The Web As Collective Propertyby 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 youâ€™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 Wikipediaâ€™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 canâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t be willing to put up money for hosting costs to espouse a political ideology on â€œourâ€ 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 donâ€™t agree. I think it was created by two brothers who love beer and wanted to build something. It wasnâ€™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 youâ€™ve built, you take away the incentive to build. This isnâ€™t like building a home and selling it to someone, thereâ€™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 personâ€™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 â€œcollective propertyâ€ arrangement, weâ€™d all be poorer if the Web was collective property.