Eric Kluitenberg on Tue, 19 Jan 1999 10:16:36 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Domain

[A slightly abriged version of this document will appear in "New Media
Culture in Europe", a book published by The Virtual Platform in
co-operation with The British Arts Council, which will be launched at the
third  Next 5 Minutes conference in The Netherlands, 12-14 March 1999. The
book deals with the cultural impact of new media in Europe. It gives an
analysis of cultural, technlogical, and educational policies that are
currently developed in Europe in this fields. This explains the primarily
European focus in the examples cited in the document. -e]

Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Domain:

Last Update by Eric Kluitenberg: 16.01.1999

About this FAQ:

This FAQ about the public domain has been re-edited half a year after it
first appeared in Dutch language. The Dutch version was the result of an
extensive "Public Research" called "Public Domain 2.0", carried out by the
Society for Old and New Media (De Waag) in Amsterdam in the beginning 1998.
Though the initiative met with intitial scepticism, it nonetheless spurred
a debate about the possibilities and constraints of building a public
digital domain, of which this FAQ is one of the results. The Public Domain
2.0 research also offered fertile grounds for the 1st International Browser
Day to blossom, a browser-design competition for students in interaction
design, which delivered well over 30 highly surprising concepts and
prototypes for interfacing and navigating digital information spaces and

The rhetorics of the "Information Super-Highway" and the "Digital
Revolution" are dominated by anti-statist and neo-liberal discourses. The
Public Domain 2.0 project questioned the self-evident nature of these
assertions. The project can be seen as an attempt to reassert public agency
in the information age, not as a given, but as a sphere which urgently
needs to be reinvented to address the conditions of the unfolding era of
global information and communication systems.

1 - What is the public domain?

First of all the public domain as a social and cultural space should be
distinguished from its juridical definition. The public domain is
traditionally understood as a commonly shared space of ideas and memories,
and the physical manifestations that embody them. The monument as a
physical embodiment of community memory and history exemplifies this
principle most clearly. Access, signification, disgust, and appropriation
of the public monument are the traditional forms in which the political
struggles over collective memory and history are carried out.

Juridical Definition:

1 : land owned directly by the government
2 : the realm embracing property rights that belong to the community at
large, are unprotected by copyright or patent, and are subject to
appropriation by anyone
(Date: 1832)

[source: WWWebster Dictionary - ]


* Esma Moukthar: "What we today call the "public domain" consists of a
multiplicity of places and virtual spaces, in which people do gather, but
not primarily to find differences, but to find agreement. Agreement with
that which at that particular moment constitutes your chosen identity. Thus
the differences search for their own place and direction. Each their own
public domain as an extension of what is private."

Moukthar contrasts this definition with Hanna Arendt's; "The space created
by the plurality of people"

[source: Esma Moukthar - "Publiek domein: privé-domein - Arendts oog op
pluraliteit en publiek domein in een vergelijking met (post)modern
pluralisme, Amsterdam, 1998 ]

2 - What is the public domain 2.0?

Public Domain 2.0 is the future public space in a digital media
environment. A space which is neither dominated by commercial interests
(market driven), nor monopolised by the state. Apart from publicly
accessible information, active public participation is a distinctive
characteristic of the Public Domain 2.0. The public in part determines the
design and content of this new public space.

Many discussions about the information society tend to emphasise either the
role of industry, or that of the state. Notably absent in these discussions
is the third sector; social and cultural organisations, organisations for
mental and health care, non-governmental organisations (NGO's), and
community and interest groups.


* "New production processes and new media are [indeed] forcing us to
re-configure our notions of what might constitute public space and the
public domain. But this should not induce us to restrict our focus to the
virtual domain. Although I agree that it is 'where the action is' in the
sense that everything in our culture is reconfiguring around virtual flows;
(flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organizational
interaction, flows of images, sounds and symbols). And I realize that these
flows are not just one element in the social organization, they are an
expression of processes *dominating* our economic, political and social

But PLACES do not disappear.

In the wider cultural and political economy the virtual world is inhabited
by a cosmopolitan elite. In fact put crudely elites are cosmopolitan and
people are local. The space of power and wealth is projected throughout the
world, while people's life experience is rooted in places, in their
culture, in their history."

[source: David Garcia - 'Some thoughts on the Public Domain', 8 February 1998]

* Computing definition of "public domain":

(PD) The total absence of {copyright} protection. If something is "in the
public domain" then anyone can copy it or use it in any way they wish. The
author has none of the exclusive rights which apply to a copyright work.

The phrase "public domain" is often used incorrectly to refer to {freeware}
or {shareware} (software which is copyrighted but is distributed without
(advance) payment). Public domain means no copyright -- no exclusive
rights. In fact the phrase "public domain" has no legal status at all in
the UK.

[source: The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing (15Feb98)]

3 - Who owns the public domain?

Everyone and no one. The public domain of information and communication
should not be monopolised by the state nor by commercial corporations.

4 - What is an information society?

To answer this question we must first define the notion of an information

4.1 - What is an Information Economy?

The information sector of an economy is that sector whose products
consist principally of information goods.

Information goods are non-material goods. They are most easily
distinguished by the fact that they can be stored in various media
and when stored in electronic media, their cost of reproduction
becomes negligibly low. Some examples of information goods include
software, music, video, databases, books, machine designs, genetic
information, and other copyrighted or patented goods.

When the information sector of an economy becomes more dominant
than either its industrial or ecology sector, then that economy
has become an information economy.

[Source: Roberto Verzola, Cyberlords: The Rentier Class of the Information
Resources: ]

4.2 - When is it appropriate to speak of an Information Society?

A society in which Information and Communication Technology has become the
dominant technology, and whose economy is primarily an information economy,
can be called an information society. Another commonly used term for this
kind of society is "Post-Industrial Society".


* The term 'Information Society', according to a recent report of the
European Commission's Information Society Project Office (ISPO),  reflects
"European concerns with the broader social and organisational changes which
will flow from the information and communications revolution", as opposed
to the more limited, technology based, term 'information highways', which
originates from the United States.

[Source: Information Society Project Office (ISPO), "Introduction to the
information society the European way", 1995
This and other policy papers can be found at: ]

* According to Manuel Castells the term information society emphasises the
role of information in society, which, he sees, in its broadest sense, as
communication of knowledge, has been critical in all societies. Conversely,
"the term informational indicates the attribute of a specific form of
social organization in which information generation, processing and
transmission become the fundamental sources of productivity and power,
because of new technological conditions emerging in this historical
period." In analogy to the distinction between 'industry' and 'industrial',
where "an industrial society is not just a society where there is industry,
but a society where the social and technological forms of organization
permeate all spheres of activity", the term informational signifies a type
of activity that pervades all dominant aspects of society.

[source: Manuel Castells, "The Rise of the Network Society - The
Information Age Vol.1", Blackwell Publishers, Malden (Mass.), 1996, pp.
21-22 (footnote 33) ]

6 - What is convergence?

"The term convergence eludes precise definition, but it is most commonly
expressed as:

The ability of different network platforms to carry essentially similar
kinds of services, or the coming together of consumer devices such as the
telephone, television and personal computer."


Traditionally, communications media were separate. Services were quite
distinct - broadcasting, voice telephony and on-line computer services.
They operated on different networks and used different "platforms": TV
sets, telephones and computers. Each was regulated by different laws and
different regulators, usually at national level. Nowadays digital
technology allows a substantially higher capacity of traditional and new
services to be transported over the same networks and to use integrated
consumer devices for purposes such as telephony, television or personal

Telecommunications, media and IT companies are using the flexibility of
digital technologies to offer services outside their traditional business
sectors, increasingly on an international or global scale.

Recent examples of new, convergent services include:

- Internet services delivered to TV sets via systems like Web TV;
- e-mail and World Wide Web access via digital TV decoders and mobile
- webcasting of radio and TV programming on the Internet;
- using the internet for voice telephony."

[source: Green Paper on the Convergence of the Telecommunications, Media
and Information Technology Sectors, and the Implications for Regulation -
Towards an Information Society Approach",  European Commission, Brussels, 3
December 1997.
This and other papers can be found at: ]

7 - What does "market-driven" mean?

"Europe is shifting towards an information-based economy, where networks
and network infrastructure play as significant a role as did the rail
networks in transforming the European economies in the last century.

For Europe to meet the challenges presented by this Information Society, it
is vital to ensure that business, industry and Europe's citizen's can
access modern, affordable and efficient communications infrastructures over
which a rich and diverse range of traditional and new multi-media services
will be offered.

This revolution has been recognised at the highest political level.  In
their conclusions on the Bangemann Group Report, the Heads of State and
Government meeting in Corfu considered "that the current unprecedented
technological revolution in the area of the Information Society opens up
vast possibilities for economic progress, employment and the quality of
life". These changes are being driven by technology and by market forces.
New global and regional partnerships are being formed to enable business
and ordinary citizens to benefit from the opportunities offered by the
convergence of broadcasting, telecommunications and information

[source: Green Paper on the liberalisation of telecommunications
infrastructure and cable television networks, part II, European Commission,
Brussels, January 25, 1995.
This and other related policy documents can be found at: ]


* As a result of the coming together of formerly separate media and (tele-)
communications industries a gigantic fusion and merger process is haunting
these industries. These mergers principally take two shapes:
Firstly "Horizontal Integration": Companies within a certain business
segment integrate to achieve a greater share in the world's media and
communication markets.
More interestingly there is also a strong movement towards Vertical
Integration, where mergers cut across various business segments; i.e. cable
operators going into telephony, fusions of telecommunication companies and
media content producers, software companies buying into film- and
media-production companies

A particularly impressive set of take-overs can be found in WorldCom /
MCI's Press Resource Center:
Worldcom /MCI is striving for market domination in intercontinental
data-traffic. Bids for achieving this aim have run up to 37.500.000.000 US$

8 - Who is going to pay for the public domain?

Right now the user generally pays for the telecommunications services
according to use; in other words the consumer pays. In many European
countries public broadcasting services are financed, on the contrary,
through the state-budget, often via a public broadcasting fee paid by
viewers and listeners. Commercial broadcasting is financed through
sponsorship and advertisement.

If the public domain in the digital media environment is viewed as a
community service, an alternative financial model will have to be
developed. This will require either a restructuring of the budget for
public broadcasting services, or the institution of an "info-tax" on the
commercial exploitation of communication networks, to establish funds out
of which community services that run over existing emerging networks, can
be financed.

9 - Does the public domain still exist?

Like the public urban space, also the public media domain is threatened by
privatisation and increased surveillance. These threats are now most
pertinent for the Internet. While the proliferation of commercial
communication in the mass-media in Europe is controlled by regulation,
commercial exploitation is unrestricted, or even encouraged, in the case of
the Internet.

10 - Why is the right to communication necessary?

"The quality of information provision affects the ways in which we exercise
our civil rights. These rights also imply the civil responsibility to
monitor and respond to social developments. This can only be done
adequately when we are properly informed through such media as
broadcasting, the press, or the Internet."

[source: Introduction to the People's Communication Charter]

Access to information and communication should be seen as fundamental
democratic right for all citizens of the world, not as an asset or simply a
consumer product.


* "The People's Communication Charter (PCC):

The People's Communication Charter represents a citizens' demand for the
protection of the quality of communication services and the provision of
information. Communication services should be user-friendly, accessible and
affordable and information should be reliable and pluralist.

(...) Rapid developments in the field of information and communication
technology (digitisation, the emergence of new media and network
connectivity) have a far-reaching impact on society. The commercialisation
of knowledge creates more and more situations in which a price-tag is
attached to the provision of information. As a result a social gap grows
between those who can afford access to information and those who will be
excluded. Moreover, numerous mergers and joint ventures create powerful
media conglomerates that escape adequate public control.

In order to monitor these developments critically, it is urgent to initiate
a global civil movement. In such areas as human rights, environmental
protection and consumer interests, there is already a great deal of civil
action. This has so far not been the case in the field of information and

The eighteen articles of the People's Communication Charter can be summed
up with these five key themes:

1. Communication and Human Rights.
Communication and information services should be guided by respect for
fundamental human rights.

2. Public Domain.
Communication resources (such as airwaves and outer space) belong to the
"commons"; they are public domain and should not be appropriated by private

3. Ownership.
Communication and information services should not be monopolized by
governments or business firms.

4. Empowerment.
People are entitled to the protection of their cultural identity and to the
development of their communicative skills.

5. Public accountability.
Providers of communication and information services should accept public
accountability for the quality of their performance."

[source: Introduction to the People's Communication Charter - ]

11 - How can a public domain 2.0 be created?

Besides the existing public media channels, new forms of public media uses
should be stimulated. Important are in particular new forms of media
practice that aim at an active involvement of ordinary citizens in the new
information and communication environments. Interactive media such as the
internet are characterised by the fact that they are not merely oriented
towards passive media consumption. Instead they are participatory media. In
a participatory medium the user also becomes a provider of content,
individually or in co-operation with others. Incidentally these kind of
self-created services may be economically viable in themselves, but more
often they relate to the cultural and social self expression of citizens.

One model to support this kind of activity could be the
Community-Media-Centre, which would offer both facilities, as well as
training and instruction in the use of new media tools for an active
participation in the public domain 2.0. These CMC's might be housed in
libraries, town halls, museums, community centres, cultural centres, or
other public spaces. Another model might be the establishment of public
net.casting services as a complement to public broadcasting services.

The authors:

The original version of this FAQ was drafted at the Society for Old and New
Media (De Waag) in Amsterdam, April 1998, by Robert van Boeschoten, Eric
Kluitenberg, Geert Lovink, Reinder Rustema, and Marleen Stikker.
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: