The Tragedy of the Communications Commons

In retrospect, the internet had been dominated by free and interoperable communications standards for an unexpectedly long time. But there has been a very powerful and very successful trend over the last years to destroy these commons. The models, for clarification:

Free, open and standardized. A standard protocol is defined by which an application can interface to handle voice, text, video or other communication. Users select an application of their choice and, because it plays nicely with an interoperable standard, they can communicate with users of different applications without interference. Think; email, irc, jabber/xmpp.

Proprietary. The communication protocol is closed and/or restricted by licensing. Users are funneled into a proprietary application if they want to be allowed to communicate over this standard. Reverse engineered implementations sometimes crop up but are typically rendered useless by changes in the protocol standard or by legal takedowns.

To put it in an analogy, what is happening digitally is akin to private interests plundering public resources to establish their own dominance. Imagine the interstate highway system being phased out in a takeover by a private highway system. People begin to use it electively because it is flashier and perhaps more convenient, but at the end of the day, everybody is now forced to drive only Ford vehicles (for example) as no other vehicle type is [allowed to be] compatible with this new road system.

A unique problem surrounding the hostile takeover of proprietary standards involves their leveraging of social intertia in order to softly enforce the usage of their [dis]services. The decision to use a communication tool, to a layuser, often takes the form of "that is where all my friends are, so that is what I'm going to use.". The problem is therefore not necessarily technical in nature. It does not matter if a free and user-respecting solution is as featureful (or even more featureful), users will tend to coleasce around what is already established and dominant. And so the platform which is lucky enough to have been the "first" will always win out no matter how malacious it may be.

For a number of years, I had run a VoIP instance using Mumble in which all of my colleagues were happy to partake. But something changed circa 2016. A period of silence on the instance and when I next tried gathering on voicechat with my colleagues they were no longer interested in using Mumble. Not only passively dissinterested, as one might imagine an indifferent party to be, but active, vitriolic hatred towards this thing that we once shared. They discovered the new [dis]service Discord.

Voice chat: another once-free area of the internet now gobbled up by software which is designed to mistreat its users.