The true tragedy of the commons

This month is the 25th anniversary of when I walked into the little Duane Physics computer lab and asked for an email account. And with that, I joined the internet.

I discovered the Usenet, MUDs, and coeds at Sweet Briar who would always want to chat with CU students at random times of the night. I met a girlfriend through the Usenet; my future wife knew me from a news group.

I played with Mosaic and built websites, tho it would be a few more years before I built sites professionally. My career, from web design to UX design, is wholly built on what I learned playing with the web in the waning days of my CU career.

And one of the underlying principles of the internet of those days was what I came to call the “libertarian internet.” All traffic was equal, all ideas were equal, and the internet would be the great leveler. It could lay low the powerful and raise up the powerless. It could give voice to the voiceless, and voice to ideas who couldn’t be heard before.

It was an optimistic view, one built on this idea that we had a communications system that could truly disrupt the economic and political powers of this world.

Now, on this side of some devastating elections driven by fake news and deep mistrust of power, it looks too optimistic. We missed something: That all traffic wasn’t equal, that all ideas were not equal. Privilege. Power. Hatred. Cognitive dissonance. Combine those together, add in the network effects the net produces, and of course we ended up with this hate-spewing machine we call the Internet of 2017.

And that’s the tragedy of the commons we’re now facing — not that the world is trampling our parks because it’s free, but that they’re burning the park down because they can and we will let them.

I wish we’d known back then. Simple ban lists weren’t enough. “You own your own words” wasn’t a strong enough statement. We failed to let people own the consequences of the things they made and the horrible ways they could be used.

I find the situation intolerable, but I’m not sure what the route out is. It’s like my feelings on guns. I am not a staunch “melt all the guns” person. What I want is responsibility and safety in gun ownership, one where the power of a gun is respected in the same way we respect the power of an automobile.

With guns and cars, though, responsibility and safety have clear paths. I believe in training, in safety, in carrying insurance, and above all, the clear understanding that irresponsible use has severe consequences in the eyes of the law.

With the internet, though, what are these analogues of responsibility and safety, and how would we even enforce them? I believe in free speech. I also believe that doxxing, swatting, stalking, and hateful trolling are things we should treat in the same way as we treat people behaving recklessly with guns and cars. And this is a contradiction I find hard to reconcile.

And it’s led me to a horrible thought: If the coming end of net neutrality means that those shaping internet traffic can be held responsible for what they pass through their traffic, could net neutrality be… well, not the worst idea ever? I hate that idea. Without neutrality, the web becomes a sanitized and tiered cable service that Verizon and Comcast can make even more money off of. It would mean repression of minority voices.

I don’t want any of that. But if it means I can sue Comcast for getting doxxed… might it be worth it? I shudder thinking about it.

For the first time in my 25 years of internet existence, I don’t feel optimistic about this web thing I helped build. I want us to be better. And I’ll keep fighting for that, speaking truth to power, demanding the best of the web. But for the first time, I know it’s not a given. It’s something we have to fight for.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he’s really sorry about it.

With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it.

He likes nectarines.

You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.