Problem number two: key examples of commons are not at all commons.
Let's start with the relatively mundane, the city street.
Anyone who lives in places like Manhattan or San Francisco knows that the simultaneous access of the street and sidewalk to pedestrians, cyclists, and cars is the stuff of extreme tension, highly charged emotions, and in more than a few cases, near-death experiences. We have claims that cars don't care whether they hit cyclists. That cyclists think that traffic laws don't apply to them. That cyclists think that the sidewalk belongs to them and pedestrians should just get out of the way. Newspaper articles are written. Studies are commissioned. City meetings erupt in shouting matches.
Add to that the battle over sidewalk rights between restaurants that would like to offer outdoor seating and pedestrians and cyclists who would like to have access to the entire sidewalk.
Then we have the tourists vs residents struggle in popular vacation destinations with densely packed streets and buildings. This is an issue more common in Europe than the US, but also erupts in the city centers of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
Congestion charges. Bus lanes. Alternating access based on even-or-odd initial digit of vehicle license plate number. Closing sections of cities entirely to vehicular traffic.
City streets and sidewalks were nominally common thoroughfares. Actions by companies and individuals resulted in de facto claims over portions of these nominal commons. Governments have, and continue, to impose de jure restrictions on these areas in response.
But these issues are rather small compared to canals, waterways, and major shipping lanes.
There are several choke points in international shipping lanes that prove that these anything but commons.
Many of these choke points were historically controlled by the British Empire, which obtained them through military action. The British Empire took Gibraltar from Spain to control access between the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, the British seized various islands such as Rhodes, Crete, and Cyprus at various times. In the center, Malta. There was no doubt that Britain would use this network to control the Mediterranean at the expense of Spain, Russia, France, the Ottoman Empire, various Italian states. They also conquered Egypt in 1882 to gain control of the Suez Canal. At the other end of the Red Sea was the British colony of Aden. Control of the Persian Gulf was obtained by making today's Oman and UAE colonies.
The Cape Colony was taken from the Netherlands. Zanzibar, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, Bahamas, Barbados, Orkney. The British Empire made sure they controlled most of the world's major shipping channels. Like Gibraltar from Spain and Cape Colony from the Netherlands, other locations were taken from the Portuguese and French.
These were not commons. They were British toll booths, and they would be closed to anyone with whom they had a problem.
The British closed the Suez Canal to Russia during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, forcing Russia to send its ships around Africa. The Suez was again closed in World War 1, closed to vessels of all nations not allied with Britain.
But the British also were making sure that they controlled the access to the world's oceans to their European rivals. The Germans had no doubt that they were at a severe military and economic disadvantage due to the ability of the British to trap German vessels by closing the north and south exits of the North Sea. Russia knew this as well.
At the same time, the British and other European powers used military force to ensure that certain waterways be declared international passages. The Turks were not, and are not, very pleased that the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara are international waterways rather than their own internal affairs. It was the decline of Danish and Swedish power that made the passage between the Baltic and North Seas open to international transport. In practical terms, this meant that the British had access to Germany and Russia (this was when the German Reich included the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and the Russian Empire controlled the east).
The UK, US, and France continue to control key islands in the world's oceans, providing them with exclusionary zones that are huge in comparison to the tiny islands that create these zones under international law. They also can serve as bases for military action if needed.
There was one key location that the British did not control: the Panama Canal. This seaway was also created by military action and controlled by military force. Panama was a province of Colombia, which was not proving cooperative enough to American wishes to create the canal. So the US engineered a war of secession of Panama from Colombia. US warships blockaded Colombia from sending troops into Panama (there was no road access and there remains no road access). The result was American control of the canal for nearly a century (many desired more) and Panama became a de facto colony of the United States.
After World War 2, the unwilling British and French colonial empires were collapsing and a newly empowered Egypt demanded control of the Suez Canal, ultimately nationalizing it. Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, while the USSR threatened military action against the UK and France. The US opposed the war and cut off the oil supplies of the UK and France, and supported Egyptian nationalization, and negotiated reopening of the canal. US support for Egypt's authoritarian government has cost billions of dollars, and continues to cost billions of dollars.
Now with the melting of the arctic ice we have additional battles over access to seaways. Canada does not particularly want the maze of passes through its Arctic Archipelago to be declared an international seaway. There is much concern regarding the extent to which Russia will claim exclusionary authority over the Northeast Passage.
But overall, the point is that key locations of international waters have at best been a tollbooth open to all who can pay (passage through the Panama Canal averages $54,000). But that is a rather recent system. Generally, they have been key areas for military action and economic blockades.
This article barely skirts the major problem with the system being discussed: financing.
This is done two ways. First, by more or less ignoring the problem. Second, by mischaracterization of critical geographical regions as "commons" when they are anything but.
The first problem is related to a major concern about the information economy and technology industry in general: how are people going to earn a living?
This article assumes that people have other sources of income that allow them to survive while devoting their efforts to the activities described.
To put things in 20th century terms rather than modern tech-jargon, we're talking about people having hobbies. Hobbies that are intended to be pro-social sharing of information or to improve the capacity of others to share information, but hobbies.
Again, to return to the 20th century, most people with hobbies wanted to share their knowledge and interests with other people who were interested in the same. People went through tremendous efforts to meet those with shared interests - traveling hundreds of miles to go to conventions or specialty stores to buy products, volunteering to organize these conventions, creating publications to distribute information.
My friends and I, while in high school around 1990 and very interested in the game Warhammer regularly begged our parents to take us to shops an hour or two away so we could buy our collectibles. When the company that made our Warhammer miniatures opened a store in our metro region, we had to go. It took us a ride to the train station, two hours on commuter rail, about half an hour on the subway, another half an hour on a ferry, a bus ride accidentally in the wrong direction, and finally a taxi with a hood that kept popping open, with the result that we barely made it to the shop before it closed.
We waited all year for the annual sci-fi and fantasy convention to come to the local university. It was a highlight of our young lives.
What the internet has done is made it tremendously easier to connect with people with shared interest and to be a producer of information about those shared interests.
This was already happening in the late 20th centuries. When printing became cheaper, the quality and availability of magazines and catalogs improved from lines of text and drawings to photographs on glossy paper. You could afford to start your own publication. Long distance telephone rates went down so calling another area code was a safe thing to do. Population density increased making it easier to find like-minded people.
But we are still dealing in a system where people are spending time and money and not earning. Yes, there were some who made the leap from fan to store owner, created their own successful product, and the like.
This is also something that the internet has made much easier to do as well.
But we are still dealing with "some" people. The example I've seen tossed about is that Kodak employed over 100,000 people at its peak. Instagram employed 13 when it was bought.
So we have the presumption that people will get their income elsewhere. They will be academic offshoots. In fact, they'd better be academic offshoots because the proportion of PhDs granted vastly exceeds the academic job pool like never before, and no sign of improvement.
Maybe a prize economy. That works for the winner. Unless there are prizes for others who tried, this system doesn't work. It would be as if only the MVP got paid in a professional sport.
Then we have the enlightened-corporation innovation section. This can work for some, for a while. Xerox Park and Bell Labs were good examples. Some companies these days give their employees a certain amount of time to work on whatever they think is appropriate.
But Xerox and Bell shut down or spun-off their R&D facilities due to cost pressure. And we still have the problem that modern tech companies directly employ many fewer people than companies like Xerox or Bell did.
Wikipedia depends on people being so interested in something that they will write about it for free. I've done a little bit. But I bet if you did a study on who is writing about topics on Wikipedia, or working on similar open-contribution systems, you won't find the real experts being involved.
You will find the economy-of-the-few again. Wikipedia and other non-profits employ key personnel to maintain the system. Wealthy individuals and organizations may hire people to manage their public appearance. Or some may fund some people to work on something they find important. But this is just how hobbies work for rich people - you have an agent scouting out art for your collection rather than doing it yourself.
So we are left with a genuine problem with how to pay more than a few people within such a system, directly or indirectly, that reflects the core concern about the very nature of employment in a world with both vastly smaller companies and vastly more people with access to those few jobs. As they say, not everyone has the capacity to be an entrepreneur. And even fewer have the capacity to provide their time and money toward the common good without some sort of reasonably stable employment.
So there's our first problem.