Invalid or Broken rss link.

The Internet and the Tragedy of the Commons.

By George Freidman.

The tragedy of the commons is a concept developed by a British economist in the early 19th century and refreshed by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. They were addressing different issues arising out of the commons, an area that is owned by no one but used by everyone. The commons could be a green space at the center of a town, public land used for agriculture or the atmosphere. The tragedy of the commons is that while many benefit from it, no one is responsible for it. Each person’s indifference has little effect. Everyone’s collective indifference will destroy the commons. The tragedy of the commons is that it is vital, vulnerable and destroyed by the very people who need it.

The internet has become the global commons. This has happened with lightning speed. In this case, the commons is not just one place. It is a collection of places where people meet, discuss the latest news and gossip, play games and perhaps do a little business. The internet, with its complex web of connections and modes of communication, from email to Twitter to Instagram, has had a profound effect on society. There used to be private life and the village green, where public life was lived. There is now private life and the lives we live online. We have lost intimacy but have gained access to a vast world.

Good manners and the desire to be well thought of by your neighbors mitigated the tragedy of the physical commons. Even if you were not motivated to care for the commons, you were motivated to behave properly while using the commons. The incentive did not come from law but a sense of community; the community could censure and shun you if you failed to behave appropriately. Embarrassment and shame were compelling forces that shaped your behavior. What made both possible was that you were known. You would have to live with the consequences of your behavior, while trying to develop that thing which all humans crave – a good reputation and even being admired. The worst thing, the ultimate punishment of the Greeks, was to be exiled. The commons were still exploited tragically but not wantonly savaged.

The problem with the internet is anonymity and the lack of privacy. This seems contradictory, since anonymity is derived from ultimate privacy, but the internet makes it possible. The world is now discussing whether the Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s emails. This has evolved into a matter of geopolitics because the internet has become a battleground in several ways. One way is the constant invasion of privacy by hackers stealing emails and private correspondence. However, there is no way to know for certain who did it. The CIA may know, in rare circumstances, or may claim to know for political reasons. In general, it is difficult to find out who is violating your privacy and stealing your property.

Anonymity has another effect. On the village commons, everyone knows who you are and you are held responsible for what you say. On the global commons, you cannot be held responsible for what you say, because your identity is masked. The internet was created to function that way, less on purpose than by technical default. The consequence is that the most powerful human emotions, shame and the desire to be well thought of, don’t restrain what you say. False news has become a topic of discussion recently. False news has always existed, but it was readily distinguishable from reliable news by where it was published. An article from an unknown source was suspect. An article in the mainstream media was more respected.

Mainstream media outlets used to be the arbiters of the commons and their opinions meant something. They were respected for their banker-like primness. Their right to judge other sources of news was rooted in their meticulous fairness and visible objectivity. It is said that complete objectivity is impossible. That is likely true. But perfect love is also impossible. The lack of perfection does not excuse you from making your best efforts.

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only 5 percent of Americans surveyed said that they had a great deal of confidence in the news media. This is a stunningly low number, but it is not a new phenomenon. What is striking is that this consistent lack of confidence in the media hasn’t created an uproar in newsrooms. I doubt that many reporters at The New York Times or The Washington Post voted for President-elect Donald Trump. That is fine, so long as the newspapers maintain rigorous objectivity. I am sure that the staff of both papers think they do, and it is likely that their friends, who share their views, also feel that way. But the majority of the public has its doubts. Therefore, in the public’s mind, these media outlets have given up their role as overseer of the commons of public discourse.

The anonymity of the web allows people to act without shame and to tell lies without fear. I would urge everyone not to believe that this behavior only comes from people on the right. During the George W. Bush administration, I read many preposterous claims about him from people who appeared to be liberals. These kind of claims were also made by their right-wing friends. There is no accountability for what people say or do, no shame attached. Therefore, lies flourish, despicable charges are made, and some on each side are free to believe what they want to believe. The promise that the internet would create a democratic commons where all can be heard and the media loses the right to censor has been achieved. Censors and accountability no longer exist. Twitter is the place where malicious people with time on their hands can tell lies.

But in reality, the internet has not become more democratic. More fastidious citizens no longer visit the commons, or if they do, only to speak to those they know. It is increasingly the place of the marginal. It is interesting how the mainstream media has used Twitter to gain a sense of public opinion. I frequently wonder if the person from Twitter being quoted in a news story is a 12-year-old whose medications are no longer effective. The media doesn’t know. There are still worthwhile conversations to be had there, but many people now becoming less engaged.

The internet is a place with two problems, both masked. Some use it to steal private information and correspondence. Some use it to spew venom through the promise of anonymity. They are both destroying the global commons that had so much hope, in the same way that the village commons would be destroyed if it were invaded by people wearing masks, stealing people’s diaries and money and shouting obscene improbabilities. The tragedy of the commons today is not indifferent exploitation. The tragedy of the commons is that it can be dominated by criminals and those harassing others who want a civil conversation. It reminds me of Central Park in New York in the 1970s. Anyone who was there after dark was a mugger or crazy.

The right to privacy is an absolute, and in due course, as thieves keep breaking into people’s property (why thieves sometimes are called hackers is beyond me), we will simply return to older modes of communication. Perhaps phone calls and handwritten letters will be resurrected. Far better than having your secrets arrayed in public. But still, banks and companies like Geopolitical Futures have to do their business online, and the threat from criminals who can’t be identified is great.

But a greater problem is the media. The prestige press, as we used to call it, squandered its inheritance from prior generations of journalists and lost its right to pronounce the truth. Social media is now subject to Gresham’s Law: Bad ideas will drive out good ones. This can’t go on.

The first principle has to be to make masks illegal on the internet. Many countries and U.S. states have laws against wearing masks in public. In the United States, many of these laws were passed to stop the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, knowing that only anonymity and a large crowd made its members brave. But other countries passed similar laws on the reasonable assumption that someone hiding his face is up to no good. In the end, it came down to this: If you want to be in public, you must show your face. You have a right to privacy in your home and on your property. You don’t have a right to privacy when you choose to go into public spaces.

The problem is technical. Today’s computers descended without dramatic change from those available 20 years ago. The internet got larger with more bandwidth but is still as primitive as when it was first designed for a small group of scientists wanting to share information. The security that exists today consists of complex add-ons that require sophisticated managers, and they still can be broken into. Security can’t be an add-on. It has to be at the heart of the system, and its first requirement should be to eliminate anonymity, so that criminals can be identified and so that the vile will know shame.

The reason I am writing on this topic is that we are facing an international confrontation between Russia and the U.S. over whether Russia stole emails to help Trump become president. Some also claim that the Russians penetrated the U.S. power grid. The problem with this issue is quite simply that the system is so primitive that proving the Russians are responsible is impossible. An entity can penetrate a critical system like the power grid without anyone knowing who did it.

The situation is getting out of hand. The internet has become not just the commons for private individuals but the business and government center of the world. Therefore, some limits need to be put in place. Hiding your identity already is illegal in certain circumstances. You must provide ID to buy alcohol or get on a plane. I expect privacy in my home, but when I go into the world, I want assurance that the people out there don’t mean me harm. The design of the internet denies me that. The arbiters of propriety have themselves collapsed. Crazy people are making insane charges in public. This has to stop.

It is in the interest of the tech community to do something about this issue because if thieves run lose and social media is dominated by sociopaths, people will treat the internet like they did Central Park. And if the tech community believes that it is so dependent on internet privacy that it can’t budge on this issue, then it is as deluded as the major media has been. Someone broke into the power grid and we don’t know who. Enough is enough. Wars have been started over less.

Republished with permission by


13 Comments on "The Internet. A Place For Marginals?"

  1. I wouldn’t agree that false news has always been distinguishable by it’s source. The MSM take on Orgreave, Hillsborough and more recently coverage of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were all suspect and that’s without trying to rack my brain. The mainstream media has effectively queered their own pitch by peddling a load of old cobblers that in the fullness time was always going to be revealed as such. People naturally will turn elsewhere for information if they feel they can’t rely on what they are being fed by organisations such as the BBC. It is nothing new, in the early years of WW2 German radio broadcasts were almost as popular as those of the BBC in Britain. The British people knew the German broadcasts were propaganda, however they also knew the BBC was lying through it’s teeth in it’s depiction of how the war was going, they were seeking to form some semblance of an idea of what was actually going on between the two sets of propaganda.

    • The BBC is ironically nowadays the Lord Haw Haw of UK broadcasting. Its Marxist Multi-Culturalist pro-EU pro-Arab common purpose anti-British, anti-American, anti-Israel & anti-Christian Fake News agenda rivals that of the Soviets & Hitlers Germany’s propaganda machines in every way. On a scale of 1 – 10 for credibility & truthfulness I rate the BBC as 1 at most.

      • And Nehad Ismail –

        Trolls? Too much effort has been put in I think, leaving me to question why three people, seemingly in earnest, and who clearly possess some intellect, would believe such fantastical nonsense. Very well you believe the BBC has an agenda of some sort – but that its unequivocal, without nuance, singularly extreme, and in some way malign, as if architected by an Illuminati of some ilk?! What a waste of time, waste of good faculties, waste of humanity. And after a halfway decent article to boot! Petty blind contrarians, tsk tsk tsk. Or trolls, and if so, more fool me. May the meek inherit the earth; until then, I despair.

        • I fail to see what trolls have in relation to my comment and that of Rob Walker & Nehad Ismail who is a guest writer on here & I assume known to Tim Marshall.
          If you don’t believe that the BBC is Left Wing, pro-EU , pro-Multi-Cultural & anti-Semitic / anti-Israel ( factually one & the same ) then there is no convincing you of anything that the general public who are not members of the so called left wing intelligentsia know to be true . I’ll draw your attention to the fact that the BBC has spent a considerable amount of money to keep secret the Balen Report
          and you should also read in detail on BBC Watch about the BBC’s distorted anti-Israel reporting

        • Thomas (and David, as you agree), I notice you state no actual facts to back up your rudeness. At least you are bang on trend in dismissing anyone who doesn’t happen to agree with your world view and tossing in a few insults to boot.

          The BBC came under huge pressure about it’s reporting during the Blair era (that’s a matter of record) and it is interesting to note the contrasting treatment of two Director Generals.
          In 1998 the BBC broadcast a comment about Peter Mandelson’s private life by Matthew Parris. Director General John Birt consequently banned any further reports or comments on the subject despite objections. Two years later Birt was working as an advisor to Tony Blair and had been created a life peer.
          Greg Dyke on the other hand backed Andrew Gilligans report of WMD’s and as a result was forced to resign by the subsequently discredited Hutton Report. He has not as yet received a life peerage. The message is pretty clear and I would judge it has been understood.

          Perhaps yourself and David think that the BBC’s airing of no less than 5 series dedicated to China in early 2016, only a few months after the visit of the Chinese Premier, is just a coincidence, that someone at the BBC had a random thought ‘Hey let’s stop banging on about human rights and show China in a positive way for a change’.
          Perhaps you can explain why the BBC’s coverage of Libya, Saudi bombing in Yemen and civilian casualties caused by the rebels in Syria is minute when compared to the coverage of Assad’s campaigns?. Funnily enough it is almost the polar opposite of the coverage on RT which really ought to cause a penny to drop. You do, I hope, accept that RT is subject to Russian government control.
          Do you really think it is fantastical nonsense that an organisation whose trustees are appointed by the Government and whose funding is decided by the Government is subject to Government influence?
          I would be wasting my fingers to go on I think, but if you feel you haven’t inherited the earth perhaps there is a reason for that, maybe you are just a bit too credulous and lack the ability to make obvious linkages. It is very easy to dismiss someones views without offering any evidence to back up your own opinion, if you have solid facts that prove that the BBC is not subject to Government interference then I would be very pleased to hear them.

          • Thomas Morgan | 9th January 2017 at 5:30 pm |

            Forgive me, I was rude. Truly, I was actually rude, for which I am sorry. I went too far. What inspired my comment though was you, Rob Walker, seem capable and knowledgable – more so then I. I believe in this sort of forum – and beyond that public engagement – to rout bias and propaganda to the ends of the civic good. But I despair when I see people like yourself expire in a spluttering fit. I wasn’t being facetious when I thought it possible you three trolls. I have no time for much of what mahatmacoatmabag has said – I actually agree with some of what Nehad Ismail has said, particularly in the so called “echo chamber effect” – just not in his assessment of mahatmacoatmabag. Some of what you have said in response has given me pause: I too think the atrocities committed upon the Houthi’s by the House of Saud appalling, and meriting further air time then has so far been given. But moderation, for goodness sake, in what you say. You go too far. To blurt something about the BBC being the diametrical opposite of RT (of course RT is a puppet, btw!) to prove some valid assertions about BBC bias founders you entire argument because it goes TOO FAR. Incidentally, I worry you fears about BBC/government complicity will only increase with the changes to be implemented with the coming of the new charter.

            Incidentally, mahatmacoatmabag, if you are reading this – I’m not an anti-semite – far from it. I read Sacco’s Palestine and was moved by the arguments brought by both sides. It pains me to think the situation intractable; years of mediation from a seemingly well meaning John Kerry with his hands tied behind his back and no progress. I will read the links you suggest, nonetheless.

            Alas, I feel defeated. Perhaps you are all right.

          • I wouldn’t worry too much, Thomas. As far as rudeness goes, you barely broke the qualifying standard compared to some on this site.

          • If I had time, Rob, I would explain why I think it wrong and muddleheaded to condemn the BBC in such a broad way. Sadly, I haven’t but I was extremely glad that Thomas picked up on it so the agreement that was being shared wasn’t so one sided. One day, when I’m not in the middle of a family crisis, I will hopefully sit down and try to explain. What I will say is that given the current climate of fake news, Trump, and the alt-right, attacking the BBC is the last thing we should be doing..

          • Thomas, once again no facts and very little in the way of reasoned argument. You say I go too far with my comparison of the BBC with RT. Explain to me why I am wrong and why I go too far?. On foreign affairs RT projects the world view of the Kremlin, the BBC projects the world view of the British Govt with the occasional counterfactual shoehorned into Newsnight at 11pm. If I am wrong on this then please provide me with the numerous examples of the BBC running stories that contradict/undermine Govt foreign policy pronouncements on their main news bulletins over the last 5 years. If you can dig enough of them up then I will gladly and humbly admit I went too far.

  2. “The BBC is ironically nowadays the Lord Haw Haw of UK broadcasting.”

    Can’t argue with that. Nobody is better at ignoring stories and events that contradict the narrative they want to put forward, but then they are state TV when all is said and done. I think Blair and Campbell finished them as an independent news source TBH.

  3. To be brutally honest, objective or not, true or fake, regardless if mainstream or fringe, if I read something I agree with, it is brilliant, great and it is a must read for everyone. If I don’t agree with it, it is gibberish, rubbish and a waste of space. I think many react the same way. Considering the gullibility of the BBC on certain issues such as Syria, I think Mahatmacoatmabag is being generous awarding 1 out of 10.

    • Hi Nehad, thanks & well written, if I understand the comment of Thomas Morgan on this page, you, Rob Walker & myself have been accused by him of being Trolls. I have made a reply to him which is awaiting moderation

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please consider if you're contributing to the discussion before you post. Abuse and general negativity will not be allowed to appear on the site. This might be the Internet but let's try to keep things civil.

Your email address will not be published.



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.