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bst on 13 Jul 2000 17:47:02 -0000


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[by way of Patrice Riemens <patrice {AT} xs4all.nl>]


http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4037237,00.html 

Can we keep the internet mutual? 

The net today is a vast common area for all. But, writes Bill Thompson,
our dot.commons are under threat from commercial interests just as the
old, free pastures of England were seized under the Enclosures Acts

Bill Thompson 
Thursday July 6, 2000
The Guardian

Last week the owners of Standard Life, one of the few remaining mutual
financial institutions, decided not to turn it into a private company
despite being promised a windfall of up to 6,000 each. But while Standard
Life will remain owned by its members and run for their mutual benefit
instead of delivering profits to shareholders, the future of the worlds'
biggest and most successful mutual undertaking looks far less certain. The
internet, a co-operative enterprise with more than 300million "members" is
in trouble. 

It may sound strange to claim that the internet is like the worker's co-op
running your local health food shop, or the John Lewis Partnership. 
According to the International Co-operative Alliance a co-operative is "an
autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common
economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-
owned and democratic-controlled enterprise", and this does not seem to
describe the net.

For one thing, the many networks and computers that make the internet are
not jointly owned: they are all in private hands. Perhaps when the net was
just a government and academic network, and all the computers and cables
were in public ownership, it might have been a co-operative of some sort,
but that is certainly not true today.

The internet is hardly democratically controlled, either, at least not on
the one member, one vote model. In the early days it was managed by a
beneficent oligarchy of technically-minded individuals who were either
paid to research and develop computer networks or worked for companies
that gave them time and space to be involved in the standards-setting
process. Now it is dominated by the paid technical representatives of
large corporations seeking to have their technologies and programs
incorporated into the standards.

But the computers and the networks are not really "the internet": the
internet emerges when they are connected, in the space behind the screen.
It is, as William Gibson put it, "a graphic representation of data
abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system". And the
way the inter net's technical standards are set is still open to all who
want to participate and not dominated by one company or group.

This internet, like a mind inside a brain, is more than the hardware and
software that support it. We all share in the net only as we contribute to
it, adding our programs, computers and network links to the larger whole.
We all accept the technical limitations on which software we can use, so
that we can join our computers together. And we all benefit from the scale
of today's internet. That makes it a co-op.

But all is not well. The internet is like common land which can be used by
everyone. As long as nobody takes too much of the land, or grazes too many
sheep or cows, then everyone can benefit. However, the first person to
graze too many sheep gets an immediate advantage, for one year at least:
their sheep grow faster and they make more money. The end result is that
the commons are destroyed, and everyone loses out. But the certain
knowledge of long term disaster may not be enough to deter the first mover
who sees a large short term gain.

We can see this happening already with Linux, one of the internet's big
success stories. For eight years the open source operating system created
by Linus Torvalds in 1991 was worked on by thousands of programmers who
wanted to contribute to the public good. But while the source is free,
corporate users want to buy technical support for it, and a number of
companies offering Linux services, such as Red Hat, have gone public with
massively inflated share prices.

As a result, the thousands of programmers who have contributed to Linux
over the years are now asking where their share of the money is. The move
to demutualise Linux, just as the building societies were demutualised, is
just around the corner. And, as with the building societies and the banks,
it will be the current owners - the few who own Linux-focused companies or
whose programming made it into the latest distribution - who will benefit.
Those who contributed in the early days, who worked to build the commons
in the first place, will be forgotten as virtual fences are erected.

It does not have to be that way. One of the most important things about
the internet is that it has no limits. Unlike a physical field, it is
always possible to add to the size of the net, simply by adding more
computers and networks. The activities of the entrepreneurial capitalists
do not have to affect the co-operative programming teams or the virtual
communities, as long as all users respect the mutualist principles which
made it all possible in the first place and created this "dot.commons" we
all share.

Support for the open standards on which the net is built is the most
important of these principles, but the tension between working to
standards and creating innovative software that creates new markets (and
new commercial opportunities) is always great. Sometimes it breaks down,
and we get the browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape, or the Instant
Messaging battle between AOL and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the
initial profits for the standards-busting first movers can be so large
companies have a great incentive to deviate from standards or introduce
their own proprietary software in the hope that they will dominate the
market.

Keeping the internet mutual is important for two reasons. First, it
presents a coherent alternative to the world in which transnational
corporations with internal economies larger than those of many nation
states shape our lives in their own interests. And understanding the way
the internet developed and grew in mutualist terms gives us a valuable
case study.

Second, the internet can work as it does only if it remains mutual. The
need to build a network that can reach everywhere, be used by everyone and
support all the many different activities that we need or want from it is
too important to be left in the hands of a single company or group of
companies.

The mutual internet, like the mutual building societies, does not have to
concern itself with the interests of one particular group, and can be
there for everybody. The alternative is a bigger AOL or Microsoft Network,
driven by corporate agendas.

Mutualism is the principle that "individual and collective well-being is
obtainable only by mutual dependence". The internet has given us an
opportunity to reshape the world and build on mutualist principles in our
new economy. But this is a choice we must make, not a predetermined
outcome of the digital revolution. We have the tools - can we use them?

Five pillars of w-mutualism

1: For a free Internet to flourish, all those who wish to connect to the
network must work to open, mutually agreed technical standards.

2: The dot.commons will continue to thrive only when they are rooted in
open standards rather than proprietary technologies. Free exchange of
technical information should be encouraged as far as possible and enforced
only when necessary.

3: There are many legitimate uses of the network and not all serve all
needs. What matters is that the use of the network by one should not have
an adverse impact on its present or future use by others. 

4: The network is a social institution that both offers rights to and
demands obligations from those who seek to use it.

5: Government has a responsibility to promote equal access to the network
and its services, to act as an effective regulator and to avoid
restricting the future development of the network. 

Undermining mutualism

A good example of how the "public" and mutual internet can be undermined
by technological advances is Wap (wireless application protocol). Wap is a
way to present web content and email messages for display on the small
screen of a mobile phone and to deliver the content over wireless networks
(like the GSM network). It is being sold as "the wireless internet". But
Wap is a proprietary technology developed and owned by the Wap Forum and
anyone who wants to develop a Wap service must license the programs and
ideas from there.

Wap is not open, it is not in the public domain and it cannot be enhanced
or developed by anyone other than the owners. The way Wap is being
promoted - as if it were the internet on a phone - misrepresents it in the
way that the proponents of demutualisation of insurance companies and
building societies misrepresent the operations of listed financial
services companies, and to the same end.

 Bill Thompson is the author of E-mutualism - Or The Tragedy Of The 
Dot.commons, just published by the Co-operative Party at 5. 

  Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000 



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