Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“The welfare state is not really about the welfare of the masses. It is about the egos of the elites.”     Thomas Sowell

March 26, 2007

The Web As Collective Property

by Brad Warbiany

Last night, in a comment to Jason’s post on Venezuela & “collective property”, I suggested that the Pilgrims showed that collective property doesn’t work. As I was listening this morning to an EconTalk podcast, the discussion turned to the web, and how the web has grown into an enormous community, largely due to the people who wish to put out information, not a profit motive.

It occurred to me that such an idea may be used by socialists as a defense of collective property. After all, you see an enormous– largely free– medium, where the work of individuals has put together an enormous wealth of information. They may claim that something like Blogger or geocities is an example of how collective property (i.e. a free “printing press” for anyone to publish upon) has enabled an amazing increase in available information that we see throughout online society.

On its face, it sounds like a pretty reasonable claim. However, it fails to take into account the difference between “freely-provided and open to all” and “collective”. Take, for example, the Blogger service. It’s owned by Google, and as with most things that Google does, they provide the hosting forum for free to whoever wants to set up a blog. One of the advantages to a non-physical realm like the Internet is that there is a near-infinite amount of “space” to offer up. Google provides space to whoever wants it, and the act of using that space has made the internet a richer place.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s “collective property”. While Google offers Blogger blogs to anyone who wants one, that doesn’t make those blogs collectively owned or governed. The blogs are more of a “homesteading” situation than collective property. Someone makes a claim to a certain URL within the blogspot.com domain, sets up their blog, and thereafter they are the owner of that space.

Collective property doesn’t work because of the tragedy of the commons. As an example, let’s say that Google put into the terms of service that if you set up a blog within Blogger, you have to allow anyone to contribute posts to it. Thereafter, every blog on Blogger would truly be collective property. I predict that within a few months, Blogger would cease to exist. While a free blog on Blogger may not seem like “property”, it certainly feels like property to those who have one. The people who have those blogs talk about “my” blog or “our” blog (if it is a group blog like this one), not a blog belonging to “the community”.

A similar issue is currently occurring with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is truly a commons, where anyone has the ability to edit entries on any subject, without consideration to the credentials of those who make the edits. At the beginning, Wikipedia was fairly reliable. Over time, though, Wikipedia has proven to be a completely unreliable source of information. When you’re looking up information on a topic even remotely political, Wikipedia is a source that must be corroborated by multiple other sources before it should be trusted. The reason is that Wikipedia’s design as a commons ensures that the topics it covers may be more exhaustive than other encyclopedias, but it cannot claim any reasonable expectation of accuracy. Such a tendency to put out false information is almost expected on a topic of political significance, or anything controversial, but as Sean Lynch of Catallarchy pointed out, this is the case even on such non-controversial topics as the storage of hydrogen peroxide. The advantage of a commons like Wikipedia is that everyone can use it. The disadvantage of a commons like Wikipedia is that you can’t trust people to use it wisely.

The difference between a commons and private property is profound. Property is a very real, human idea. Whether that property is a house, a car, a stereo, or a blog, there is a human desire to control that which is “mine”. There is further a human desire to protect that property from the control of others. When that property cannot be defended, the property becomes worthless.

If tomorrow, the government told me that I had to open my house or my car to let anyone in the community use it as they pleased, I would expect that my house and car would rapidly deteriorate, because there would be no incentive for the people who use it to contribute to its upkeep. Likewise, if tomorrow the government declared that I had to open The Liberty Papers to anyone who wished to post to the front page, you can be sure that The Liberty Papers would deteriorate. The contributors who were first invited to this blog when Eric started it 18 months ago were chosen because they shared a common political outlook, and because Eric believed that they would add to a richer blog. Those who we invited (“we”, because while this blog may have one legal owner, we share decision-making amongst the group) after I took over for Eric were invited for the same reason. If we were forced to allow anyone to post here, it would cease to be The Liberty Papers, as the new contributors would not be “selected” in order to provide a libertarian message. It might become, based on some of our recent comments, the “We Love Hugo Chavez Papers”. At that point, you can be sure that pretty much all of the original contributors would stop caring and stop contributing. And you can be sure that we contributors wouldn’t be willing to put up money for hosting costs to espouse a political ideology on “our” blog that goes against our own beliefs.

Humans have amazing capacities and desire for creativity. Some may think that some of the pages on the web are designed for others, but I would say that this is not the case. For example, I regularly check out beeradvocate.com. This is a site devoted to all things beer. Now, some may suggest that it was created by the Alstrom brothers in order to give a beer-related web site to the world. I don’t agree. I think it was created by two brothers who love beer and wanted to build something. It wasn’t so much about giving something to beer drinkers worldwide, so much that it was about creating something they were interested in and could call their own. If, again, the government said that they must open the inner workings of their site to anyone who wanted to control it, I think they would be forced to throw up their hands and stop caring, because the work that they created out of love and interest for beer would cease to be what they wanted it to be.

The web has become the wonderful collection of information and communication because people have a desire to create and build, not a desire to donate. When you take away the ownership, the ability to control what you’ve built, you take away the incentive to build. This isn’t like building a home and selling it to someone, there’s not a lot of money to be earned by building the average blog or web site. Most people in this world build what they want to build because they love to do it. You take away a person’s ability to control their creation, and they will cease to build. Some would say that the world would be a better place if this were not the case, but those people are tilting at windmills. Human nature and private property rights are inextricably linked. When you try to break that link, bad things happen. And, like Venezuela under a “collective property” arrangement, we’d all be poorer if the Web was collective property.

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8 Comments

  1. If we were forced to allow anyone to post here, it would cease to be The Liberty Papers, as the new contributors would not be “selected” in order to provide a libertarian message. It might become, based on some of our recent comments, the “We Love Hugo Chavez Papers”.

    Case in point, Indymedia.

    Comment by Kevin — March 26, 2007 @ 8:37 pm
  2. The argument of the Internet as a collective property also fails to take into account the very real costs that individuals, not groups, usually pay in order to keep some of these communities open.

    Case in point, the Liberty Papers. The cost is shared by either one or a few. I do not know the specifics. However, were a law enacted for it to become a “Collective Property” where anyone could post, a decision would have to be made.

    1. The law would need to say that everyone who contributes to the site must also contribute to the funding of the site.
    2. The providers of internet services, storage, etc. would need to be nationalized to make it a “collective property.”
    3. Funding to providers would be made through taxes, which all people would be charged.
    4. The person who created the site would continue to pay, and if he or she did not like the direction, could merely stop payments, and shut the site down.

    Comment by Ted — March 26, 2007 @ 9:36 pm
  3. simple but comprehensive…

    Comment by Chitoz — March 26, 2007 @ 9:49 pm
  4. Well, let me say, in supplement to Ted, that I am the original founder of TLP. I paid all of the costs to originally start the site. I then turned over the ownership to another of the contributors. That person now pays all of the cost of TLP. If blogs were collectivized and I was still the owner, I would immediately stop paying the costs and shut the site off. I’m fairly sure the current proprietor would do the same.

    The fact is that the idea that the Internet is not about profit is fairly silly. First, there are plenty of people in it to make money. Second, read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and you may come to understand that many people do things for free in order to establish reputation, which then leads to profit. A perfect example is Jon Henke at QandO. He spent quite a while establishing a serious reputation as a blogger, which he then translated into a job in the Senate.

    Comment by Eric — March 26, 2007 @ 10:25 pm
  5. Here’s my biggest complain. The whole idea of the tragedy of the commons ignores that historically, the commons was related to strict property rights. Property rights are possible within a commons, as historically understood. The word has been misappropriated.

    Comment by LoganFerree — March 27, 2007 @ 1:06 am
  6. The other thing often purposefully overlooked by groups that believe everything on the internet is public access is that it is still a publishing medium. As such, the material is copyrighted and owned by the author, no differently than if it had been published in a magazine, newspaper or book. Believe me, should Blogger/Google ever insist on copyright ownership of content, the blog world would cease to exist immediately.

    Comment by Rene — March 27, 2007 @ 7:54 am
  7. Rene,

    Do you think such an argument will work against people who see all property as collective? If they don’t believe that people have a right to physical property, why would they ever support intellectual property rights?

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — March 27, 2007 @ 8:30 am
  8. Brad,

    This sparked two diaries of mine (so far) on the commons at Freedom Democrats: http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/1368 and http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/1367

    Comment by LoganFerree — March 28, 2007 @ 12:32 am

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