Characteristics of Free and Open Infrastructures Needed for Open Online Collaboration

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Source: Free Culture Forum, excerpt [1]


Free and open infrastructure for open online collaboration

In order for open online collaboration (also known as common-base peer production, peer production, and online creation communities, among others) to take place, it is necessary to have some basic infrastructure that allows the aggregation of the collective action online. Individuals (hereinafter “creators”) use this infrastructure to interact and collaboratively create content and works. The infrastructure is made up of a number of components: servers, domain names, online platforms (with communication and collaborative authoring tools), f2f meeting, among others.

There are several models of infrastructure provision, which offer different conditions for creators. Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in enclosures of infrastructure provision by companies, which privately exploit the common value produced by online collaboration communities.

To oppose this trend, we have drafted a series of guiding principles for the provision of free and open infrastructure, based on a public domain approach that aims to promote freedom, transparency and participation in the creation process, and, most importantly, allows creators to control the means of production. It also favours public access to the output (content and works), so that civil society is positioned as a commons provider. What are the guiding principles for free and open infrastructure?

In this context, “infrastructure” and “free and open” are seen as relative concepts, a continuum rather than absolutes. Infrastructure refers to the essentials required to support the main activity that is the goal of the specific open online collaboration (for example, software is infrastructure, except perhaps to software developers). As such, infrastructure may mean different things to different projects. Meanwhile, “free and open” should be considered as a “tending towards” within the spectrum of possible freedoms and openesses, which varies in its position according to the context. At this stage, we consider that the ability to create free and open infrastructure depends on four factors: legal, technical, governance and economic.

Principles of a free and open infrastructure

1. Legal issues: platforms must be based on free or open source software; the services offered must be under an AfferoGPL license; there must be open access (public domain or copyleft licensing) to the materials produced; and there must be data protection and a privacy policy to protect creators.

2. Technical base and architecture that support interaction: this refers to a series of requirements linked to the technical basis of the infrastructure.

- 1. The source code must be available, so that users can see, study and improve the technical details of the infrastructure.

- 2. Interoperability (legal and technical), that is, data must be able to move around different parts of the platform. Interoperability refers not only to personal data portability, but also to project database migration.

- 3. Distributed network infrastructure, that is, infrastructure based on the shared use of physical resources, with each element simultaneously belonging to different parts. Any part should be able to initiate actions from any point within the network, on the basis of equality of communication capacities, or network neutrality. This favors a weakening of central control – or removes the need for it — and ensures that nodes interact as equals with no mediation. In other words, all creators should be able to interact with all other creators without mandatory mediation by some third party. The architecture must be separated into as many levels as possible. Additionally, interaction between the levels must be defined by standards, and should preferably be accessible through programmable interfaces. Where technical solutions for distributed infrastructure are not available and centralized infrastructure is used, governance arrangements should be evaluated on the basis of principles of transparency and accountability to the community of creators. Centralisation must only be used in the service of technical functioning of the network, not for control or profit.

3. Governance issues: Governance refers to transparency, openness and the participation of the community of creators in decision-making processes in relation to infrastructure. This includes ensuring that the community of creators has the opportunity to participate in the decison-making process when there is any major change to the infrastructure. Guaranteeing a transparent and open governance of infrastructure involves several issues:

1. Non-discriminatory participation. This means that everyone can contribute, as long as he or she adheres to the community rules and respects creators’ freedom to use the infrastructure (with the only limits being not harming the infrastructure itself, and using it for the projects it is intended for, as defined by the community).

2. Infrastructure should be transparent for the content or works (nothing should be filtered, added or eliminated) and the management of the infrastructure should not interfere with the content or works (except if they damage the infrastructure). Infrastructure management should not become a source of censorship or prevent free speech or the freedom of association and cooperation.

3. The community of creators should have the opportunity to define the policies and rules that govern its own interaction with the development of content and works on the platform.

4. The body that manages the infrastructure should report to, and act with transparency towards, the community of creators. In addition, there should be direct or representational channels through which to communicate the community’s mandates to the body that manages the infrastructure, and for liaison in general, so that the community can intervene in the decision-making process in regards to the infrastructure. Governance of the infrastructure recognizes the importance of the creators who use it. This does not necessarily imply that the whole community should be actively involved on a regular basis with the body that manages the provision of the infrastructure, or in decision-making linked to infrastructure maintenance. But it does mean that infrastructure governance should follow the priorities of the community and allow the creators some degree of monitoring, dissent and participation in the decision making process, if they wish.

5. Community empowerment through forkability. This means guaranteeing the right to leave, and the right to relocate the activity, if the community, or a part of it, chooses to develop the project in a different direction or decides on other infrastructure options.

6. A free and open infrastructure is preferably owned by the users who create and produce value, rather than by an external service provider.

4. Economic issues: The economic value generated through open collaboration using the infrastructure should be acknowledged, and should be used to benefit the activities of the community, and the community of creators as a whole. The revenue should not stop collaboration or the peer-to-peer dynamics of the community, or should interfere in them as little as possible." (


==The sustainability of online infrastructure. General conditions and strategic directions==:

The sustainability of infrastructure (of any type) has always been a challenging and difficult issue, and it is further complicated by the fact that infrastructure for open online collaboration is not cheap, particularly when it is to be used on a mass scale. It requires resources (hardware, bandwidth, energy) and people to maintain/develop it.

Not all of these resources can (or should) be obtained strictly on a donation / volunteer basis. Therefore, there needs to be a mechanism that can support some paid/professional work and other costs involved at the infrastructure level, without negatively affecting the collaboration that takes place on this infrastructure.

The most appropriate approach would seem to involve thinking in terms of hybrid solutions and community ecosystems for the sustainability of open online collaboration.

It is also worth emphasising that there is not ONE model; there is no single sustainable model solution for all open collaboration projects (and their typology of costs), in all their stages. Instead, sustainability might be seen as a non-static and therefore somewhat fluid issue. Sustainable solutions for projects change and evolve depending on the typology of costs of each activity and the scale of infrastructure and community. As technology develops and communities grow and evolve, the infrastructure must evolve with them.

When designing a sustainability plan, it is necessary to take the context into account. This can mean considering the effects and comparing the business models of media corporations to the business models of a free and open online infrastructure. For example, projects based on “free as in beer” are becoming tricky, as Google now provides everything from source code repost to email for free.

Another relevant aspect to consider is that (independently of the type of provider), there is a tendency towards concentration on the Internet. Only few projects are able to become very big and attain sustainability (such as Wikipedia), while the majority remain small. This is linked to the fact that networks increase in value when more people use them. In this regard, it might be useful to think in terms of the ecosystems of projects, or federations of activities, in order to benefit from the network effects.

Apart from collective sustainability in terms of the infrastructure itself, individual creators participating in open collaboration are also very important. There is the need to address how they can earn income from the value they create. When considering the sustainability of open collaborations, individual sources of sustainability also have to be considered. One possible approach that can be explored in terms of sustainability for individual creators is self-organised production (along the lines of social economy and cooperatives). In this sense, focusing on free and open infrastructure and its governance and sustainability is a way of addressing the issues of access and control over the means of production, and of power (decision-making) over the value generated by creators by using it." (