Community Governance in Digital Commons

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* Article: An Introduction to the Digital Commons: From Common-Pool Resources to Community Governance. Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay and Hervé Le Crosnier.



"This article proposes an introductory analysis of digital resources and commons-based peer production online communities with the framework of the common pool-resources. Trying to go beyond the classic economy dichotomy between physical resources scarcity and informational resources reproducibility, the approach allows to focus not only on the nature of the resources, but mostly on the governance by the communities to produce resources which remain available for all to share and build upon, while avoiding risks of pollution, degradation, underuse or enclosure by the market."


Discussion: how can the Commons approach be applied to global digital resources?

Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay and Hervé Le Crosnier:

"In this article, we tried to match Ostrom’s design principles with some typical examples of digital CBPP. We find that we can use those principles to better understand the way internet communities manage digital resources. As they are addressing the governance of the communities, applying such principles helps getting out of the dilemma pertaining to the very nature of digital resources and preventing to consider them as true CPR because of such differences.

First, scarcity does not affect the reproduction of digital resources. Physical resources are rival and excludable and can be exhausted. By design, digital resources can be reproduced ad libitum, allowing some to consider them as public goods rather than CPR. Digital resources present indeed many differences from the physical resources where CPR has been observed. Digital resources in principle do not have the economic features of the CPR, but the market is reintroducing them artificially, leading to their enclosure and to tragedies of the anticommons.

Second, there are differences of community scale and limits, both in space and time. CPR are long-enduring local communities, while CBPP online communities are not localized physically because of the global nature of the internet, as its history is relatively short. But reviewing concrete experiences of production, maintenance and sharing of such digital CBPP resources shows that, like CPR, they are also subject to pollution, degradation and community dysfunction. If no one volunteers to curate the resource and protect it, it won’t flourish, being it a natural resource or a digital product.

We also find that digital resources are an enduring process. The internet is evolving permanently with new protocols and applications, and digital resources must adapt accordingly to remain useful and accessible. This requires empowering community members to understand the basic principles of openness and the need to nurture and protect resources from privatization. Net neutrality and the end-to-end principle are such basic concepts that one needs to care and protect for the internet and its digital resources to remain CPR, and for the CBPP to exist in the future.

But in this process, that is a very important difference with the localized and small to medium scale CPR communities that pertain to the natural world, which is the main body of the commons research, we need to consider large scale communities, with very loose internal connections except the internet itself. We also are confronting large scale private industries, that commoners need to interact with, the telecommunication operators that manage the physical layer, the search engines and social media platforms that help accessing to information, be it in a market model or defined as CPR and collectively owned as a CBPP.

The impact of the political world, translated by public policy decisions at national or multilateral scale, on the activities of the commoners, the actors of online CBPP communities or digital CPR, needs to be better taken into account. The public domain of resources and usages which are not governed by the market rules, the need for limitations and exceptions to copyright in order to achieve collective objectives as well as private usages, the protection of net neutrality for all actors through law at the multilateral level, and the expansion of CPR as free software or collective information products, ranging from Wikipedia to Open Access to science primary findings, by promotion in school, university or administration, all are global problems that states and multilateral bodies need to address. The community-only approach, which is at the very heart of the internet founder’s ideals (Turner, 2006), is confronting new challenges in this process. A subsidiarity-type of relation needs to be defined between communities and states.

Coordinating internal empowerment through sharing and communities self-determination, and social or political position to protect open access and CBPP of digital resources is a key question for the development of digital resources as CPR, and the existence of self-organised communities to produce, maintain and protect them. This further research may help to create bounds with those working on the natural commons dealing with the extension of the concept to global resources and communities (Ostrom & al, 1999), for example climate change or the commons movement’s concept of Rights of Mother Earth and other global commons." (