Klein’s review of The Wealth of Networks

Lynne Kiesling

I like Peter Klein’s review in the Independent Review of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. Apart from giving a good overview of the Benkler work, Peter offers some original insights that are worth thinking about. For example:

To ensure open access to the networked economy, Benkler favors a public-ownership network infrastructure, loose enforcement of intellectual property rights, subsidized R&D, and “strategic regulatory interventions to negate monopoly control over essential resources in the digital environment” (p. 21).

This approach has some problems. First, although information itself cannot be “owned,” the tangible media in which information is embedded and transmitted are scarce economic goods. Information may yearn to be “free,” but cables, switches, routers, disk drives, microprocessors, and the like yearn to be owned. Such innovations do not spring from nowhere; they are the creations of profit-seeking entrepreneurs that consumers or other entrepreneurs purchase to use as they see fit. Of course, private property can be nationalized. Federal, state, and local governments can ownbroadband lines as they own streets and highways, or they can treat network infrastructure as a regulated public utility. If these resources are to be treated as public goods, then what about computers, iPods, and cell phones? Are these gateways to the Information Superhighway also part of the digital commons? If individuals can own cell phones, can they sign contracts with service providers to deliver whatever content is mutually agreed upon? Content providers and consumers are free to terminate their agreements if they are unhappy. In this sense, a private-property regime allows as much “autonomy,” in the libertarian sense, as a commons-based system. Moreover, if one takes into account the problems of collective ownership, about which Benkler is largely silent, the case for the commons becomes even more problematic.

There he articulates clearly one of the aspects of Benkler’s arguments that has always bothered me, but I couldn’t pull together clearly enough. Here he does. Peter also makes some observations about Benkler’s definition and concept of liberty and about the endogeneity of culture and opinion that are thought-provoking. A worthy read.

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One thought on “Klein’s review of The Wealth of Networks

  1. Isn’t it pretty obvious that the only problem iare limits to public accomodation, such as siting of physical cable networks and wireless towers? These resources by their nature must be severely limited and can become choke points which can produce monopoly power in many cases. We should require that such networks be open.

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