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Smart Mobs mini-blog: Free-Riding in the Commons Posted on 10/31/2002.

In reading Smart Mobs, a paradox I'm having trouble resolving is why there's usually positive sentiment towards free-riding on wireless internet connectivity, with glowing reports of efforts like NYCWireless and the Bay Area Wireless User Group, but there's usually negative sentiment towards free-riding in file-sharing communities, damning those who download files from Gnutella and Kazaa without offering files in return.

Why is it okay, or even cool and renegade, to take internet connectivity for free without offering anything in return, but downloading MP3s causes people to stress over the Tragedy of the Commons? Particularly when digital media are endlessly copyable (and therefore never scarce), whereas internet connectivity isn't?

6 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Phone Conversation Dissonance"
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Not having read the book, it strikes me that perhaps there is a confusion between the groups who are damning these two kinds of, uhh, 'theft' or borrowing.

With gross generalization, RIAA types yell about stealing MP3s while geeky types support it. Geeky types support stealing bandwidth... but perhaps the other side of that argument hasn't been launched yet. I think a lot of people who support napster/kazaa/&c. would also get a kick out of warchalking, street wireless, &c. Or maybe vice-versa.
Posted by bryan boyer @ 10/31/2002 03:08 PM PST [link to this comment]

Disagree, Bryan. "Free-riding" *is* derided in the P2P community, as witness the explicit appearance of that term on the labelling in LimeWire. There is an implicit value judgment expressed that the willingness to share your own files is the ethical concomitant to the privilege of downloading others'.

I think what's happening with warchalking and 802.11b freeloading is related to the way in which we perceive and subconsciously categorize wireless connectivity - it's simply *there*, as free as the air, and it takes an explicit reminder to oneself to remember that bandwidth costs. That's my guess, anyway, and it suggests to me that this will continue to be an issue which dogs other ubiquitous serves which are "just there."
Posted by Adam Greenfield @ 10/31/2002 06:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

Actually, I think the problem is the opposite of the Tragedy of the Commons. There's no possibility that the pool of files in a file sharing community will be over-fished, so to speak. But there's a possibility that the pool isn't abundant or diverse enough to support a community. Which explains the implied rule in file sharing that you have to enrich the pool by offering up your files.

Particularly when digital media are endlessly copyable (and therefore never scarce)

Not sure if you're a Kazaa/Gnutella user, Peter, but the digital format hasn't made certain kinds of music any less scarce. Endless copyability, combined with a rudimentary or inefficient search system, can create a kind of artificial scarcity for certain files. They may out there, but they're just not findable.

As for free wireless, I chalk it up to certain segment of people who are motivated by altruistic--even utopian--principles about Internet connectivity.
Posted by Gene @ 10/31/2002 06:35 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think the difference is that with digital media sharing, I can expect a return for my efforts AND I can audit it. It's simple for me to check to make sure you are sharing as well, and if you are, I might get something out of it.

On the other hand, with wireless surfing, what would I want from you? Cash, maybe? But how would I get it? How can I monitor or audit it? It's too much of a pain in the ass to worry about it, and there's not much you can do about it anyway, so instead we just forget about it and chalk it up to our generous impulses.

If there were some way to check that the guy surfing your wireless was also providing some similar service as well, I'm guessing you'd see similar demands as p2p file sharers crop up.

Posted by Peter @ 11/01/2002 06:56 AM PST [link to this comment]

I think the key issue is whether sharing wireless bandwidth degrades the service for the user who has provided an open access point, or other users who use the upstream ISP. If there is no degradation, who loses? And of course there is the matter of terms of service. I believe NYC Wireless leases its high-speed Internet lines from a provider who is willing to let NYC Wireless share bandwidth.

With p2p, again there are two possible categories of injured parties: if too few people provide the resource shared on the network, the public good fails to be provisioned and a classic tragedy of the commons results; the recording industry claims losses -- this can be disputed, as can their claim that they are protecting artists, but it's clear that they claim to be injured by file-sharing, in which case all the people who share files, including those who don't provide files for others, are regarded by the RIAA et al as free riders.
Posted by Howard Rheingold @ 11/01/2002 03:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

"Honor among theives" ?
Posted by Simon @ 11/02/2002 11:47 AM PST [link to this comment]

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