Related Concepts

To facilitate our understanding of openness, it is helpful to consider it in light of other related terms. There is a useful typology of goods: pure public, commons, club and private goods (see Table 2). A public good, or collective consumptive good, was originally defined as a good that is non-rivalrous (also known as non-subtractable or non-depletable). These are goods where “each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtraction from any other individual’s consumption of that good” (Samuelson, 1954). A pure public good is one that is non-excludable, that is, that it is impossible to exclude anyone from using or consuming these goods (they are available to all). Club goods (collective or artificially-scarce goods) are non-rivalrous and excludable.


Non-rivalrous Rivalrous (subtractable)
Non-excludable (public goods) Pure Public Goods Radio, Television, Air, National Defence, Useful knowledge Common Goods (Common-pool resources) Water, Fish, Libraries; subject to the tragedy of the commons
Excludable Toll or Club Goods Bridges, Web-sites, Software, Journal subscriptions, Wireless Spectrum, Internet backbone Private Goods Computers, cars, mobile phones

Typology of goods: modified from Introduction: Hess, C. and E. Ostrom (2007), pg. 9


Private goods on the other hand are rivalrous and excludable; not only can people be excluded from using them, but one person’s use subtracts from others using that good. A commons-based good is rivalrous and non-excludable and is the type of good upon which the tragedy of the commons is based (Hardin, 1968). Given this typology, one can see how different aspects of technology, from the Internet backbone and wireless spectrum to the content, have different attributes with respect to their rivalrousness and excludability.

To make this discussion more concrete, we consider here different types of goods that make up the core of the digital environment of openness: the communications infrastructure (both the Internet and mobile phone networks), physical devices and digital content.

  1. Internet infrastructure: The Internet backbone, for example, currently can be viewed as rivalrous since there is limited access and/or congestion due to limited bandwidth in developing countries as well as in the rural and remote areas of both developed and developing countries. Given recent technological advancements, however, this characteristic of the backbone can and should change. For example, as bandwidth increases Internet connectivity should move from rivalrous to non-rivalrous, thus changing the fundamental context of crucial social policy questions (net neutrality, for example, is predicated on the assumption that the backbone be maintained as a commons to minimize the deleterious effects of broadband access, which is discussed further in Section 4 of this paper). In this same way, the wireless spectrum which was once rivalrous is now effectively non-rivalrous with the introduction of smart hand-held devices that can differentiate between signals on the same frequency. Of course, this does not address the fact that geographic distribution of access will not grow evenly, it will favour urban and more economically successful areas both between and within countries and contexts.
  2. Physical devices: Physical devices are generally seen as private goods – rivalrous and excludable. Sometimes, however, they are provided as a collective good (telecentres, public access points) so that people can use them to access the Internet. The development of physical goods also has the quality of being, in general, fairly expensive such that it is only through market (or state) based production mechanisms that they can be developed and produced. As the cost of these devices falls, or is mitigated through public subsidies, these devices will become increasingly non-excludable.
  3. Digital content: As mentioned, the difference between the access to technologies and digital content is one of different constraints. Ideas and knowledge expressed digitally are non-rivalrous. They also have a few other important qualities. First, the production of many types of information and knowledge do not necessarily require great capital input that can generally only be accumulated through market or state-based mechanisms. Second, the spread of ideas and knowledge can generate positive externalities. Given the non-rivalrous nature and these positive externalities, it becomes easier to argue that such goods should be delivered in an “open” rather than more exclusive, proprietary manner. Such an approach would avoid the tragedy of the “anticommons” – which is the underuse of this knowledge (Hess & Ostrom, 2007). Note that effectively universal access would arguably move content from the excludable to the non-excludable.

In effect, our notion of openness may be expressed as a shift of certain goods from excludable to non-excludable or making certain private goods (e.g., mobiles) so ubiquitous that they are effectively non-excludable. These would be goods (ICTs and content) that bring both direct human development benefits and maximize positive externalities.

The different characteristics (rivalrous and non-rivalrous) of the different components of ICTs (infrastructure, devices and content) imply that different social policy solutions and institutional arrangements are required to deal with these different components. A central consideration is what is the most appropriate form of producing, delivering and managing different goods in different contexts in order to maximise the public value derived from that good? This question is one that is commonly asked of new technological inventions that arguably supply positive externalities through increased distribution, but that will potentially be underprovided by the market, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid. For example, many governments argue that access to the Internet is such a good – and thus provision is augmented through publically subsidized public access points (e.g., telecentres, computers in schools) to maximise the social benefit. Whether or not the state should have a role in supplying these goods depends, however, not just on the good, but also on the local context, including the capacity of the state providing the good.

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