This is the second in our series of public interest internet blogs: past, present and future.
It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of the public Internet, the biggest worry of some of its most powerful supporters was that it was empty. As the Clinton administration prepared to move the Internet from its academic and military origins to the heart of the promised “National Information Infrastructure” (NII), government advisers feared that the entertainment and information from the United States have no commercial reason to switch from Television, Radio and Recorded Music. And without Hollywood and the record companies on board, the new digital environment would end up becoming a ghost mall, devoid of businesses or users.
“All the computers, phones, fax machines, scanners, cameras, keyboards, televisions, monitors, printers, switches, routers, wires, cables, networks and satellites in the world will not create a successful NII if there is no of content ”, former head of the patent office Bruce Lehman’s notorious 1994 government green paper on intellectual property on the net warned. The fear was that without the presence of the pre-packaged American entertainment industry material, the nation would simply refuse to go online. As law professor Jessica Litman describes it, the Internet vision of these experts was “a collection of empty pipes, waiting to be filled with content.”
Even as politicians drafted new, more punitive copyright laws meant to reassure Hollywood and record companies (and spur them into new, uncharted waters), the early internet users were settling in and building their lives. way. Even with its small audience of technologists, early adopters and college students, the First Network quickly filled with compelling “content,” a participatory, free-wheeling online medium that drew larger and larger crowds. as it evolves.
Even in the absence of music and films, the first Internet users still built information towers about them. In rec.arts.movies, the Usenet discussion board for all things Hollywood, the posters compile and share lists of their favorite actors, directors, and movie trivia since the 1980s. At the time of publication of the Lehman Report, the group’s collective knowledge discussion had gone beyond its textual FAQs and had first extended to a collectively managed database on the University of Colorado files site, and then on one of the very first database-based websites, hosted on a spare server at Cardiff University in Wales.
Built in the same barn-breeding spirit as the first network, the public interest Internet exploits the low cost of online organization to provide stable and free repositories of user-supplied information. They escaped a fate exploited as proprietary services owned by a handful of tech giants.
These days you will know that Cardiff Movie Database by another name – the IMDb. The database from rec.arts.movies’ contributions was transformed into a trading company in 1996 and sold to Amazon in 1998 for approximately $ 55 million (the equivalent of $ 88 million today). The Cardiff volunteers, led by one of its original moderators, Col Needham, continued to run the service as salaried employees of an Amazon affiliate.
The IMDB shows how the original Internet growth assumptions have been overturned. Instead of film production companies leading the way, their own audiences had succeeded in building and monetizing the elusive “content” of the information superhighway on their own – for themselves. Data from the rec.arts.movie databases was used by Amazon as the basis to create an exclusive subscription service, IMDbpro, for film professionals, and to augment their Amazon Prime video streaming service with cinematic facts at quick access. Rather than needing the permission of the movie moguls to fill the internet, the internet has ended up providing information that these moguls themselves have thankfully paid a new digital mogul for.
But what about those volunteers who have devoted their time and work to the collective effort of building this database for everyone? Apart from the few who became employees and shareholders of the commercial IMDb, they did not get a share of the service’s profits. They also lost access to all the fruits of this comprehensive database of movies. Although you can always download the updated kernel from the Cardiff Database for Free, it only covers the most basic areas of IMDb. It is licensed under a strictly non-commercial license, closed with limitations and restrictions. No matter how much you might contribute to IMDb, you cannot profit from your work. The more in-depth information that was originally built by user contributions and supplemented by Amazon has been included: Locked up, in a paid-wall owner’s property, closed off from the super-highway it was driving on.
It is a story as old as the internet and which echoes the historical stories of the fence of the commons. A pessimist would say that was the fate of most early networks and their aspirations. Digital natives have built, as volunteers, free resources for everyone. Then, struggling to keep them in line with the burdens of unexpected growth, they ended up selling to commercial interests. Big Tech has achieved its monopoly position by harvesting these public commons and then locking them up.
But this is not the only story of the first net. Everyone is also familiar with the major public projects that have somehow managed to move away from this path. Wikipedia is the archetype, always maintained by occasional contributors and unpaid editors across the world, with the costs of maintaining its website comfortably funded by regular calls from its attached nonprofit. Less known, but equally unique, is Open the street map (OSM), a user-created, free-licensed Google Maps alternative that has compiled from public domain sources and the hard work of its volunteer cartographers one of the most comprehensive maps on the planet.
These are flagship products of what we at EFF call the Internet of Public Interest. They constantly produce and replenish invaluable public goods, available to all, while remaining separate from government, those traditional maintainers of public goods. Neither are they commercial enterprises, creating private wealth and (hopefully) public benefits through the incentive for profit. Built in the same barn-breeding spirit as the first network, the public interest Internet exploits the low cost of online organization to provide stable and free repositories of user-supplied information. Through careful management or unique perks, they somehow escaped a closed fate and operated as a proprietary service owned by a handful of tech giants.
That said, while Wikipedia and OSM are easy and compelling examples of the public service Internet, they are not necessarily representative of it. Wikipedia and OSM, in their own way, are also tech giants. They operate on the same global scale. They grapple with some of the same issues of accountability and market dominance. It’s hard to imagine a true competitor of Wikipedia or OSM emerging now, for example, even though many have tried and failed. Their uniqueness means that their influence is disproportionate. The distant internal politics of these institutions have real effects on the rest of society. Wikipedia and OSM have complex, large-scale interactions, often carefully negotiated with the tech giants. Google incorporates Wikipedia in its research, thus strengthening the position of the encyclopedia. OSM is used by, and receives contributions de, Facebook and Apple. It can be difficult to know how individual contributors or users can affect or change the governance of these megaprojects. And there is a recurring fear that the tech giants have more influence than the builders of these projects.
Furthermore, if there are really only a handful of popular examples of the Internet’s public good production of public interest, is it really a healthy alternative to the rest of the net? Is it just crocodiles and alligators, a few visible survivors of an earlier age of outdated dinosaurs, doomed to be ultimately overtaken by sharper business rivals?
At EFF, we don’t think so. We believe that there is a thriving economy of small public interest Internet projects, which have found their own ways to survive on the modern Internet. We believe they deserve a role and representation in the discussions governments have about the future of the net. Going further, we would say that real dinosaurs are our current tech giants. The small, lively, and publicly-minded public Internet has always been the place where the benefits of the Internet have been concentrated. They are the surviving mammals of the internet, hidden in the recesses of the net, waiting to regain control when the tech giants are a thing of the past.
In our next installment, we take a look at one of the most notorious examples of the early digital speaker, its (somewhat) happier ending, and what it says about the survival skills of the public interest internet when A free database of compact discs outlasts the compact disc boom itself.