Digital Commons as Drivers of Sovereignty
* Article: Barbed wire on the Internet prairie: against new enclosures, digital commons as drivers of sovereignty.
Source: The article has been written by the team of Henri Verdier ('Digital Ambassador for France' ambassadeur du numérique) amongst whom Matti Schneider et Benjamin Pajot, with the aim of informing policy making by the French government.
Summary, from diplomatie.gouv.fr:
"The “digital commons” – which, like their physical counterparts (forests, groundwater, fish stocks, etc.) are resources which are managed collectively – refer to digital assets born out of information commons and the movement for free software which emerged in the late 1980s (GNU/Linux) and started to develop rapidly with the advent of the Internet in the 2000s (Wikipedia, Mozilla, OpenStreetMap, etc.).
While the Internet may originally have been seen as a “global commons”, the creation of “sovereign” networks by certain authoritarian regimes have led to its fragmentation, whereas the commodification of digital activity and the boom of monopolistic players pursuing lucrative ends led to new forms of “enclosures” comparable to those that transformed England's agrarian system between the 16th and 18th centuries1. By exploiting data from captive users, these monopolistic players have thus reintroduced “exclusivity” and “rivalry” in accessing the digital assets they produce, and created barriers to innovation detrimental to the creation of new value.
However, because they preserve a collective control of data and their use, digital commons indirectly challenge the hegemonic strategies of the major platforms. As a result, they constitute a significant lever for implementing multilateral governance – in the sense of mutual and mutually accepted constraints – of our data and the tools that use it, and to recover part of our digital sovereignty, in an open and non-hegemonic sense. It is therefore not only necessary to protect and strengthen the sustainability of existing digital commons, but also to encourage and support the creation of new commons.
Insofar as the development of digital commons is relatively absent from sovereignty policies at the European level, it is necessary to identify the resources likely to be jointly managed and exploited, while raising awareness among our partners, particularly European ones, of the strategic dimension of digital commons, in order to mobilize them accordingly.
The purpose of this article is therefore not to define the scope of digital commons in a technical, economic or political perspective, but rather to reflect on their strategic potential for Europe, within a digital world dominated by private monopolistic players, and driven by the structuring rivalry between China and the United States." (https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/barbed_wire_on_the_internet_prairie_cle0fd99a.pdf?)
Commons as levers for sovereignty and promotion of our values
"Regaining sovereignty requires the production of one’s own data. But it also requires preserving access to data and value creation, where necessary through adequate free licences, which can facilitate reuse for the benefit of the many and not just for the exclusive use of the hegemonic players. Reinforcing this sovereignty for the benefit of commons obviously means rebalancing powers through an ambitious industrial technological policy as supported by France and the new European Commission. However, the management of the commons, which are shared, assumed and supervised by communities ensuring compliance with the rules they have imposed on themselves, allows the preservation of both personal user data (which would no longer be recovered in exchange for the “free” service, unless the community expressly decides otherwise) and access to the resources created. By guaranteeing collective control of data and their commercialization, digital commons avoid being exclusively dependent on the major platforms and their capture strategies. Therefore, these commons indirectly challenge the hegemony of monopolistic players and constitute a significant lever for recovering collective sovereignty over our data and tools that use them. While initial efforts in certain strategic sectors have been encouraging, promoting digital commons implies a dedicated policy if it is to be effective.
Furthermore, in an innovation-based economy, which requires combining accessibility to resources and the circulation of ideas, openness is a central value; it is the best guarantor of continuous innovation, much more than monopolistic projects and enclosures, but also than protectionism (taxes and subsidies). From this perspective, digital commons are a means of favouring innovation, to the detriment of position revenues established by monopolistic actors. Supporting the commons would stimulate the diffusion of knowledge and thus innovation, while enabling users to create “sovereign” alternatives (independent of big players’ specific interests).
This logic of commons is perfectly aligned with the values and vision of the digital space defended by France and promoted to our European partners and beyond: a safe, open, unique and neutral space. In addition, because they directly defend a model and priorities which are also those of the EU (preserving general interest, fair competition, net neutrality, personal data protection, environmental sustainability, etc.), digital commons should also become one of the pillars of a European sovereignty policy, from which they have so far been absent."
As Valérie Peugeot puts it, there are at least three reasons for creating greater convergence between public authorities and [digital] commons:
“convergence around a stated objectives – both are expected to contribute to pursuing public interest;
a theoretical realism – the commons don’t have an all-encompassing aspiration to respond to all collective needs and are not intended to fall within the field of democratic delegation;
political pragmatism – the commons do not have enough political power to constitute a strong alternative to the excesses of capitalism”.
These three dimensions should encourage us to strengthen the coordination between public action and digital commons. As the guarantor of preserving general interest and public resources, the State has a role to play, all the more when it is a contributor and a member of a commons’community because of investments (financial, material and/or human) that it would have made. This role as a safeguard or even as a facilitator is essential to keep the hope of seeing the emergence of an alternative to the products of monopolistic actors. The State has proven this in the past, particularly by supporting the “le.taxi” initiative, which “limits Uber’s hegemony in France”. The issue is therefore also to support a normative framework favouring the sustainability of the commons: Net neutrality, which ensures equal treatment of all data flows on the network; support for innovation; open data in public and general interest domains20; reappropriation of public data by competent authorities21; reasonable management of digital resources for ecological ends, etc. Such principles of digital governance must be defended, not only by France, but collectively at the European level.
Beyond this, collection of data by and for users often serves, in the end, public authorities; such projects can be good investments at low cost and with non-negligible economic benefits. By having it done or by letting it be done, public authorities saves resources while demonstrating their confidence in their citizens, who are all the more inclined to serve the general interest when they have the necessary autonomy to do so. Direct examples of this include OpenFisca and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) which are developed and optimised by their respective communities, are now points of reference in France and worldwide respectively. As a consequence, digital commons offer an opportunity to set out a new social contract with user communities: co-construction enables the comeback of public authorities in a new role, as guarantor and facilitator of the emancipation of the individual."