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Whither Netiquette?

There's a famous paper called "The Tragedy of the Commons" -- so famous that referencing it is almost a cliché all by itself. In this paper, economist Garrett Hardin talks about the village commons, a grassy area where sheep graze. The sheep are owned by individuals, but the commons belongs to everyone in the village.

According to Hardin, it's inevitable that one person, motivated by the completely reasonable desire for profit, will put too many sheep on the commons, resulting in overgrazing. This person starts underselling his neighbors, who have the choice of joining him in the abuse of a common resource or going out of business. In the short run a few people maximize their profit, but in the long run the commons is ruined for everyone.

Today, cyberspace is a commons. Many, many people have access to it at little or no direct cost; it's supported by private enterprise and tax dollars. And the many people who pay no per-message charges for email could easily start "overgrazing" the Internet by, for example, sending out huge numbers of messages to huge numbers of users.

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