Cyberspace as Place, and the Tragedy of the Digital Anticommons

117 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2002

See all articles by Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter

King's College London - The Dickson Poon School of Law


Cyberspace was once thought to be the modern equivalent of the Western Frontier, a place, where land was free for the taking, where explorers could roam, and communities could form with their own rules. It was an endless expanse of space: open, free, replete with possibility. This is true no longer. This Article argues that we are enclosing cyberspace, and imposing private property conceptions upon it. As a result, we are creating a digital anti-commons where sub-optimal uses of Internet resources is going to be the norm.

Part I shows why initial discussions of cyberspace as place have mistaken the idea of how we think about cyberspace, with the normative question of how we should regulate cyberspace. It suggests that we can bracket the normative question, and still answer the descriptive question of whether we think of cyberspace as a place.

Part II then examines the lessons of recent cognitive science, and demonstrates the importance of physical metaphors within our cognitive system. It then examines the evidence of our use of a physical metaphor, "cyberspace as place", in understanding online communication environments.

Part III focuses on the unacknowledged, and unrecognized, influence that this metaphor has had on the development of the legal framework for the Internet. It examines tortious, criminal, and constitutional law responses to cyberspace, and concludes that the metaphor of "cyberspace as place" exercises a strong, and unrecognized, influence on the regulatory regimes of cyberspace.

Part IV details the implications of this observation and shows why they are extremely troubling. The conception of "cyberspace as place" leads to the implication that there is property online, and that this property should be privately owned, parceled out, and exploited. Though private ownership of resources of itself is not problematic, it can lead to the opposite of the tragedy of the commons: the tragedy of the anti-commons. Anti-commons property occurs when multiple parties have an effective right to preclude others from using a given resource, and as a result no-one has an effective right of use. Part IV argues that this is precisely where the "cyberspace as place" metaphor leads. We are moving to a digital anti-commons, where no-one will be allowed to access competitors' cyberspace "assets" without some licensing, or other transactionally-expensive (or impossible), permission mechanism. The Article shows how the "cyberspace as place" metaphor leads to undesirable private control of the previously commons-like Internet, and the emergence of the digital anti-commons. As we all come to stake out our little claim in cyberspace, then the commons which is cyberspace is being destroyed.

Keywords: cyberspace regulation, cyberlaw, cognitive science

JEL Classification: E2

Suggested Citation

Hunter, Dan, Cyberspace as Place, and the Tragedy of the Digital Anticommons. Available at SSRN: or

Dan Hunter (Contact Author)

King's College London - The Dickson Poon School of Law ( email )

Somerset House East Wing
London, WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

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