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The poster on the door of the departmental computer administrator said it all.
The Internet is like the ocean.
It is a great resource.
It is huge.
No one owns it.
It was 1991. The Internet had not yet exploded onto the world stage, but it was already linking hundreds of thousands of academics. The incredible power of global computer internetworking was beginning to dawn upon the higher education community. Instead of making US$3-a-minute phone calls or stuffing bulky papers into envelopes and waiting days or weeks for a response, one could transfer information almost instantly to any part of the world. The Internet was becoming a taken-for-granted part of our work infrastructure. It was just there. Most of us had no idea who ran it, how it worked, or who paid for it. Like prescientific cultures we deployed myths and metaphors to express our wonderment at this remarkable resource.
A huge ocean. No one owns it.
This attitude is typical of the kind of institutional naÔvetÈ that has characterized the Internet community. In fact, neither the ocean nor the Internet are free from contention. As the work of Ostrom (1990; 1994) and others has shown, common pool resources such as the ocean are more often than not the site of battles over the assignment and allocation of resource rights: to fish, to get minerals, and so on. Contention over value is unavoidable unless the resource is superabundant. Property rights, rules, and governance arrangements are tools to resolve those conflicts and to pave the way for more harmonious and profitable utilization of the resources.
We have now reached the conceptual core of the book. Internet names and numbers are resources; prior chapters outlined some of their distinctive economic and physical features. Internet governance will be now characterized as the institutionalization of those resource spaces. Framing the problem in this way is useful. First, it links the problem to some powerful, robust theoretical tools derived from the economic literature on property rights; second, it provides a direct, concrete linkage between the processes of technological and institutional change.
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