The Success of the Commons
August 16, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

There is a park in downtown Boston known as the Boston Common. It dates from 1634, when it was purchased from the first European settler in Boston by the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Members of the colony were allowed to graze their cows there, but that only lasted two years, because people brought so many cows to make use of what appeared to be a “free” resource that they overgrazed it. This is a real-life example of what is known in economics and environmental studies as the “tragedy of the commons.”

Some people use the tragedy of the commons to argue that community ownership cannot work, that all resources need to be owned by someone, for their own protection. But that argument is not only simplistic, it’s ignorant. There are, in fact, many examples of successful common ownership, including the grazing lands of the precolonial Masai in East Africa, the Alpine Common of 500 years ago, and the lobster fishery of Maine, which continues to this day. This video of Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom, “Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons,” explains how common ownership is alive and well. People usually have the foresight to protect resources and will often organize themselves to do so. 

I have been thinking about common ownership lately as we all prepare for National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM) in October. The theme of this year’s NCSAM is “Our Shared Responsibility” — a reminder that the internet is something we all own in common. When you are out for a walk in your neighborhood, you probably pick up bits of litter and take note of safety hazards so you can report them. Your cyber neighborhood depends on the same kind of individual care in order to stay healthy. 

There are people who refuse to share in any responsibility for this resource. Rumormongers, retailers of fake news, spammers, scammers, and criminals are cyber freeloaders, even more dangerous to the health of the internet than the Boston colonists who brought more than their share of cows to overgraze the Common. It takes conscious, responsible behavior by the rest of us to keep cyberspace safe and healthy. We all need to keep our software up to date, to stay alert to hazards, to refuse to participate in forwarding rumors, to create effective passwords and change them regularly, to avoid sketchy websites, and to recognize suspicious activities. 

Just doing that much will make you a responsible user of this great resource. But if you want to do more, StaySafeOnline.org offers a page of suggestions for becoming an NCSAM Champion — offering activities you can try in social media, at home, at work or school, and in your community. October may still be weeks away when you read this, but you can start preparing now.

As to the fate of common ownership, ultimately the Boston Common became a success story. In 1636, the grazers honored a limit of 70 cows. The park recovered, and residents continued to use it for grazing until 1830, when grazing was outlawed. Today, nearly 400 years after its original purchase, Boston Common remains owned in common by the citizens of Boston and, as the site of many city activities, including outdoor concerts, public demonstrations, First Night fireworks, and picnics, it is one of the city’s top attractions.