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The New, New Net

Via Larry Lessig, I read essays on the once-and-future Internet by Jonathan Zittrain (on what “we” might do to preserve the “generative” features of the Internet for consumers, while safeguarding the network from security-related catastrophes) and Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith (on the persistence of the nation state) in the new Legal Affairs.

These are both excellent reads — both structure their arguments around some previously-told but still compelling stories — but I’m puzzled by an omission.

Both essays, it seems to me, build on an implicit, traditional public/private distinction. Zittrain’s piece talks about bad guys (on the one hand) and virtuous consumers and tinkerers (on the other hand), and he recommends what he calls “a 21st century international Manhattan Project which brings together people of good faith in government, academia, and the private sector for the purpose of shoring up the miraculous information technology grid that is too easy to take for granted and whose seeming self-maintenance has led us into an undue complacence.” Wu and Goldsmith talk about the inevitability of geography and national law (on the one hand) in the face of emerging technology (on the other hand).

What’s missing is what I’m going to be thinking about in 2006: the firm, the organization, the institution — and not the private sort, but the blended, networked, distributed, emergent “structures” that we see in successful open source projects and in Creative Commons, among other places (or among other things. Take your pick.). Call Zittrain’s, Wu’s, and Goldsmith’s subject “the New, New Net,” and call the issues that they point to “commons” problems, or “infrastructure” problems, or (my preference) “governance” problems. We’ve learned over the last decade (at least, I’ve learned over the last decade) that traditional public/private distinctions don’t map very well onto those problems. Public regulation is inevitable, and in some measure, it’s necessary, but as Zittrain points out — without really hammering the point home — it’s incomplete. The very, very hard part is figuring out what blend of governance resources should be brought to bear on which parts of the various problems.