We ramble about code, technology and life. Sometimes we actually code...

Private Entities and the Creation of Commons

by Kyluke McDougall on 20 August 20233 min read

In the realm of public spaces, the concept of a 'commons' bears versatile significance. Essentially, a commons is an open, publicly available space, inviting everyone without any discrimination. This age-old idea of a common ground, a place for civic discourse, collaboration and co-creation, remains as relevant today as it ever was. But what happens when private entities step into this traditionally public domain? Can a private entity create a true 'commons'? If so, what does it look like, and is it really a commons?

Before we engage with these questions, let's look at a few instances where private entities have created a space marketed as 'commons.' A case in point is the Apple App Store, an ostensibly open space marketed as being available to any developer, despite being restrictive and curated. Google Play Store provides similar services, with slightly fewer restrictions, but toeing the same line with respect to government restrictions. Twitter, now rebranded as X, has strived to be the “town square” of the internet, upholding the ethos of a commons where anyone can engage in global discussion and voice their opinions. Yet, even they have drawn flak for censoring tweets and users, under the guise of protecting narratives or advancing ideologies.

So, given these instances, can a private company genuinely create a commons? Can a space crafted by a private entity, intended for public consumption, still bear the same level of unrestricted access and equitable engagement that defines a true commons? The answer is somewhat layered. Yes, private entities can form what can be called 'commons,' provided they manage to nurture an atmosphere of inclusivity and public ownership while maintaining a transparent and restricted influence.

Historically, examples from Ford Motors to Penguin Random House seek to suggest that the definition of commons can be as fluid as the entity creating it. Henry Ford’s Model T car democratised access to a public commons of roadways, while private publishers have created a knowledge commons accessible to the masses. In the advent of open-source software, companies like Red Hat have given the world a model of collaborative creation and shared ownership.

Modern sharing economy models, as seen in Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, serve as an illustration of a 'sharing commons.’ Herein, resources like vehicles and homes, instead of being individually owned, become part of a shared ecosystem, marking a transformative step towards communal consumption.

However, these examples also drive home a crucial point. The true spirit of a commons—untrammelled access, absolute freedom for public discourse and collaboration—should not be sidelined. This balance between upholding the ethos of a commons while acknowledging the limited role of a private entity is the key to achieving a truly open commons.

As we advance further into this interconnected age, the conversation around private entities and the formation of a commons will only escalate. As such, striking a delicate balance between preserving the integrity of a commons and acknowledging the evolving role of private entities in contributing to it remains crucial. A commons, whether physical or digital, whether initiated by a public or private entity, should fundamentally serve as a foundation where humanity can thrive.

While it is indeed possible for private entities to birth a 'commons', ensuring the universality, inclusivity and equity of such spaces poses an ongoing challenge. But, if addressed correctly, these can serve as spaces that truly epitomise a 'commons' where ideas are freely exchanged, and community creation is prioritised. This lies at the heart of what a ‘commons’ originally strives to be, regardless of its origin or who sparked its creation.