Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Charlie Nesson and a new vision of the public domain

Charlie Nesson, one of the founders of the Berkman Center, asks us to consider who we are, and what is our public space. The query that informed the early life of the Berkman Center was whether we, on the internet, were capable of governing ourselves. To address this question, we need to ask what our domain as a people is. He offers, “We are the people of the net, and our domain is the public domain.”

If you want an orderly world of real property, you should build a registry. It’s the same in the world of bits. Charlie is now working on a directory of public domain, starting with the Petrucci collection and the IMSLP – the international music score library project. Charlie doesn’t mean public domain in the strict legalistic sense. Instead, he asks us to think of the public domain as the bits you can reach through the net. We can then separate the space into the free and the not-free, as constrained by copyright and by market.

To ensure we can be the people of the public domain, we need to build our domain on a foundation that is solid in law. We’re going to build based on collections organized by registrars. The problem with that strategy is that registries can be the focus of litigation risk. So the goal is to work with a reputable law firm to protect the registrar, the registry and users of the registry. That helps us positively define the public domain and defend it.

How does this relate to privacy? It’s worth thinking about the key actors involved. What are actors that appreciate individual privacy? Governments are interested in surveillance. Corporations are interested in data acquisition. Look at the librarians and we’l find allies. They are connected to powerful institutions that share the values of privacy.

Judith asks Charlie to strengthen the connection to privacy. He responds, “I don’t like privacy. It tends to be too closely associated with fear, and it always seems like a rear-guard action against technology.” Instead, we should work on the architecture of the public space and ensuring we architect for private space.

2 Responses to “Charlie Nesson and a new vision of the public domain”

  1. As usual, Charlie’s at the right place at the right time – yay & thank you.

    I haven’t heard his “I don’t like privacy” comment before – that’s interesting, I do think he’s right about that, yet I also think that Judith’s on the right page – privacy & openness are not opposites, they seem to be allies in working for the public interest, vs those governmental and corporate interests you’ve described.

    Thank You!

  2. My tweet during the symposium was “Within a city-TLD there’s need for public & civic space. Who provides it? What’s private? Who governs? #hyperpublic http://connectingnyc.org” Let me add a few characters to those 140.

    In today’s “atomic” New York City we have a variety of public spaces where we’re able to communicate on the events of the day – sidewalks and streets, parks… – all guaranteed by law.

    Soon we’re to have a parallel digital world that overlays and blends with the atomic, enabled by the .nyc TLD. How this is subdivided into blocks and lots and connected with streets and parks, and the number, nature, and governance of the digital public and civic spaces we create is a topic in need.

    I registered for the symposium hoping to learn and to recruit some participants in imaging these public spaces. But circumstances kept me in NYC. So while I tweeted and read available posts, I was unsuccessful in facilitating a dialog. But Charlie’s comments seem relevant to our situation, so here I ramble, hopefully to recoup.

    Where does the conversation about public space with private areas within the .nyc TLD take place? We (that’s Connecting.nyc Inc., a NYS not-for-profit created to advocate for the .nyc TLD’s development as a public interest resource) have a blog (http://bit.ly/OurBlog) and wiki (http://bit.ly/OurWiki) that could host this conversation. But a more focused venue that would attract the likes of those at Hyperpublic would be better. Perhaps the symposium wiki/blog?

    The topic is of global interest as hundreds of cities will be getting TLDs over the next decade. And my mind giggles at the prospect of cities with media-rich civic spaces sharing ideas locally and globally. The earlier their scope and structure is determined the better they’ll serve us. Thoughts appreciated.

    Tom

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