The Internet Commons: Towards an Eclectic Theoretical Framework

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"Recent developments in communications technologies, in particular, the advent of the Internet and its widespread applications in all spheres of human activity, have posed a serious challenge to the mainstream neo-institutional theory of the commons (common goods) and, especially, common pool resources theory (CPR). Although the term ‘new commons’ has been coined to describe a new area of study, previous attempts to analyze Internet goods within the framework of CPR theory have not been successful, as they have not been able to capture the important new characteristics of the Internet commons. Based upon an empirical analysis of over 20 Internet goods, the author argues that Internet goods do not fall within the common pool category of goods. In addition to the key characteristics used so far within mainstream theory – excludability and substractability – other attributes of a 'commons' such as sharing potential, joint use in production rather than only in consumption and non-hierarchical governance of production defnitely are relevant, and should be included in any analysis of Internet commons. The neo-institutional approach retains its explanatory power with respect to the Internet commons if one emphasizes the path-dependent evolution of the Internet and the role of informal and formal rules shaping its operating environment. Yet the approach does not capture the direct impact of major breakthroughs in information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) on the Internet commons. A more eclectic theoretical framework is proposed as a step aimed at grasping the complexity of the Internet commons. It attempts to integrate new concepts developed in various disciplines of social sciences (economics, sociology, history, anthropology) with the mainstream theory of the commons, which developed from the neo-institutional perspective. Among those new concepts and theories, the most important are general purpose technologies (GPT), network externalities, positive free riding, the concept of shareable goods, the architecture of participation, peer production, and the gift economy."



information technology, Internet, new commons, common pool resources, institutional analysis