ReCoding Good

From the Field Series: An ongoing report of the Philanthropy, Policy, and Technology Project, which explores the use of private resources for public good.

In our June 21st ReCoding Good charrette on digital public goods—one of a series of collaborative sessions around the use of private resources for social good—we take on the role of technology in fostering a new era of philanthropic practice. The institutions and policies that have shaped a century of American philanthropy were written in, and largely applied to, an analog age. Now, in the digital age, we face new systems of creation, distribution, finance, and governance.

Libraries hold a place of honor in the annals of American philanthropic history. A century ago, Andrew Carnegie made a lasting mark on more than 2,500 communities in at least nine countries with his financial support for public libraries. By the time Carnegie’s trusts made their last library grant in 1919, more than half of the public libraries in the United States owed their existence to his philanthropy.

Carnegie’s philanthropic dollars paid for buildings. Communities agreed to provide a building site, raise local funds (both philanthropic and tax revenue) to operate and maintain the libraries, and make the libraries free to the public. The motivating spirit for Carnegie and participating communities was a mix of civic pride, educational aspiration, and democratic values. Seventy-five years after the last Carnegie library was built in the US, more than half of the original structures were still serving as community libraries. The creation and widespread dissemination of libraries are a shining example of private resources deployed for public benefit.

Fast-forward to 2012 and libraries are once again at the forefront of a new era of philanthropy. This time the library in question is digital. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a nascent effort to create a shared open library of electronic knowledge for all. Where local municipalities mattered most as partners in 1912, today, the key partners are existing libraries, publishers, readers, museums, and authors and artists. Where Carnegie’s communities needed to find common physical space, the leaders of the DPLA are trying to find common “virtual” ground in terms of ownership and fair use rights. At the DPLA, if citizens have Internet connections, they have the equivalent of a library card—one that gives them unparalleled access to a huge library of books virtually, and at virtually no cost.

Though the technologies differ, the civic and educational motivations for these libraries are the same. Just as Carnegie provided private dollars and communities raised tax funds, building the DPLA will rely on a balance between private support (philanthropic dollars, publisher agreements) and public resources (taxes, copyright laws).

In our digital age, this balance between public and private extends far beyond libraries. Digital data operate differently than analog artifacts. The Internet infrastructure and the digital information that travels over this infrastructure challenge the classical economic conception of what constitutes a public good. According to the standard approach, the basic idea of public goods is that they are non-rival (consumption by one person does not diminish the amount that others can consume) and non-excludable (no person can be denied, by fact or by law, access to the good). We rely largely on governments to produce, finance, and distribute analog goods that met these criteria (roads, armies, public schools), because they fail as market goods. We also create policy incentives for private philanthropy to provide such goods—be they alternative schools, museums, or neighborhood benefit organizations—as a means of encouraging participation, creating a diversity of options, and allowing the private development of shared public resources. The nature of the goods—shared resources that benefit many—shapes how we have structured our public policies about philanthropy.

But if the means of financing, producing, and distributing public goods are changing in our digital age, do we also need to change the public policies that sustain them? Much of what is produced or distributed on the Internet is, by the classic economics definition, a public good. Digital photos, text, movies, databases, and music—the stuff of the Internet—operate as public goods, yet most are produced, financed, and distributed by the marketplace. The companies that store the resulting data often own it. Questions of personal privacy and data ownership are emerging as key tensions in this new digital economy. What are the implications for privacy when individuals come to share intimate aspects of their lives online? Should public norms govern private companies’ ownership of personal data, creating a form of common ownership of public rather than private goods? Should stakeholders—say, those who use social networks—have a say in how their data are used? Who should own personal data in the first place—individual users, the public, or the market?

With these questions in mind, the June 21 discussion will begin to explore the conceptual terrain of what might constitute a public good that exists only digitally. Some of what may qualify includes:

Policy discussions about the Internet and ownership often cover a broad range of topics, and a good deal of thinking and experimentation exists. As we try to theorize digital public goods, we need to distinguish among three possible conceptions:

  1. The digital platform. Digital public goods (the architecture of the Internet and ubiquitous access to it) reside in the digital domain itself—in net neutrality, access, and open source code.
  2. Availability of data online. Is the public good held in the data that are provided and distributed data online or via mobile technology (as part of the open data movement, for example).
  3. Digital social capital. Digital public goods reside not in some output, but in the social connections and engagement that the web makes possible. For example, the freedom of association and the liberty each of us possesses in a democracy to associate with whom we wish, without government scrutiny or regulation, takes form digitally in many respects on Facebook and is given political salience via platforms like

Each of these domains currently operates within a different set of policy spheres. Questions of Internet access fall under the purview of national telecommunications policies and multinational cooperative bodies such as ICANN. The data are often governed by intellectual property law, but may also be used for health care or educational regulations, or viewed as corporate assets. The third conception—social capital—has been seen as the realm of nonprofits and philanthropy, but is increasingly intermediated by commercial businesses or informal networks without institutional form, and without anything like the privacy and associational protections that go along with the First Amendment.

A growing body of research and writing on the nature of the Internet, networks, and data can inform our thinking. From the perspective of the ReCoding Good project, we focus on three sets of questions. The first set has to do with how our current systems work given the nature of these goods. For example, do we need to protect or incentivize digital public goods? If digital public goods are fundamentally different from analog public goods, do we need new enterprise models, funding, and/or legal code to protect and catalyze them? Do current models of private sector, public sector, nonprofit sector funding, creation, and distribution work in the digital economy, or are creating new ones?

A second set of questions looks at whether or not digital life changes how we associate with one another. Take, for example, networks of volunteer activists using public datasets to make smart phone apps. Do these “hacker communities,” which tend to thrive locally and share their products openly and globally, constitute a new form of civic engagement? Is there a new associational form emerging from these simultaneously local and global, organized but non-institutional, private (time) and public (data) groups? Does the digital domain change the nature of associational life? Does this have implications for the structure and role of nonprofits and philanthropy? Does it have implications for the future shape and/or definition of civil society?

A third set of questions turns the relationship between digital action and governance inside out, and asks whether the digital age presents an opportunity for new forms of governance or for improved forms of governance through enhanced transparency and accountability. What new opportunities do digital platforms raise for how we govern ourselves? Can digital platforms and online interactions change the incentive structure for how rulers are responsive to citizens, how accountability works between state and citizens, and, perhaps, how the nation-state itself might be transformed.

Writ large, the changing nature of public goods seems to warrant change for the nature of private philanthropy. The public and private balance of access, ownership, knowledge, and democracy shaped Carnegie’s libraries one hundred years ago. The digital nature of these values shape philanthropy today.

All materials from and information about the project can be found at ReCoding Good and through the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society’s Digital Civil Society Lab. We invite you to subscribe to our email list, talk with us on Twitter (#ReCodeGood), and join us in person whenever you can.