Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 11: September 2004

Library Stuff Perspective

Information Commons?

Walt Crawford

Kranich, Nancy, The information commons: A public policy report, Free Expression Policy Project, 2004, 58 pg. (Downloadable from

The Internet offers unprecedented possibilities for human creativity, global communication, and access to information. Yet digital technology also invites new forms of information enclosure. In the last decade, mass media companies have developed methods of control that undermine the public’s traditional rights to use, share, and reproduce information and ideas. These technologies, combined with dramatic consolidation in the media industry and new laws that increase its control over intellectual products, threaten to undermine the political discourse, free speech, and creativity needed for a healthy democracy.

In response to the crisis, librarians, cyber-activists, and other public interest advocates have sought ways to expand access to the wealth of resources that the Internet promises, and have begun to build online communities, or “commons,” for producing and sharing information, creative works, and democratic discussion. This report documents the information commons movement, explains its importance, and outlines the theories and “best practices” that have developed to assist its growth.

Those two paragraphs begin the executive summary for this 35-page report (the other 23 pages include resource lists, endnotes, and an index). A little later Kranich says, “Building the information commons is essential to 21st century democracy, but it is neither easy nor costless.” Still later, the introduction says “large portions of the Internet were soon dominated by media corporations that developed ‘technology protection measures,’ licensing terms, and other ‘digital rights management’ techniques to restrict access to information and control its use. As a result, much online content is now wrapped, packaged, and restricted—treated as private rather than common property.” That follows a comment about “dreams of a utopia where people could connect with myriad ideas and with each other instantly, no longer constrained by location, format, cost, time of day, on-site rules, or other barriers.”

Right there, on the second page of the report, my red pen came out. While the internet isn’t free—someone has to pay for all that infrastructure—I believe people can “connect with myriad ideas and with each other, no longer constrained by location, format…time of day…or other barriers.” Millions of people use IM. Millions more use email, lists, weblogs, wikis—a variety of ways to communicate with each other and to set forth their ideas. I’m not sure “utopia” is the right word, but that particular set of possibilities is here, right now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know about the Free Expression Policy Project. Otherwise, Cites & Insights wouldn’t exist. Does the internet also serve as a conduit for digital resources that carry direct prices? Sure it does. Among other things, that’s how I make my living, but I never thought of RLG as a “media corporation,” and I don’t think I’d call OCLC, EBSCO or CSA media corporations either. I’m not sure how the existence of licensed resources on the internet threatens the future of open discourse on the internet.

I read the report twice, carefully, deliberately not marking anything the first time through. When I mentioned the “information commons” in February 2004, I said this:

To date, it’s not a concept that serves my mental models to draw other concepts together. I also wasn’t terribly clear on a suitable definition. One definition was offered in [a commons-blog entry]; Mary Minow offered another definition; the discussion continues. I attended part of an ALA Midwinter forum on the information commons—and the portion I attended suggested to me that the concept continues to be ill defined.

I’m sure this discussion will continue. Will I become an advocate for the information commons? Not directly, not until the mental model makes sense to me—but that could change at any time.

What better time to reconsider my position than now, with the issuance of this public policy report? I was hoping that Nancy Kranich would convince me that “information commons” was a well-defined concept and one that I should support.

That didn’t happen—and I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m unable to recognize the grand vision or because I don’t buy this particular aggregation of concepts. The best I can do here is offer a few notes and queries and recommend that—if you think this concept might have merit—you acquire the report for yourself and make up your own mind. Sometimes it takes me a long time to “get it.” Sometimes I never do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

The report has three major sections: Opportunities and challenges of the information age, the emerging information commons, and the future of the information commons. The second section is by far the longest, most of it examples of “open democratic information resources.” I see a variety of different “commons” discussed, but I don’t see enough shared characteristics to make it useful to think of them as all part of one “information commons.”

Examples discussed include “software commons” or open source software; “licensing commons” (the GNU General Public License and Creative Commons licenses); open access publishing; OAI repositories; “institutional commons”—well, you’ll just have to read that section and see what the examples have in common; and “subject matter information commons” or topical digital resource projects.

I look at that set, read the descriptions, and see an indigestible hodgepodge: A diverse array of initiatives (or in some cases independent projects that can be grouped into apparent “commons”) that—to my mind—have little to do with one another except that they’re not entirely for-profit initiatives. I try to connect the set of examples to the earlier discussion of the history of the commons and why “commons analysis” is important, and I can’t make the connection. Again, maybe you can.

I support open access publishing (with some reservations) and OAI repositories (with greater reservations), at least to the extent that either or both might improve library budgetary situations and access to scholarly resources. I use a Creative Commons license and have written way too much about the need for more balanced copyright, including ways of adding to the public domain. I don’t see those two areas as tightly coupled, and I really don’t see any advantage to adding open source software to that mix. Stated as one big mass, the “information commons” is so huge and amorphous that it’s hard to understand, and I think even harder to lobby for or make progress toward. Lobbying for the Public Domain Enhancement Act should proceed based on the many values enhanced by adding to the public domain—not, in my opinion, by focusing on the “information commons.”

Some individual items bothered me. There’s a claim that “the way the Web’s portals and search engines are constructed may actually exacerbate, rather than remedy, the effects of media concentration by making it tougher to find all those independently created resources that are now available online.” I haven’t read the study that makes that claim, but I find it improbable. Between online directories (including the Librarians’ Index to the Internet and Open Directory Project and), topical directories to lists, user groups and weblogs, and the very high visibility of weblogs and groups within Google, it’s never been easier to find freely-available online resources—even though it’s now also easy to get swamped by them. In fact, search engines favor freely available online resources; major licensed resources are almost always part of the Invisible Web, not available to web search engines.

Here’s a paragraph that left me befuddled; maybe you’ll see the point(s):

The Internet facilitated not only expression “as diverse as human thought,” but “peer production”—that is, decentralized production and distribution of information that bypasses the centralized control of more traditional publishing. As the legal scholar Yochai Benkler writes, peer production is “a process by which many individuals, whose actions are coordinated neither by managers nor by price signals in the market, contribute to a joint effort that effectively produces a unit of information or culture.” The result is commons-based production of knowledge that, while not challenging individual authorship, fundamentally alters the current system in which commercial producers and passive consumers are the primary players.

I don’t see the final sentence as following from the rest. As with most new internet resources, “peer production” adds “knowledge” that might or might not compete with traditional media, but will only fundamentally alter the producer/consumer landscape if most people find those resources more valuable than traditional media. An earlier paragraph says ten corporations control most of America’s traditional media outlets. But the totality of those outlets—all the magazine titles, all the radio and tv stations, all the daily newspapers—comes to considerably less than a million (excluding magazine titles, the number would be under 100,000). There are millions of weblogs today. If citizens preferred those weblogs to traditional media, then the current system would indeed be “fundamentally altered.” But if we choose to be “passive consumers” (a somewhat snide label for book and newspaper readers, but there it is), then no fundamental change will occur.

Nothing that Big Media has done has made it more difficult to find weblogs, participate in lists, join online groups, collaborate on wikis or write internet-distributed zines. But I’m guessing that the 100th best-read weblog, which could reach an audience of more than a billion all around the world, has a lot fewer readers than the 100th largest-circulation magazine or newspaper. I can’t blame Big Media for that, much as I’d like to. Peer production needs to compete by offering more interesting and engaging resources than Big Media; all the “commons” in the world won’t do that job.

I would be uncomfortable handing this pamphlet to a sympathetic Senator or Congressman who is also a careful reader. It’s appropriate to argue that “intellectual property” is not identical to physical property and should not be accorded the same protections. But on page 9, Kranich quotes legal scholar Carol Rose who “counters that property regimes and even individual property holdings are ‘by no means self-evident constructs’; instead, they are ‘property arrangements that people have quite consciously talked themselves into.’” That reads as an attack on private property itself, which is likely to leave most policymakers even colder than it leaves me.

“Libraries are quintessential examples of institutional information commons.” That’s a pull quote in red type and it bothers me. Libraries may be resource commons, but libraries do and must deal in far more than information. Calling a library an “information commons” seriously devalues the library.

Is there one “information commons” or many semi-related “commons”? The recommendations and strategies that close the text of this report talk about “the information commons.” Which presumably includes open source software and all the rest.

I probably agree with more than half of the recommendations and strategies—but as applied to individual problems, not as sweeping generalizations. I surely agree that noncommercial resources and new means of communication should flourish and become more meaningful over time. But the whole “movement” doesn’t persuade me.

I would note in passing that “information commons” has at least two different meanings within the library community, as Rory Litwin pointed out in a Library Juice essay (July 6, 2004). I don’t necessarily agree with the thrust of that essay, but it’s important to note that “information commons” is commonly used to refer to “an area of a library with many computers for the public to use to access the internet and work with a variety of software.” Substitute “students” for “the public” in the many information commons on campuses.

To try to make more sense of the “information commons” concept, I read an article by David Bollier, one of the leading lights of “information commons” thinking (cited in Kranich’s report), “Why we must talk about the information commons.” (Law Library Journal 96:2, 2004, readily available online). While I could add some questioning comments on that paper, I won’t; I’ll just say that it didn’t help convince me.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 11, Whole Issue 54, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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