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[liberationtech] Revisiting the Tragedy of the Commons | October 2013 | Communications of the ACM

Yosem Companys companys at
Sun Sep 29 15:02:03 PDT 2013

Revisiting the Tragedy of the Commons
By Vinton G. Cerf
Communications of the ACM, Vol. 56 No. 10, Page 7

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in Science magazine
entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons" in which he focused on
indiscriminate population growth as an issue. The concept of the
commons and its overuse was not then new and had been applied to the
overgrazing of common or public properties made available, for
example, to cattle and sheep owners. The primary message tended to be
that the limitation of resources should be grounds for regulated
access through either law or custom. In 2012, Bill Davidow applied
that concept to the Internet albeit in a prophetic way, since he was
worried about the loss of privacy in the Internet commons.

This column is based on the view that the resources of the Internet,
while finite, are not bounded except by our ability to construct more
resource to grow the shared virtual space the Internet and its
applications create. That the characteristic parameters of the
Internet have increased by a factor of over one million since the
system was activated in January 1983 is testament to the feasibility
of growing Internet capacity to meet demands and need. The investments
required to achieve this growth have come from many sources but
largely from the private sector. What is important to appreciate is
that private sector investments have been made voluntarily for
business or other reasons and not under coercion or even government
mandate. This is the remarkable property of the Internet: its
protocols and implementation are a consequence of bottom-up,
collaborative processes and independent decision making by the
implementers and operators of the autonomous systems that make up the

A consequence of these features is the Internet escapes the usual
tragedy scenario by responding to demand with increased capacity. This
is not to say the Internet is without overuse. It can congest with the
manifestation that applications are slow or do not work at all owing
to delays that trigger timeouts. Unlike physically limited space for
grazing sheep, however, the Internet's capacity can be expanded if
there is willingness and ability to invest.

There is, however, another way in which the Internet does resemble a
commons. It is a shared, virtual environment, derived from physical
implementation using routers, transmission technology (wired,
wireless) and host computers (including gigantic data centers and
individual laptops, tablets, and mobiles) at the "edge" of the
Internet. The users of the Internet share a common environment that
permits them to exchange information, to access resources, and to
carry out computations and, more generally, applications. A
consequence of this sharing is that we may experience common risks
associated with malefactors seeking to harm others, to disrupt
communication, and to commit a variety of abuses. These abuses
manifest in many ways, such as fraud, theft, misrepresentation,
disruptive malware, and hijacking of resources, to name just a few

Whether these abuses are violations of law will vary from one
jurisdiction to another, particularly across international boundaries.
Coping with these problems is not a trivial matter and may require
cooperation across jurisdictions, instantiation of international
treaties, formation of informal working groups, R&D leading to more
robust operating systems and Web-based tools and applications, and
even changes in social behavior. These problems are made all the more
difficult to cope with because of the asymmetry between perpetrators
of abuse and their victims. Small groups can inflict a great deal of
damage that might have required nation-state level resources in the
past but, thanks to rapidly evolving computing power, these resources
may be available to individuals.

The co-opting of computers owned or operated by businesses,
government, and the public to form so-called "botnets" used to inflict
damage, generate spam, or to launch denial-of-service attacks is made
possible by the exploitation of, inter alia, operating system or
application software bugs, lax security procedures, and insider
cooperation. Some of these problems lie squarely in the professional
spaces of ACM members and thus pose a challenge to us as members or as
practitioners of software and hardware engineering. They are certainly
subject to serious research initiatives aimed at their mitigation.

The conclusion, then, is while the commons created by the Internet
need not be bounded, it is a shared environment that must be protected
for the benefit of its users. If there is a potential tragedy here, it
will be that the Internet becomes too unsafe for reliable use. It
seems to me of vital importance to fend off such an outcome so the
benefits of this commons can be realized by all of humanity.



a. G. Hardin. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162, 3859 (Dec.
1968), 1243–1248; doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.

b. B. Davidow. "The Tragedy of the Internet Commons." The Atlantic
(May 18, 2012);

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