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.

Sometimes the best thing that can happen is to be wrong. We began our June 21st ReCoding Good charrette on digital public goods with a proposition: There is something so different about public goods in the digital age that we need to give them a special label, consider their unique properties, find new norms to govern their production and distribution, and reconsider how the economics of these goods or services are reshaping the social relations of civil society.

Most of the twenty scholars, policymakers, students, activists, nonprofit professionals, and funders who joined us disagreed that we need a special name. The term “digital public good” that we put forth didn’t work for most people in the room. Here’s what we used as three possible concepts of digital public goods:

  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

For some, these concepts were redundant. The standard economic definition of a public good (something that is non-rival and non-excludable) includes much of what is produced and distributed in the digital sphere. For these participants, the term “public goods” already has a definition, and we were confusing it by adding “digital.”

For others, these concepts were potentially harmful. The economic definition of public good is contested but even more contentious is the discussion of how public goods ought to be distributed and by whom. Drawing the nonprofit sector and philanthropy (further) into ideological battles over the role of government and markets made some participants visibly uncomfortable.

For still others, the definition of digital public good was simply mistaken. They asserted that the public character of certain digital goods is only by design, not by nature. For example, online search is free to all because advertisers pay for it. So the public benefit of being able to quickly find all online information for free and without exclusion is not a natural artifact of search; it’s a deliberate design of the business model.

Yet there were a few participants who felt the need for keeping the definition of digital public good. For them, the term has an important symbolic and expressive value. It makes people think about the digital space as a public domain where public benefits are produced and public issues discussed, rather than as a purely private arena of exchange.

We realized, however, that when you offer up a term like digital public good and most of your colleagues rip apart all three words, it’s time to try again.

The group challenged us to identify and separate out the three distinct issues we care about—namely the digital creation, production, and distribution of goods and services that benefit the public. First, there is a public benefit to infrastructure access. This is the spirit that has motivated previous policies and investments in postal services and universal telephone service. The economic qualities of infrastructure matter in figuring out how to provide these services, but so do equality and democracy. Second, there is the issue of data access, ownership, and shared use, predominantly shaped by privacy and the economics of data, which are not the economics that shape our current civil society organizations. Finally, freedom of association is a civil right, constitutionally guaranteed to Americans, which is being continuously tested in the current marketplace of digital services.

Although our original terminology was flawed, those in the room did agree that these issues deserve special and urgent consideration. They also agreed that there is value in considering just how the changing economics of digital creation, distribution, and finance matter to the nonprofit sector. One set of interests was clearly visible: the desire to use digital technologies to deliver more social or educational services at lower costs. There are many more possibilities in online learning, health care delivery, and soon, goods manufacturing (aided by 3-D printers and low-cost materials) than there are examples of public-benefit organizations delivering services with these tools. How can we use the economics of digital production and distribution—which offers incredibly low marginal costs—to expand access?

A second set of interests emphasized just how important civil society and nonprofits are becoming in an age when personal data and big data are increasingly valuable. The emerging, and unknown, challenges of having public or private sector organizations in control of unprecedented quantities of information about all people raises the bar for alternative enterprises that represent non-market, civil interests. The issues of privacy, freedom of association, civil liberties, and shared assets in the digital age require attention, protection, and innovation just as their analog counterparts have had.

This brought us to the third level of inquiry: Are the analog forms of governance and organization that characterize our existing civil society adequate for the digital age? Or will we see digitally native forms of civil society emerge? On the one hand, early signs that the latter might be possible are visible in new forms of activism and funding, such as the SOPA/PIPA protests and crowdfunding platforms that sponsor projects and people not institutions. On the other hand, many people agreed that digital associations and social networks could generate a new civil society and foster democratic values if—and only if—their access infrastructure, internal structure, and regulation are made more inclusive and democratic from the start. These same people have been raising concerns about the freedom of digital associations, which are largely facilitated through corporate-owned networks, and about how those relationships are mediated, controlled, or monitored. Physical examples of privately owned public spaces, such as shopping malls and many urban parks, were offered up as contemporary comparisons to the current digital economy.

This last point is still on our minds. The evolution of public spaces in the physical world—whether they are mutually owned, privately owned, publicly owned, or POPOs—will not be the progression we follow online. We operate online primarily in privately owned, public open spaces—is this where we will stay? Or will we develop alternatives such as digital versions of a commons, public parks, or libraries, which are publicly owned, public spaces?  Efforts such as the Digital Public Library of America are important forays into new structures that we can all learn from and inform.

We were thrilled to have the assistance of Sarah Stein Greenberg and George Kembel of Stanford’s Design School in organizing this charrette. The structure of the day and the design challenges put forth allowed people with very different expertise to contribute as equals. The design process pushed us to use deliberately extreme scenarios as a way of identifying core issues. While we might have spent the time debating the digital public good definition, instead we acted out our individual assumptions and collective tensions about privacy, freedom of association, and public accountability in the digital realms.

We ended the session with a clear sense that the inquiry is important, and we are still searching for the right “container” to hold the breadth of our questions and allow us to examine them more closely. We welcome your continued input, suggestions, models, and theoretical frames to help us.

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.