DIGITAL PUBLIC GOODS
It has been almost 20 years since the Internet went mainstream (Netscape went public in 1994). Since then, the digital age has upended and transformed almost every aspect of our lives – from communication to commerce to education to entertainment – and led to the reinvention of business and governments. For the most part, however, serious discussion of what digital life has meant for nonprofits and philanthropy has been limited to thinking about online giving.
We sought to push the framework well beyond and imagine (1) what a world of digital goods might actually look like and (2) what such a world might mean both for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations and for the rules that structure and govern them.
The basic idea of public goods is that they are non-rival (consumption by one person does not diminish opportunity of others to consume) and non-excludable (no person can be denied, by fact or by law, from accessing the good), and that because of these properties they must be produced, financed, and distributed by a government. But, many goods provided digitally are also non-rival and non-excludable, assuming people have a mobile phone and/or internet access, yet more often than not they are produced, financed, and distributed by the marketplace. (Google.com is a good example.) This raises questions about ownership of digital public goods, about intellectual property, about ensuring access to the Internet, etc.
As for policy domains, we focused special attention to the potential of the digital age to transform governance, democratic and otherwise. We did not limit our discussion to small innovations, such as online voting. We had in mind much more fundamental and far-reaching transformations: how digital platforms and online interactions can change the incentive structure for whether and how rulers are responsive to citizens, how accountability works between state and citizens, and, perhaps, how the nation-state itself might be transformed (e.g., think Paul Romer’s charter cities, as an example).
At this small invitation-only workshop, we examined both the concept of a “digital public good” and the implications of “digital public goods” in a few policy domains. Our conversation was motivated by the following questions: Have digital capacities created a new class of charitable activities and benefits? Are there such things as digital public goods? Is association in the digital sphere substantively different, and if so, does it change how we think about associational life? Should we re-craft various institutions, practices and laws, many of which structuring the nonprofit sector are almost 100 years old, to match our digital capacities?