what it says about the survival skills of the public interest internet when a free database of compact discs outlasts the compact disc boom itself.

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Author: Danny O'Brien

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