The concept of global public goods can be linked to many aspects of Internet governance. The most direct connections are found in areas of access to the Internet infrastructure, protection of knowledge developed through Internet interaction, protection of public technical standards, and access to online education. Global public goods, combined with initiatives such as creative commons, could provide solutions that would both protect the current Internet creative environment and preserve Internet-generated knowledge for future generations.
One of the key features of the Internet is that through worldwide interaction of users, new knowledge and information are produced. Considerable knowledge has been generated through exchanges on mailing lists and forums, social networks, and blogs. With the exception of creative commons, there is no mechanism to facilitate the legal use of such knowledge. Left in a legal uncertainty, it is made available for modification and commercialisation. This common pool of knowledge, an important basis of creativity, is at risk of being depleted. The more Internet content is commercialised, the less spontaneous exchanges may become. This could lead towards reduced creative interaction.
When it comes to the Internet infrastructure, this area is predominantly run by private companies. One of the challenges is the harmonisation of the private ownership of the Internet infrastructure with the status of the Internet as a global public good. National laws provide the possibility of private ownership being restricted by certain public requirements, including providing equal rights to all potential users and not interfering with the transported content.
With regard to standardisation, almost continuous efforts are made to replace public standards with private and proprietary ones. This was the case with Microsoft (through browsers and ASP) and Sun Microsystems (through Java). The Internet standards (mainly TCP/IP) are open and public. The Internet governance regime should ensure protection of the main Internet standards as global public goods.
The balance between private and public interests
One of the underlying challenges of the future development of the Internet is to strike a balance between private and public interests. The question is how to provide the private sector with a proper commercial environment while ensuring the development of the Internet as a global public good. In many cases it is not a zero-sum game but a win-win situation. Many other Web 2.0 companies have tried to develop business models which both provide income and enable the creative development of the Internet.
Protecting the Internet as a global public good
Some solutions can be developed based on existing economic and legal concepts. For example, economic theory has a well-developed concept public goods, which was extended at international level to global public goods. A public good has two critical properties: non-rivalrous consumption and non-excludability. The former stipulates that the consumption of one individual does not detract from that of another; the latter, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to exclude an individual from enjoying the good. Access to Web-based materials and many other Internet services fulfils both criteria.
Other legal notions
The notion of global public goods is one of several other notions that can be linked to the Internet or Internet-related aspects. One other notion is that of common heritage of mankind, a concept which was adopted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In recent months, Malta – the small island state which was behind the introduction and adoption of the concept within UNCLOS – has been arguing in favour of the applying the concept of Common Heritage of Mankind to the critical infrastructure of the Internet.
Another notion is that of a global public resource, which has recently also been promoted – through several initiatives – as a possible solution for the protection of the Internet and its critical infrastructure.