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Keeping Cyberspace a Public Space

Bill Thompson

I recently had an opportunity to re-read a pamphlet I wrote in 2000 for a series on new thinking about mutualism published by the Co-operative Party. In 'e-Mutualism, or the tragedy of the dot.commons' I talked at length about the co-operative basis of the Internet, the need for online public spaces which are not controlled or dominated by commercial interests, and the opportunities that the network offers for mutual organisations of all sizes, from small co-operatives to retailers like John Lewis (also see this).

I pointed out that the internet is 'an excellent example of the power of mutualism, having been created and managed through the co-operative effort of tens of thousands of individuals and organisations' and that it 'provides an infrastructure on which mutual organisations can thrive, opening up new potential for fast, effective communication and co-ordination of action, collaborative and consensus- driven decision making and global action.'

Re-reading it now I wasn't too embarrassed by my ten-year old analysis. The recently-concluded Internet Governance Forum in Egypt reflects the net's continuing mutualist principles, while its organising power has been demonstrated many times in the last nine years. We have seen political sites like MoveOn, campaigning initiatives like Avaaz.org and of course the growth of Facebook as the primary way teenagers like my son manage their social life and arrange their many parties.

One of the main themes I explored was the nature of the public online space that emerges when millions of computers — each privately owned and managed — are connected together, the space that comes into existence within the connected computers of the world and which is not, therefore, directly owned by any one organisation, individual or company.

This public space, like public parks or common land, is precious and valuable, but it is constantly under attack from those who would regulate it, control it or seek to use it to promote their own commercial or political interests. In 'e-mutualism' I was most concerned about attempts by service providers to create their own private networks, noting that:

"if non-standard programs and services (as provided by AOL, for example) proliferate then the Internet will fall victim to the tragedy of the commons, as the public space (the standards-based network) is consumed by commercial interests whose success will diminish the connectivity which makes the Net valuable to us all".

The world has changed a lot since my pamphlet was published, and the danger of internet balkanisation or dominance by private networks has, I think, receded though the debate about net neutrality and whether internet service providers should be allowed to control certain types of traffic or offer higher levels of service to content owners that pay them is perhaps its modern equivalent. We may yet see an internet divided by network speeds rather than incompatible protocols.

The argument over the public space of the network has not gone away, however, although it now relates to a different level of the network. Instead of the internet itself as a collection of linked computers it concerns the social network and the various sites, tools and services that many of us now rely on.

We can see how much public space matters in the furore over what might seem at first to be a relatively small change to the way Twitter operates. The micro-blogging service may be a minority occupation and its attractions may be a mystery to the vast majority of internet users, but the hype does not diminish its importance as a bellwether for the future development of social media.

One of the behaviours that has emerged over Twitter's short life is the re-tweet, where a user passes on a tweet from another person so that it will be drawn to the attention of their followers. A convention has arisen that retweets are prefixed with 'RT', include the name of the original tweeter, may be lightly edited to fit Twitter's 140 character limit and can include editorial comment, usually in parentheses at the end.

So if @ruskin147 tweets that "it's been a great day in the office" I might pass this on as "RT @ruskin147 it's bn a gr8 day in the office (alright for some!)" and everyone will know what is going on.

Most Twitter applications now support re-tweeting and automatically add the prefix. It's a simple, easy convention that was developed by the Twitter-using public to serve our needs.

And now Twitter, the company which runs the service, has decided that retweeting should work differently. The details are less important than the fact that they have changed the way their software works and added new functionality to their website and interface so that Twitter applications can also change to support the new way of doing things.

Unlike some users I don't think the new way is broken, and I can see how it might make it easier for Twitter to handle the volume of traffic, provide tracking information to users and even learn more about which tweets are popular — perhaps even as a first step to offering advertising against the service.

But the real significance is that the company simply did what it wanted to a service that it controls and we, the users, had absolutely no say in the matter. This makes it starkly clear that Twitter, no matter what we might like to think in our more optimistic moments, is not a public space in any meaningful way.

It is the same with Facebook or MySpace. When we start using these new social tools we are stepping from the High Street, maintained as a public thoroughfare but offering access to private premises, into the Mall, where the rules are set by Grosvenor Estates or whoever else has acquired the land from the council. We urgently need to consider whether we need, want or can mantain true public spaces online, and who might act as trusted custodians of them.

By Bill Thompson, Journalist, Commentator and Technology Critic. More blog posts from Bill Thompson can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Internet Governance, Net Neutrality, Policy & Regulation, Web

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