The Shift from Open Platforms to Digital Commons

Universitat de Oberta Catalunya -- Open University of Catalonia -- just published the following essay of mine as part of its "Open Thoughts" series.  The UOC blog explores the benefits and limitations of various forms of peer production: well worth a look!

From open access platforms to managed digital commons: that is one of the chief challenges that network-based peer production must meet if we are going to unleash the enormous value that distributed, autonomous production can create.

The open platform delusion
We are accustomed to regarding open platforms as synonymous with greater freedom and innovation. But as we have seen with the rise of Google, Facebook and other tech giants, open platforms that are dominated by large corporations are only “free” within the boundaries of market norms and the given business models. Yes, open platforms provide many valuable services at no (monetary) cost to users. But when some good or service is offered for at no cost, it really means that the user is the product. In this case, our personal data, attention, social attitudes lifestyle behavior, and even our digital identities, are the commodity that platform owners are seeking to “own.”

In this sense, many open platforms are not so benign. Many of them are techno-economic fortresses, bolstered by the structural dynamics of the “power law,” which enable dominant corporate players to monopolize and monetize a given sector of online activity. Market power based on such platforms can then be used to carry out surveillance of users’ lives; erect barriers to open interoperability and sharing, sometimes in anticompetitive ways; and quietly manipulate the content and “experience” that users may have on such platforms.

Such outcomes on “open platforms” should not be entirely surprising; they represent the familiar quest of capitalist markets to engineer the acquisition of exclusive assets and monetize them. The quarry in this case is our consciousness, creativity and culture. The more forward-looking segments of capital realize that “owning a platform” (with stipulated terms of participation) can be far more lucrative than owning exclusive intellectual property rights for content.

So for those of us who care about freedom in an elemental human and civic sense — beyond the narrow mercantilist “freedoms” offered by capitalist markets — the critical question is how to preserve certain inalienable human freedoms and shared cultural spaces. Can our free speech, freedom of association and freedom to interconnect with each other and innovate flourish if the dominant network venues must first satisfy the demands of investors, corporate boards and market metrics?

If we are serious about protecting human freedoms that have a life beyond markets, I believe we must begin to develop new modes of “platform co-operativism” that go beyond standard forms of “private” corporate control. We need to pioneer technical, organizational and financial forms that enable users to mutualize the benefits of their own online sharing. We must be able to avoid the coerced and undisclosed surrender of personal information and digital identity to third-parties who may or may not be reliable stewards of such information.

There are other reasons to move to commons-based platforms. As David P. Reed showed in a seminal 1999 paper,1 the value generated by networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model based on “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of viewers), to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).

But by far the most valuable networks are those that facilitate group affiliations to pursue shared goals. (I call such groups commons). Reed found that the value of “group forming networks,” in which people have the tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” to be 2n, a fantastically large number. His analysis suggests that the value generated by Facebook, Twitter, and other proprietary network platforms remain highly rudimentary because participants have only limited tools for developing trust and confidence in each other (open source tools would subvert the business model). In short, the value potential of the commons has been deliberately stifled.

For all of these reasons, our imaginations and aspirations must begin to shift their focus from open platforms to digital commons. Self-organized commoners must be able to control the terms of their interactions and governance, and to reap the fruits of their own collaboration and sharing.

Towards the CopyFair license
A variety of legal and technological innovations are now starting to address the structural limits of (market-financed) open platforms as vehicles for commoning. These initiatives remain somewhat emergent, yet they are filled with great promise. They aspire to empower digital commoners in resisting market capture and enclosure of their collectively created content, community norms and identity. Corporate platforms privilege the social monoculture of producer/consumer relationships and only those social behaviors that comport with the host-company’s business model (or more generally, with market relationships). By contrast, self-organized commons enable richer, more diverse and meaningful types of freedom and culture.

The basic problem, however, is that digital commons tend to have trouble growing and sustaining themselves. They do not have adequate organizational and governance structures nor adequate financial support. However, a new generation of innovations may help address these problems.

One possibility now being explored, for example, is “commons-based reciprocity licenses,” sometimes known as CopyFair. These proposed licenses based on copyright ownership would allow no-cost sharing among members of a commons, but require payment by any commercial users of the community’s work. The idea is now being developed by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and open-agriculture hardware developers, among others. Unlike the Creative Commons NonCommercial license, which absolutely stops commercial development of a line of information or creative work, the CopyFair license would allow commercialization, but on the basis of mandatory (monetized) reciprocity.

The potential of the blockchain
Another instrument for converting open platforms into digital commons is the blockchain ledger, the software innovation that lies at the heart of Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin itself has been designed to serve familiar capitalist functions (tax avoidance, private accumulation through speculation), the blockchain ledger is significant because it can enable highly reliable, versatile forms of collective action on open networks. It does this by validating the authenticity of a digital object (for now, a bitcoin) without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body.

This solves a particularly difficult collective-action problem in an open network context: How do you know that a given digital object — a bitcoin, a legal document, digital certificate, dataset, a vote or digital identity asserted by an individual — is the “real thing” and not a forgery? By using a searchable online “ledger” that keeps track of all transactions (i.e., bitcoins), blockchain technology solves this problem by acting as a kind of permanent record maintained by a vast distributed peer network. This makes it far more secure than data kept at a centralized location because the authenticity of a bitcoin registered among so many nodes in the network is virtually impossible to corrupt.

Because of these capabilities, a recently released report suggests that blockchain technology could provide a critical infrastructure for building what are called “distributed collaborative organizations” (DCO, and sometimes “distributed autonomous organizations”).2 These are essentially self-organized online commons. A DCO could use blockchain technology to give its members specified rights within the organization, which could be managed and guaranteed by the blockchain. These rights, in turn, could be linked to the conventional legal system to make the rights legally cognizable and enforceable.

One rudimentary example of how the blockchain might be used to facilitate a commons: In the US, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt has proposed using blockchain technology to create distributed networks of solar power on residential houses coordinated as commons. The ledger would keep track of how much energy a given homeowner generates and shares with others, and consumes. In effect the system would enable the efficient organization of decentralized solar grids and a “green currency” that could serve as a medium of exchange within solar microgrids or networks, helping to propel adoption of solar panels. The blockchain amounts to a network-based architecture for enabling commons-based governance.

Smart transactions
This field of experimentation may yield another breakthrough tool for forging digital commons: smart contracts. These are dynamic software modules operating in an architecture of shared protocols (much like TCP/IP or http) that could enable new types of group governance, decision-making and rules-enforcement on open network platforms.

We are already familiar with rudimentary — and corporate-oriented versions — of this idea, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), an encryption/authentication system that gives companies the ability to constrain how users may use their legally purchased technologies (DVDs, CDs, etc.). As the power of networked collaboration has become clear, however, many tech innovators now recognize that the real challenge is not how to lock up and privatize digital artifacts, but how to assure that they can be reliably shared on open platforms in legally enforceable ways, for the benefit of a defined group of contributors or for everyone.

There are now many active efforts underway to devise technical systems for deploying “smart” legal agents whose transactions would also be enforceable under conventional law. The “transactions” could, of course, be used to invent new types of markets, but they also could be used to create new types of commons. Ultimately, the two realms may bleed into each other and create social hybrids that conjoin community commitments and market activity.

A related realm of software innovation is trying to blend familiar co-operative structures with open network platforms to enable collective deliberation and governance — “commoning” — through online systems. Some of the more notable experiments include Loomio, DemocracyOS and LiquidFeedback. Each of these seeks to enable members of online networks to carry on direct, sustained and somewhat complicated discussions, and then to clarify group sentiment and reach decisions that participants see as binding, legitimate and meaningful.

Networks of peer producers
In a natural extension of such capacities, “open value networks” (OVN) are attempts to enable bounded networks of participants to carry out crowdfunding, crowdsourcing of knowledge, co-budgeting among its identifiable members. “Open value networks” such as Enspiral and Sensorica have been described as an “operating system for a new kind of organization” and a “pilot project for the new economy.” OVNs consist of digital platforms that facilitate new modes of decentralized and self-organized social governance, production and livelihoods among members of distinct communities. The networks are organized in ways that let anyone to contribute to the project, and be rewarded based on their contributions, as measured by actual contributions, experience and other collectively determined criteria.

Unlike “conventional commons” that tend to eschew market-based activity, open value networks have no reservations about engaging with markets; OVNs simply wish to maintain their organizational and cultural integrity as commons-based peer producers. This means open, horizontal and large-scale cooperation and coordination; responsible stewardship of the shared wealth and assets while allowing individual access, use, authorship and ownership of resources “where appropriate”; careful accounting of individual “inputs and outcomes” via a common ledger system; and the distribution of fair rewards based on individual contributions to the project. Some notable keywords for describing OVNs: equipotentiality, anti-credentialism, self-selection, communal validation and holoptism.

As mentioned earlier, these initiatives to create new technical, organizational and financing for platform cooperativism are still emerging and debated in meetings as the one taking place soon in New York City. They will require further experimentation and development to make them fully functional and scalable. Yet they promise to provide attractive, potentially breakthrough alternatives to business-driven platforms that stipulate the terms of participation and do not facilitate the mutualized benefit among commoners. By providing more trustworthy systems for genuine commoning and user sovereignty and control, these new forms could soon enable digital commons — and hybrid forms of user-driven markets — to surpass the value-creating capacities of conventional open platforms.

1. See also David Bollier and John H. Clippinger, The Next Great Internet Disruption: Authority and Governance.
2. See the report Distributed Collaborative Organizations: Distributed Networks & Regulatory Frameworks, written by people associated with Swarm, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, New York Law School and the MIT Media Lab. See also Rachel O’Dwyer, The Revolution Will (Not) Be Decentralized; and Morgen E. Peck, The Future of the Web Looks a Lot Like Bitcoin. The blockchain and related legal issues are being actively discussed in a series of global workshops known as “Blockchain (R)evolution,” convened by Primavera De Filippi, Constance Choi and John Clippinger. For a broader introduction to this general topic, see John H. Clippinger and David Bollier, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond: The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society (ID3, 2014).