Last week I participated in a thought symposium called The Internet and the Public Good. It was about 30 people, jointly hosted by the Mozilla Foundation, the Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The goal from the Mozilla Foundation’s perspective is to learn new ways to think about public benefit and the Internet. We’re a public benefit organization and it’s important to figure out what set of programs we should launch beyond the support of our current projects. So it’s worth exploring whether there is understanding outside of the open source world about public benefit that can help us.
The symposium started out with a discussion of a “public good.” It turns out that a “public good” has a specified meaning in the realm of economics. So there was a lot of discussion about what a public good is, what it means to be a public good, how public goods have been regulated, how public goods might differ in different parts of the world.
A couple of very interesting comments came out. The discipline of economics can separate three things: a public good, public interest and public provision. Public goods are as described above. Public interest (or public benefit) can be generated by either private or public goods. Either public or private good can be provided by public sources (e.g., government) or private sources. (Of course, as a normative issue, one generally hopes that if a government funds something, there is a public benefit to it.)
This has helped me state more precisely what is of interest to me personally. (I’m not speaking for the Mozilla Foundation here). I want to ensure that the Internet has robust public interest aspects. That the Internet has social, civic and individual benefits as well as commercial benefits. I suppose one could call this ensuring the Internet has robust non-commercial aspects. But this is a negative approach. I’m not against commercial activity being a vibrant part of Internet development. On the contrary, I believe commercial activity brings great value to individuals and society.
But I don’t want to live in a world where the only thing the Internet is useful for, or effective at, or pleasant or fun, are activities where someone is making money from me.
In addition, I want public benefit to be provided by both public and private actors. I hope the Mozilla project can push more actors, including commercial players in the Internet space, to provide more public benefits.