Mobile and Open: A Manifesto
By Howard Rheingold, Wed Jan 05 08:00:00 GMT 2005

Only a cockeyed optimist would forecast an open, user-driven, entrepreneurial future for the mobile Internet. This should not prevent us from trying, however. Sometimes, envisioning the way things ought to be can inspire people to work at making it that way. That's what manifestos are for.


Nowadays, online manifestos often work best as seeds for group conversation, rather than an individual's attempt to start with the last word. I'll stake a modicum of public embarrassment on the possibility that I can talk people I don't know yet into helping me write this piece: I'll start the discussion about the way the mobile Internet future ought to look by posting this draft manifesto; I invite you to suggest revisions and additions. If readers contribute enough valuable feedback, I'll incorporate it and post a revised version as a comment.

The devices that most people on earth will carry or wear in coming decades could become platforms for technical and entrepreneurial innovation, foundations for industries that don't exist yet, enablers of social and political change. However, it is far from certain that mobile media will go the route of the PC, where teenage dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and millions of others actively shaped the technology, or the Internet, where search engines were invented in dorm rooms and innovators like Tim Berners-Lee gave away the World Wide Web for free without asking permission or changing any wiring.

Powerful interests recognize the dangers such a world poses for business models that depend on controlling and metering access to content, conduit, or services for a mass market, and they are acting to protect their interests. That's what digital rights management, extension of copyright laws into what formerly had been the public domain, the broadcast flag, spectrum regulation policies that favor archaic technologies and incumbent licensees, trusted computing systems that bake all these rules into monopoly silicon are about.

In order for mobile media to benefit those who don't already own an ICT cartel, the people who use those media must be free to perform certain actions. A future where mobile media achieve their full economic and cultural potential, requires:

That people are free and able to act as users not consumers: Users can actively shape media, as they did with the PC and the Internet, not just passively consume what is provided by a few, as in the era of broadcast media and communications monopolies. If hardware can't be hacked and software is locked away from individuals by technology or law, users won't be free to invent.

An open innovation commons: When networks of devices, technological platforms for communication media, the electromagnetic spectrum, are available for shared experimentation, new technologies and industries can emerge. The way intellectual property is defined by international law, the kind of political regulations that govern spectrum use, the degree of extension of the rights of corporations to control the use of creations of individuals and to exert control over what others can create or distribute, will determine whether a cornucopia or a tragedy of the anti-commons occurs. (The tragedy of the commons is the despoiling of a shared resource because there is no way to exclude individuals from consuming it; a cornucopia of the commons emerges when aggregated individual self-interest of many people adds up to something that multiplies everyone's resources instead of subtracting from what everybody has access to; and the tragedy of the anticommons renders a shared resource worthless by allowing too many interests to exclude others.)

Self-organizing, ad-hoc networks: Populations of users and devices have the power, freedom, and tools to link together technically and socially according to their own inclinations and mutual agreements. In their zeal to punish thieves, the music and motion picture industries are trying to criminalize all file-sharing, and so far they are winning the legislative and judicial battles. That's the legal-political side of it. The techno-political battle is whether widely embraced open standards dominate, a proprietary monopoly emerges, or many competing proprietary standards contend.

Everybody should have the freedom to associate information with places and things, and to access the information others have associated with places and things. When manufacturers find out that consumers are using barcodes and RFID information to access globally-available information about their products and practices, are they going to stand still for that? Will the people at fifth and main have the right and power to read and write information about their neighborhood, or will the owner of a local franchise purchased from the city by a private interest (think about the way cable television operates) dominate? People like myself used to think that "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it," but we're seeing authoritarian governments build their censors into their routers. Is there any better reason to believe that people will continue to have the freedom to read and write to specific parts of the geoweb? Will geoweb information gathered at public expense (such as weather or geographic data) become controlled exclusively by private owners?

What else would you add to this list of fundamental rights? What enablers and roadblocks do you see to the capabilities I've listed and to those you would add?