The Internet As Public Property
Greg Laden from ScienceBlogs asks what the difference is between physical public goods, like roads and water, and Internet goods like search and social networking. According to Greg, Internet users are at risk of losing any service they depend on at the whims of “modern Robber-Barons” who may decide to shut them down at any time. According to Greg, there may be a solution to the problem in a combination of open source software and non-profit organizations who build competing products.
Much like my previous article asking when open source should be written into law, it is an interesting question to ask when a service becomes so worthwhile that it should no longer be owned by and at the whim of a single company. I disagree that Twitter or ever Facebook falls into that category, but I do think that search and email should. The open source community has two such success stories in Mozilla and Wikimedia, the publishers of Wikipeida. Both organizations are registered as 501(c)(3) non-profits.
Greg’s vision for a future of non-profit web services is modest:
Alternative services, like Amazon, Google, Twitter, etc. can be developed by non-profits using an OpenSource GPL-like model. Those services would probably not be big, or widely used. But they would be there. Then, one day, when the big players falter or become too annoying in one area or another, the OpenSource alternatives can grow a little here and there, and eventually, become the norm.
I’m not sure a commerce site like Amazon would make a good candidate for a non-profit organization, not unless you split the EC2 business off. Likewise I think that Twitter or other social media sites are far too specialized an area. However, the democratization of search should be a focus of the public, and is an opportunity for the open source community. Google exists to make money; the company collects a massive amount of personal information from its users, and sells that information to advertisers. For a non-profit organization, the goals would be completely different. The organization would exist for the public good and would be strictly opposed to harming its users in any way, including betraying their trust.
While search would be more of a national project, I imagine email as much smaller and more localized. Perhaps supported by local town taxes, or provided for a small fee along with water and sewer. Which ever way the email service was provided, releasing all code as open source would ensure that the service could be easily duplicated around the world. In fact, since DuckDuckGo is already open source, and the source code for Sendmail, Postfix, Dovecot, and several other email systems have been open source for ages, we already have the tools we need. All we are missing is the public demand for the service to exist.