DOI: 10.1145/2507771.2507773 Vinton G. Cerf
Revisiting the tragedy
of the Commons
The concept of the commons and its
overuse was not then new and had been
applied to the overgrazing of common
or public properties made available, for
example, to cattle and sheep owners.
The primary message tended to be that
the limitation of resources should be
grounds for regulated access through
either law or custom. In 2012, Bill Davidow applied that concept to the Internetb albeit in a prophetic way, since he
was worried about the loss of privacy in
the Internet commons.
This column is based on the view that
the resources of the Internet, while finite, are not bounded except by our ability to construct more resource to grow the
shared virtual space the Internet and
its applications create. That the characteristic parameters of the Internet have
increased by a factor of over one million
since the system was activated in January 1983 is testament to the feasibility
of growing Internet capacity to meet demands and need. The investments required to achieve this growth have come
from many sources but largely from the
private sector. What is important to
appreciate is that private sector investments have been made voluntarily for
business or other reasons and not under
coercion or even government mandate.
This is the remarkable property of the In-
ternet: its protocols and implementation
are a consequence of bottom-up, col-
laborative processes and independent
decision making by the implementers
and operators of the autonomous sys-
tems that make up the Internet.
A consequence of these features is
the Internet escapes the usual tragedy
scenario by responding to demand with
increased capacity. This is not to say
the Internet is without overuse. It can
congest with the manifestation that applications are slow or do not work at all
owing to delays that trigger timeouts.
Unlike physically limited space for
grazing sheep, however, the Internet’s
capacity can be expanded if there is
willingness and ability to invest.
There is, however, another way in
which the Internet does resemble a
commons. It is a shared, virtual environment, derived from physical implementation using routers, transmission
technology (wired, wireless) and host
computers (including gigantic data centers and individual laptops, tablets, and
mobiles) at the “edge” of the Internet.
The users of the Internet share a com-
mon environment that permits them to
exchange information, to access resourc-
es, and to carry out computations and,
more generally, applications. A conse-
quence of this sharing is that we may ex-
perience common risks associated with
malefactors seeking to harm others, to
disrupt communication, and to com-
mit a variety of abuses. These abuses
manifest in many ways, such as fraud,
theft, misrepresentation, disruptive
malware, and hijacking of resources,
to name just a few examples.
Whether these abuses are violations
of law will vary from one jurisdiction to
another, particularly across international boundaries. Coping with these problems is not a trivial matter and may require cooperation across jurisdictions,
instantiation of international treaties,
formation of informal working groups,
R&D leading to more robust operating
systems and Web-based tools and applications, and even changes in social
behavior. These problems are made all
the more difficult to cope with because
of the asymmetry between perpetrators
of abuse and their victims. Small groups
can inflict a great deal of damage that
might have required nation-state level
resources in the past but, thanks to rapidly evolving computing power, these resources may be available to individuals.
The co-opting of computers owned
or operated by businesses, government,
and the public to form so-called “
bot-nets” used to inflict damage, generate
spam, or to launch denial-of-service attacks is made possible by the exploitation of, inter alia, operating system or
application software bugs, lax security
procedures, and insider cooperation.
Some of these problems lie squarely in
the professional spaces of ACM members and thus pose a challenge to us as
members or as practitioners of software
and hardware engineering. They are certainly subject to serious research initiatives aimed at their mitigation.
The conclusion, then, is while the commons created by the Internet need not be
bounded, it is a shared environment that
must be protected for the benefit of its users. If there is a potential tragedy here,
it will be that the Internet becomes too
unsafe for reliable use. It seems to me of
vital importance to fend off such an outcome so the benefits of this commons
can be realized by all of humanity.
Vinton G. Cerf, ACM PRESIDENT
In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay
in Science magazinea entitled “The Tragedy
of the Commons” in which he focused on
indiscriminate population growth as an issue.
a G. Hardin. “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
Science 162, 3859 (Dec. 1968), 1243–1248;
b B. Davidow. “The Tragedy of the Internet Commons.” The Atlantic (May 18, 2012); http://bit.ly/