Property and Commons in Internet Governance

28 Pages Posted: 2 May 2011

See all articles by Milton Mueller

Milton Mueller

Georgia Institute of Technology

Date Written: October 1, 2007


This paper re-examines the property-commons dichotomy as it applies to Internet governance. Its main point is that commons and property are not mutually exclusive, totalizing principles for economic organization, but merely different methods of organizing access to resources. These two methods can and often do co-exist, and are often interdependent and mutually reinforcing. As an extension of this approach, the paper pays careful attention to the specific political economy factors that sustain or advance commons-like arrangements in telecommunications and Internet governance. Using four case studies, it finds that "the commons" as an institutional option is rarely implemented as the product of communitarian compacts or a sharing ethic. It is more likely to be an outcome of interest group contention. A commons is a way for an alliance of non-dominant actors to "neutralize" a strategic resource that is, or might be, controlled by a dominant actor.

The paper begins with a conceptual discussion of commons and exclusive property in informational and network goods. Next, the paper examines four case studies involving the interaction of commons and private property. The first case is about equal access arrangements in long distance telephony in the U.S.; the next is about the Internet protocols and the end-to-end principle; the third is about network neutrality; the last is about domain names and IP address governance. Three of these four case studies were selected because they cover the three fundamental areas where policy issues related to exclusive rights might arise in Internet governance.

Keywords: property rights, commons, Internet governance, economic institutions, network neutrality, telecommunications policy

JEL Classification: K00, O34, P16, P48

Suggested Citation

Mueller, Milton, Property and Commons in Internet Governance (October 1, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

Milton Mueller (Contact Author)

Georgia Institute of Technology ( email )

School of Public Policy
Atlanta, GA 30332
United States
404-385-4281 (Phone)


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