If Infrastructure, then Commons: an analytical framework, not a rule

It is probably worth making it clear that, as I state multiple times in the book, my argument is not “if infrastructure, then commons.” Rather, I argue that if a resource is infrastructure—defined according to functional economic criteria I set forth in the book, then there are a series of considerations one must evaluate in deciding whether or not to manage the resource as a commons. Chapter four provides a detailed analysis of what resources are infrastructure, and chapter five provides a detailed analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of commons management from the perspective of private infrastructure owner (private strategy) and from the perspective of the public (public strategy). Chapters six, seven and eight examine significant complicating factors/costs and arguments against commons management.

After reviewing the excellent posts, it occurred to me that blog readers might come away with the mistaken impression that in the book I argue that the demand side always trumps the supply side or that classifying a resource as infrastructure automatically leads to commons management. That is certainly not the case. I do argue that the demand-side analysis of infrastructure identifies and helps us to better appreciate and understand a significant weight on one side of the scale, and frankly, a weight that is often completely ignored.  Ultimately, the magnitude of the weight and relevant counterweights will vary with the infrastructure under analysis and the context.

In chapter thirteen, I argue that the case for network neutrality regulation—commons management as a public strategy applied in the context of Internet infrastructure—would remain strong even if markets were competitive. In his post, Tim disagreed with this position.  In Tim’s view, competition should be enough to sustain an open Internet, for a few reasons, but mainly because consumers will appreciate (some of) the spillovers that are produced online and will be willing to pay for (and switch to) an open infrastructure, provided that competition supplies options. I replied to his post with some reasons why I disagree. In essence, I pointed out that consumers would not appreciate all of the relevant spillovers because many spillovers spill off-network and thus private demand would still fall short of social demand, and I also noted that I was less confident about his predictions about what consumers would want and how they would react. (My disagreement with Tim about the relevance of competition in the network neutrality context should not be read to mean that competition is unimportant. The point is that the demand-side market failures are not cured by competition, just as the market failures associated with environmental pollution are not cured by competition.)

In my view, the demand side case for an open, nondiscriminatory Internet infrastructure as a matter of public strategy/regulation is strong, and would remain strong even if infrastructure markets were competitive. But as I say at the end of chapter thirteen, it is not dispositive. Here is how I conclude that chapter:

 My objective in this chapter has not been to make a dispositive case for network neutrality regulation. My objective has been to demonstrate how the infrastructure analysis, with its focus on demand-side issues and the function of commons management, reframes the debate, weights the scale in favor of sustaining end-to-end architecture and an open infrastructure, points toward a particular rule, and encourages a comparative analysis of various solutions to congestion and supply-side problems. I acknowledge that there are competing considerations and interests to balance, and I acknowledge that quantifying the weight on the scale is difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, I maintain that the weight is substantial. The social value attributable to a mixed Internet infrastructure is immense even if immeasurable. The basic capabilities the infrastructure provides, the public and social goods produced by users, and the transformations occurring on and off the meta-network are all indicative of such value.


You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Jamie says:

    I wonder to what extent the common wisdom of having natural resources (oil, diamonds, etc.) means having Problems holds true. Norway has found a way around that. The U.S. and Canada haven’t fought in a couple of centuries. This isn’t infrastructure, in the way I think you’re talking about it, but it is substructure, that leads to infrastructure.