3.11 Activity 2

In this activity we will consider the idea of a commons and non-rivalrous resources in more detail. First you will be asked to visit a few websites, via links provided, to get a taste of the kinds of non-rivalrous commons that are available on the internet. Then you will assess two of the sites under a series of headings to help you think through the idea of a commons.

Activity 2

Take a quick look at the websites below. They each operate in a manner which suggests that they are part of the internet's commons at the content layer. Select two of the sites to explore in more depth and make notes about the following aspects of the two sites that you have chosen:

  • Summarise what the site is about and assess whether it is indeed a non-rivalrous commons.

  • Note your view about the reliability of the material and whether the site has any kind of bias.

  • Decide whether the material would exist as a commons if the internet did not exist.

  • If you think it would, how would it affect the scale of the commons community?

  • RFC 1958

  • Center for the Public Domain

  • Internet Archive

  • Project Gutenberg

  • Eldritch Press

  • Creative Commons

  • H2O Project

  • An atlas of cyberspace

  • Freedom to Tinker

We have done a sample analysis of one of the sites to give you an idea of how to analyse the ones you have chosen.


RFC 1958 is located on the Reguest for Comments Archive of the internet Engineering Task Force.


This is the Request for Comments (RFC) document mentioned by Lessig in The Future of Ideas (pp. 36–37). It aims to re-state the principles behind the end-to-end architecture of the internet.

RFCs were invented when a group of graduate students from different universities who were all working on the initial internet host sites met in 1968 to discuss how the finer details of the system would work. One of them, Steve Crocker, wrote up the gist of what they had discussed and sent it round with a label ‘Request for Comments’ (RFC). This became the style and format for the development of all the subsequent networking protocols, and the group began calling itself the Network Working Group (NWG). Vint Cerf and Jon Postel were members of this original group. Postel was later to play a pivotal role in the development of the Net, as the editor of its RFC (working papers) archive and the architect of the Domain Name System. The working methods established by the students of the NWG are significant because they laid down the governing ethos of the internet.

  • Firstly, the discussions were open in practice as well as in spirit – anyone within the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) community could comment on the NWG's working papers, and they were freely available online as soon as that became practicable. This tradition continues to the present day.

  • Secondly, the ideas outlined in RFCs were tested through the process of peer review, which is common in science but less so in technology. (Companies don't usually make their technologies freely and easily available to competitors for review.) This meant that errors were quickly discovered and equally quickly remedied.

  • Thirdly, protocols were arrived at by consensus, not by decree or the directive of some central controller. Dave Clark of MIT, one of the pioneers of the Net, once said: ‘We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.’ The ultimate arbiter of whether ideas were accepted by the NWG was not who proposed them but whether they worked.

Reliability of the material and potential bias

The RFC was written by Brian E. Carpenter, Group Leader, Communications Systems, Computing and Networks Division, CERN, European Laboratory for Particle Physics.

CERN is a well reputed international research organisation and the home of the key developer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, so the information would appear to have considerable authority.

The RFC archive is maintained by the IETF (The Internet Engineering Task Force). As explained on the IETF site:

The Requests for Comments (RFCs) form a series of notes, started in 1969, about the internet (originally the ARPANET). The notes discuss many aspects of computer communication, focusing on networking protocols, procedures, programs, and concepts but also including meeting notes, opinion, and sometimes humor. For more information on the history of the RFC series, see 30 Years of RFCs.

The early RFCs include a trove of history about the early development of computer communication protocols, from which modern internet technology was derived.

As publisher of RFCs, the RFC Editor is responsible for the final editorial review of the documents and attempts to maintain the standards of the series. The RFC Editor function is funded by the Internet Society.

The RFC editor maintains a master repository of all RFCs, which can be retrieved in segments. The RFC editor also maintains a master RFC index that can be searched online.

From the IETF site again:

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is a large open international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the internet architecture and the smooth operation of the internet. It is open to any interested individual.

So we would expect the information from both of these sources to be neutral and unbiased.

Does RFC1958 represent a non-rivalrous commons?

Yes – the RFCs were developed as a means of sharing information and ideas. Each document could be read and commented upon by anyone with access to the internet, so they form a commons of ideas, solutions to problems and a historical record. No matter how many times the documents are read they still remain there for others to read, so they are a non-rivalrous resource.

Would the material exist as a commons without the Net, and how would the potential community be affected?

It's possible that such documents could be retained in and distributed widely amongst libraries. In such a form they would not be as accessible, and the level of awareness about them and the potential community would be significantly smaller. I might suggest that as part of this unit you visit your local library and ask if they had copies of the RFCs and, if not, ask them to order them for you; but the numbers of students who would actually make that trip to the library would be significantly less than the number who clicked on the RFC link.

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.

(George Bernard Shaw)

3.10 Phone networks, monopolies and allowing innovation

3.12 Summary and SAQs