David Heinemeier Hansson

March 8, 2021

The enclosure of internet commons

In Less Is More, Jason Hickel provides a brief history of capitalism from the year circa 1500 onward, which includes an account of the European enclosure movement. Where formerly public commons, like forest, streams, meadows, and land of all types, were turned into private property with titles and deeds for the lords to exploit. Ending the brief reprieve from circa 1350 forward, following the plague, when commoners in Europe were able to dramatically raise their standards of living, in part by living off common land.

This made me think of the internet.

When I started working with the internet in 1995, it truly did feel like a commons. You were free to put up your own site, on your own server, whether your purpose was business, art, or simply being there. This glorious phase of freedom unfortunately did not even last the 150 years that Hickel examined between the plague and the capitalist acceleration of the European enclosure movement, but rather a brief 15 or so. Let's call it 1995-2010: The time when the internet had enough mainstream interest and presence to be a big factor for a lot of people, but before it had been majorly enclosed by Big Tech and the dominant platforms.

That's the time Big Tech companies like Apple would like you to forget about. Those glorious fifteen years where most software flowed freely and unencumbered across an unenclosed internet, directly from makers to customers. And they've been surprisingly successful at this attempt to erase history. In part because we continue to insist that the general-purpose computers we all carry in our pockets are "phones".

This misnomer, that the computer I carry in my pocket should be summarized by the feature most of us use the least, has allowed Apple the rhetorical opening to compare today's mobile software distribution to that of feature phones in the early to mid 2000s. An indeed fully-enclosed ecosystem where ringtone and snake-game makers were forced to hand over even more egregious percentages of their sales under the thumbs of Verizon and AT&T.

But a modern day iPhone carries far more of a resemblance to a Mac from 2005 than any feature phone of that year. That's why these smartphones have conquered the earth! They gave us the power of a general-purpose computer at the size of a mobile phone. Not because they share some lineage with T9 texting or being able to make wireless phone calls.

And in 2005, software for the Mac was readily sold over the internet. Whether that software came as native packages to be installed or whether it was software-as-a-service delivered through a browser.

Anyway, it's the success of this technological leap of shrinking our internet-capable desktop and laptop computers into a pocket format that paved the way for the internet enclosure movement. Playing the largest role in ending the glorious fifteen years of commons that went before it.

When we view our growing trouble with the monopolist abuses from app stores through this historical lens, things start to make more sense. Apple and Google are simply acting like the lords that in the early capitalist era decided that what used to be free or at least cheap –– distributing software over the internet –– now suddenly needed to be taxed at 30%. Such that the already grotesque capitalist accumulation they had managed – to the literal tune of trillions! – could continue to grow. Or as Hickel calls it: a fix.

This naturally caused the commoners, app developers, to become squeezed in the process. To either run a third faster, cap the capacity to grown by a third, or turn to other unsavory business models, like loading up their apps with ads and trackers, such that they could sell privacy, attention, and data instead of selling software.

It's particularly ironic that it should be Apple that has lead both this enclosure movement and the specific pivot to ad-infested software. Given how they were themselves were able to escape Microsoft's dominance of the 90s due to the rise of the cross-platform internet, and because they pride themselves on caring oh-so-much about privacy in advertisement (and certain aspects of their platform design).

To be fair, the enclosure of the internet commons isn't entirely down to Apple (and Google). But they are a very large part of the story. Just like Facebook managed to enclose the social networks that had long existed outside of their walls with blogs, newsletters, rss, irc, and other open pastures. Or Google's other enclosure project that eventually turned internet search from a mission to find the best results on the internet to a for-sale catalogue of ads and Google's own properties.

Facebook and Apple and Google might bicker amongst themselves from time to time, just like I'm sure the lords of the enclosure movement did back in the 1600s and 1700s, but in their essence, they're more alike than they are different. Fighting not over whether or not to enclose the internet commons, but about who gets to do it, and what portion of the spoils should go to which set of shareholders.

This is why we need to keep zooming out in the fight for the internet commons. See it as part of a broader struggle for an internet free of gatekeepers and enclosure. Apple's 30% tax on the distribution of software is perhaps the most directly obvious parallel to the old ways of enclosure, though, and thus serve as a useful bulkhead against these closed or closing gates.

But it's part of the same struggle that wins when people dump Twitter for a newsletter or Facebook for a podcast. Open pastures on internet commons, not enclosed or captured by any one company.

Keep poaching.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.