What is public space online?

New York's Gramercy Park is a curious institution: two acres of fenced-in greenspace that is accessible only to those who own the houses surrounding the park. (Non-residents must either stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel or join the Players Club or National Arts Club if they want to visit, and each of these institutions has a limited number of park keys.) Private parks like it are the exception, of course, not the rule: since the days of Frederick Law Olmsted, who campaigned for and designed city parks across North America (Central Park, in New York, and Montreal's Mount Royal Park among them) we have come to expect most of our recreational spaces to be public. Cities and neighbourhoods are routinely rated on both the quantity and quality of their parks, and any suggestion that these services should be cut back always receives violent reactions from taxpayers; playgrounds, too, are public by default.

The near-universality of public parks and playgrounds in our physical spaces makes it all the more striking that the online world contains almost no spaces that are genuinely public. Instead, it is made up almost entirely of spaces that are either overtly or covertly commercial. The latter of these we might term “pseudo-public” spaces, where there is a disconnect between users' perceptions of them as public and their actual private nature.

Before continuing, it would be good to make a clear definition of what is meant by the term public space. To begin with, we might say that a public space is a public service: it does not have to justify its existence by any means other than providing citizens with a place to be. Its status as a public service means that its continued existence is guaranteed: if you move into a neighbourhood with parks and playgrounds, you can expect that they will not be paved over. (The notion of a public service blurs somewhat when we look at services that are considered essential but may be provided by private entities, such as power or telephone service; in these cases, while the government is not providing the service, it does guarantee through regulation that the service will not be discontinued.) Another essential element of public spaces is that they are by default accessible to all: their use is a right that can only be taken away due to misbehaviour, not a privilege that must be bought or earned, and using them involves no special contractual obligations. This also means that people using public spaces do not have to give up any of their other rights, most notably freedom of expression. Finally, it is worth pointing out that public spaces are, by definition, public and not private, and therefore normally free of advertising or other commercial content.

With this definition in hand we can see that few of the online spaces perceived by their users as public are anything of the sort. Perhaps the best example would be Facebook, a site which bills itself as a community and is generally treated as such by its users. It's not hard to see why: it is free to use, and like its competitors it very much feels like “my space” -- users can customize their profiles, organize their own groups and communities and select or even create their own apps (third-party programs that do a variety of things such as games, quizzes and so on.) Facebook has become a focus for civic participation, and users frequently behave as though it were itself a democracy (such as when changes to the Terms of Service were protested in 2009.)

Despite its appearance, though, Facebook is in no way a public space. To begin with, it is owned by a corporation, that is not government regulated, and while there is no direct fee for participating, users pay through being exposed to ads (in the same way that we pay for television.) Moreover, its continued existence is not guaranteed: aside from its contracts with advertisers, there is nothing preventing Facebook from going permanently offline tomorrow. Similarly, to participate in Facebook one must agree to its Terms of Service, which involve giving up rights to privacy, intellectual property, and freedom of expression – and which allow Facebook to terminate a user's account at any time for essentially any reason. (Those terms are also subject to being unilaterally changed by Facebook.) Finally, its dependence on advertising for revenue means that when conflicts arise advertisers will always win out

When viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that nearly everything online that looks like a public space, from Facebook to Hotmail to Google to YouTube, does not meet any reasonable definition of the term. (Perhaps the only exceptions are those sites operated by public broadcasters, such as the CBC or PBS, and donation-funded non-profit organizations such as Wikipedia.) Children's online spaces are, if anything, even less public. MNet's 2005 survey Young Canadians In A Wired World found that the vast majority of sites popular among youth were heavily commercialized, and in the years since that survey was released advertisers have become even more skilful at integrating commercial content into kids' online experiences; for instance, the virtual worlds BarbieGirls and Nicktropolis include brand-related references in the pre-programmed phrases available in their “safe chat” mechanisms.

Considering how attached we are to our offline public spaces, how is it that the absence of public space online has received so little attention? One reason is no doubt due to the ad hoc nature of the Internet: there are no zoning restrictions, not city plans, no directly elected authorities to whom we might appeal. As well, the Internet -- at least once it spread beyond the halls of academe -- has always been commercial: unlike the European and American traditions of a village commons or town square, there is no history of genuinely free space on the Internet. Likely the most significant reason, though, is that so much of the Internet seems free. As noted above, there are few online services for which one pays directly anymore; instead, we pay largely without knowing it, with our attention and our personal data as the currency. Facebook, again, is a good example of what we might call a “commercial commons”: though it is a for-profit enterprise it goes to great lengths to seem like a public space. Google, too, feels like a public service, if not a public space, but it too is beholden to a variety of commercial interests; so too are webmail services such as Hotmail and Gmail.

We get the Internet we deserve, of course, and it's reasonable to say that if no genuinely public equivalents to these sites exist it's because we don't really want them to -- after all, we have a choice to agree to their Terms of Service, which define a space that is unambiguously private. But the fact that these sites create such a successful illusion of being public spaces or services means that people are all that much more likely to be unaware of the implications of their commercial nature. People rightly object if Canada Post changes the services it offers (as when they made the move to “super-boxes” in rural communities), but they may not be aware that Microsoft is under no obligation to continue providing “free” webmail access through Hotmail.

More importantly, we have to face the fact that not everyone who uses these services is an adult. Facebook allows users to agree to its Terms of Service at thirteen -- five years before someone can legally agree to a contract, in most countries -- and that policy is little-enforced: a quarter of youth under twelve in the UK have social networking profiles. Moreover, many sites aimed explicitly at children, from Neopets to Club Penguin, make similar efforts to create a sense of being public spaces and communities. If Gramercy Park had been the model for our municipal parks -- if we had to pay to let our children use them, whether directly in money, indirectly through advertising or data collection, or a mixture of both -- would we stand for it? Or would we demand that our governments provide true public spaces where all our children could play?

For information on how to talk to youth about public space issues, check out the recent book Watch This Space (to which I contributed)