Howard Dean’s Plan for the Internet: Collectivism In, Property Rights Out

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Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has a plan for theInternet, and it doesn't leave much room for property rights orfree markets. According to the "Principles for an Internet Policy" listed onDean's website, government must treat the Internet as one giantcollective resource and regulate accordingly. Specifically, hisplatform argues that, "No one owns the Internet…. It is oursas citizens of this country and as inhabitants of this planet." Italso states that, "The Internet's value comes from its openness,and . . . the Internet's openness should be promoted [since] thisopenness is essential to the Internet's value as a marketplace ofinnovation and a public square for ideas . . . [and] a democracy ofvoices."

This might sound like empty campaign rhetoric but, in reality,Dean's Internet platform contains the key elements and catchphrases of a more sophisticated master plan for cyberspaceconcocted by a group of academics and public officials who advocatea "commons" vision of collective Internet governance. Their agendaconsists of a three-pronged strategy: (1)Infrastructure: They want telecom, cable, andbroadband high-speed networks subject to collective rule via aheavy dose of open access regulation, structural separation or evenoutright public ownership. And they want the Internet to be treatedas a collective asset subject to "democratic rule" through avariety of "nondiscrimination" mandates and other regulatorycontrols. (2) Spectrum: They want most of theelectromagnetic wireless spectrum to be treated as one big commonswith very limited exclusive property rights. (3)Intellectual property: They want to water down IPrights and greatly expand fair use rights and the publicdomain.

The triumvirate of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, prolificStanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, and the New AmericaFoundation (NAF) think tank deserve special mention since theiradvocacy of a cyber-commons has been particularly vociferous. Thesecommons advocates would have us believe that the movement towardincreasing privatization and commercialization of the Internet hasbeen a disaster that must be reversed. Somehow, they claim,competition and "openness" in cyberspace are at risk because of therise of private ownership and control of the many networks andassets that constitute "the Internet" as we know it.

The End Is Near and a Commons Will Save Us. Forexample, last October, Commissioner Copps delivered an apocalypticsermon at the NAF entitled, "The Beginning of the End of the Internet?" Inthe speech, Copps lamented that the "Internet may be dying" andonly immediate action by regulators can save the day. Copps laid onthe sky-is-falling rhetoric fairly thick: "I think we are teeteringon a precipice . . . we could be on the cusp of inflicting terribledamage on the Internet. If we embrace closed networks, if we turn ablind eye to discrimination, if we abandon the end-to-end principleand decide to empower only a few, we will have inflicted upon oneof history's most dynamic and potentially liberating technologiesshackles that make a mockery of all the good things that might havebeen."

Who knew the end was so near? Of course, it isn't really. Coppsand the commons crusaders have been preaching this gloom-and-doomgospel for some time now in an effort to impede governancesolutions based on property rights in the communications andhigh-tech sectors and supplant them with collective governancestructures. Copps' "End of the Internet" speech was the logicalculmination of years of work by NAF scholars and academics likeLessig, who have built a bona fide philosophical movement thatrallies around the flag of "Saving the Information Commons," to use thetitle of one NAF report. Lessig has gone so far as to suggest thatthe very "Future of Ideas" may be at stake if steps arenot taken to preserve "openness" on the Internet. And now comesHoward Dean's campaign tech platform, which promises to put thisplan into action if he takes over as commander-in-chief this timenext year.

In their work, the commons crusaders often lambaste propertyrights, fearing that too much private control of infrastructure,wireless frequencies, or intellectual creations threatens ideas,innovation, openness, and competition in this sector, and, in amuch broader sense, our very culture and democracy. Interestingly,the commons crowd also suggests that their worldview is moreconsistent with a free and open society. In fact-especially on thespectrum and IP fronts-the commons crowd actually argues that theirvision might one day lead to a withering away of the state in theaffairs of this sector. But they fear this day will never come ifmarkets and property rights gain too much of foothold in our newcyber-society.

Excuse Me, But Isn't It the Other Way Around?Are markets and property rights really antithetical to openness,ideas, expression, knowledge, culture, diversity, and democracy?History shows that the exact opposite is the case. Markets andproperty rights have served as the foundation for those virtues.Indeed, and it is still the case today, cultures and nations thatrefuse to allow markets and property rights to develop have alamentable track record on all of those fronts. History has shown,again and again, that the absence of property rights and freeexchange leads to economic ruin, cultural stagnation, and politicaltyranny. It seems that the seductive charm of "the commons" is onceagain leading a large number of people to think a world withoutproperty rights is not only possible, but would somehow bring abouta mythical cyber-nirvana.

The commons crowd would be quick to respond that thismischaracterizes their argument. Indeed, although it is tempting todismiss much of this commons thinking as the random rants of ahandful of 60s radicals who are still angry that Marxism got lefton the ash heap of history, such a characterization would ignoretheir more refined way of thinking about the relationship betweenmarkets and "the commons." Unlike many of their intellectualforebears, today's commons crowd does not regard capitalism andmarkets as inherently evil or exploitative, rather, they seemarkets and property rights as a means to an end that must betempered with a very strong dose of collective decisionmaking.Expanding the scope of "democratic rule" and "the commons"-howeverthey choose to define those terms-is their recommended medicine.Nonetheless, they make it clear that they are not advocating theoverthrow of the capitalist order and the empowerment of theproletariat, or any other neo-Marxist nonsense.

But there remains a question of balance here, and the commonscrowd gets that balance entirely wrong. Certainly there is a placefor some commons within our society, but that society should bestructured and governed by property rights. The commons crowd seemsto reverse that equation by suggesting we need to carve out alittle room for property rights in a world of collective rule. Andthat sort of thinking is downright dangerous, for if we allowourselves to believe that collectivism is the central organizingprinciple of cyberspace, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes ofthe past. Treating the Internet, broadband networks, spectrum, andIP like socialized property will not lead to a cyber-nirvana but toa scarcity of those very things if the Dean-Copps-Lessig vision ofcyberspace collectivism prevails.