The meaning of IPG

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This symposium is titled "The Internet as a Public Good" (or "IPG" for short). The title has caused some confusion as to the exact goal of the symposium: Is it intended to discuss the (relatively) narrow question of whether the Internet is a public good in the strict economic sense? Or does it have a wider purpose? Here I discuss three separate ways that we can link "the Internet" and "public good" in the context of the symposium.

The Internet as promoter of the public good

One way to interpret "public good" is as "_the_ public good". With this interpretation "IPG" can be thought of as referring to "the Internet and the public good", in other words, how the Internet directly or indirectly does and could benefit the general public. This is the most broad interpretation of "IPG" but also IMO the weakest in terms of generating focused and interesting questions for discussion: We could pick out pretty much anything the Internet has ever enabled - personal communications, ecommerce, access to information, and so on - and argue that it benefits the public at large and thus contributes to the general public good.

The Internet as itself a public good

The second interpretation sees the Internet itself as a public good, using the term "public good" in the economic sense. As noted on the page Defining Public Good, a true public good is generally considered to have two characteristics:

  • One person's use of it does not prevent or degrade another person's use. (The good is "non-rivalrous".)
  • If a good is available at all, it is available to everyone and no one can be prevented from using it. (The good is "non-excludable".)

This interpretation generates the following questions, among others:

  • Is the Internet really a public good under the strict definition?
  • If the Internet doesn't meet the strict definition of public good, how is it better classified? (Perhaps as a common pool resource, like fish in the sea?)
  • Could the Internet be changed to better meet the definition of a public good? (For example, would new technologies be able to minimize or eliminate choke points where traffic from one or more users or applications ends up degrading service for other users or applcations?)
  • If the Internet is indeed a public good in the strict sense, are there potentially market failures that would cause it to be under-provided? If so, how would these best be addressed? (For example, what if any government actions might be called for?)

Under this interpretation the issues that could be discussed include net neutrality, Internet quality of service, community wifi, mesh networking, funding Internet infrastructure, etc.

The Internet and the creation of public goods

In this interpretation the focus is not on whether the Internet itself is a public good, but rather on public goods (most notably, information goods) that the Internet arguably has helped (or could help) to create).

The interpretation generates the following questions, among others:

  • Exactly which public goods has the Internet played a role in creating, and which of those are most significant? (Examples might include technological innovations, scientific knowledge, art considered broadly, and so on.)
  • Exactly how has the Internet helped create such goods (or create more of such goods than might otherwise occurred)?
  • How might the Internet be changed to better promote creation of such goods?
  • Are there public goods other than information goods that the Internet has created or might help create? (As an example of a non-information public good that is created through human action, consider security and the common defense.)