The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report

By Green, Marybeth | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report

Green, Marybeth, Quarterly Review of Distance Education

The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report, by Nancy Kranich. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 2004. 58 pages.

An assignment in a course I once taught for Texas teachers preparing for the Master Technology Teacher exam asked the teachers to envision how technology would change in the next five years. Their answers invariably imagined a future in which technology tools became smaller and more powerful and information became vastly more accessible. As one student observed:

The most important tool in the classroom will be a computer connected to the Internet. Resources will continue to grow and these resources will provide more students with more opportunities.

Kranich's The Information Commons, a Public Policy Report, shares this vision and conceptualizes a future in which information resources are freely available and communally managed in a shared space known as the "information commons." Kranich, former president of the American Library Association, prepared this report for The Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP), part of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law. This easy-toread 58-page monograph provides a look into a new movement that challenges the policies and politics associated with the management of information and communication in the twentyfirst century. As Kranich asserts, "For democracy to flourish, citizens need free and open access to information. In today's digital age, this means access to information online." In a digital world facing growing copyright and licensing restrictions, restrictive technologies, and media consolidation, "citizens must have optimal opportunities to acquire and exchange information."

In a paper prepared for The Office of Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association, Kranich (2003) defines information commons:

Information commons ensure open access to ideas and the opportunity to use them. These commons are characterized by values and laws, organizations, physical and communication infrastructures, resources, and social practices that promote sharing, community, and freedom of information. They encourage people to learn, think, and participate in democratic discourse, fundamental to ensuring an informed and active citizenry. In short, information commons are essential to democracy. (Kranich, 2003, p. 1)

The concept of information commons is derived from historically shared spaces such as the public commons in England-pieces of land that were publicly available to the community. In modern times, public commons could be considered to be city parks, beaches or libraries. This discussion, however, applies the concept not to physical spaces, but virtual spaces where information and ideas are exchanged.

Kranich divides this discussion into five main parts: (1) an Executive summary, (2) Introduction; (3) Opportunities and Challenges of the Information Age, (4) The Emerging Information Commons and (5) The Future of the Information Commons.


This section opens with a survey of the evolution of the information age viewed through the lens of public interest. It traces the evolution of technologies and the parallel rise of governmental regulation of the dissemination of information as embodied in the Communications Act of 1934. Deregulation in the latter part of the century, however, triggered the phenomenon of media consolidation, whereby a few media conglomerates control a vast variety of delivery systems of information. Thus, while 50 companies controlled Americans' access to television, magazines, and newspapers in the 1980s, today that number has dwindled to only 10 companies. Kranich asserts that media consolidation reduces diversity and constricts access to the free flow of information and ideas. Even information access on the World Wide Web is compromised through the architecture of search engines and Web portals that make it much more difficult to find that content that is independently created and freely available. …

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