Thirty years after the beginnings of the InternetTim Berners-Lee said during the 25th anniversary of the web in 2014 that ” […] we still have a long way to go before it [Internet] really remains for everyone. Digital has changed every aspect of our lifestyles, from the most innocuous of social interactions to our access to information. It is no longer a simple variable for adjusting our public policies, it is a tool of great complexity that must be handled and regulated with care. With the increasing dominance of commercial platforms like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, etc., the Internet has moved away from its original vision of a public domain by becoming privatized, collecting the personal data of its users and pushing them to consume ever more through targeted advertising. However, other platforms exist on the Internet that offer real alternatives, built using collective intelligence. Wikipedia, Open Food Facts, OpenStreetMap, Firefox and many others, used millions of times a day around the world, are still struggling in this ecosystem. It is time to strategically support the digital commons to bring European citizens more of the benefits of an interconnected world.
Eighteen actors of the digital commons believe that, like any major policy, the digital commons require means of development that the European Union must bring together and use.
Since its inception, the Internet has largely been the object of collective construction by actors who demand its openness. Internet and the Web are therefore by nature collaborative tools where everyone must be able to express themselves, share and learn. We must not forget that the Web has its roots in Europe where, on April 30, 1993, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) made the historic choice to put the Web protocol in the public domain. Promoting the digital commons in Europe also means taking the decision to preserve the original vision of the Internet, a diversified, non-monopolistic and non-privatized Internet. The digital commons offer a unique opportunity to create a non-predatory European digital sovereignty. By relying on collective intelligence and the networking of knowledge, they challenge the strategies of confinement pursued by certain governments and large digital service providers. They are also an important lever for setting up multilateral governance – in the sense of a mutual and mutually accepted constraint – of our data and the tools that use them, and for regaining a share of strategic digital autonomy.
Digital commons refers to digital resources that are managed as commons, meaning that they are produced and managed by a community. And when we talk about the commons, the question of governance is as important as that of the resource. Indeed, Elinor Ostrom, American political scientist and economist, the first woman to have received the “Nobel Prize” in economics for her analysis of the commons, underlined that the effective preservation of the latter by the communities in charge of them is linked to the establishment of open governance methods. Thus, the digital commons are recognized by their democratic governance: the rules are enacted by the community which will itself, through discussions, bring the resource to life, develop it, improve it and enrich it. Moreover, the digital commons could not exist without the players in the free and open source software movement. The very essence of this movement is found in four fundamental freedoms: the freedom to use, copy, study and modify software and to redistribute modified versions. This is why wikis, open APIs, open libraries, free software and licenses are as many examples of resources as they are tools that allow students, journalists, activists, all citizens to freely access , to the knowledge.
We, signatories of the digital commons, agree on one observation: the digital space must not be left to the domination of a few monopolistic platforms. The current will to regulate the behavior of these actors is welcome but insufficient. Limiting Europe’s role to adopting regulations would be a risky, short-termist and unrepresentative view of what the Internet is fundamentally. There is an urgent need to consider the digital space as an extension of our society, a society that is undergoing a digital transformation. We cannot agree to define this space as a place where only the dynamics of capital and privatization reign, and it is for this reason that the existence of the digital public sphere is fundamental. Citizens must have access to a public space based on public digital infrastructures self-governed by Internet users themselves and not by private actors. Wikipedia is a paradigmatic example of this vision: users participate in the project by contributing to the encyclopedia, they vote if necessary, take responsibility and improve a service of general interest that can be freely reused by everyone.
Dominant business platforms will never be able to achieve this model for the simple reason that user interactions are just fuel for their business model. And that’s why questionable, polarizing or hateful content is promoted so much on these platforms: the less users interact, the more their revenue – from advertisements – drops. Thus, in this economic model, users are presented with divisive content that encourages them to lock themselves further into information bubbles. In an attention economy, these platforms encourage virulent interactions between Internet users. This contrasts sharply with the goal of a project like Wikipedia, which is all about working together to establish verifiable knowledge and back it up with facts.
On the occasion of the Toulouse Digital Assembly on June 21 and 22, we, signatories of the digital commons, welcome the initiative launched by the French and European governments relating to the development of digital commons in Europe. We see that our next big challenge is to make the entire ecosystem understand that the Internet should no longer be seen as a hostile space present only to weaken states and their citizens. The Internet can and should be a diverse and beneficial space for all, where, thanks to collective intelligence, great things can be achieved. It is imperative that States trust citizens in their approach and in their ability to collectively manage resources. For this, more than ever, public decision-makers need to support the use of digital tools based on the commons and help them develop over time.
We therefore expect real actions to be put in place following these political declarations and we call on the interstate task force to:
- Improving the legal framework : really take digital commons into consideration in regulations, right from the thinking stages of governments and legislators. In particular, it is necessary to legally recognize the public domain and allow Internet users and associations to protect it against fraud and appropriation by creating a “common informational space”.
- Support existing digital commons infrastructure : work and coordinate with the decentralized ecosystem of civil society actors who actively support the growth and maintenance of the digital commons, identify gaps and help the emergence of innovation in the field.
- Set up a European funding system to facilitate the deployment of digital public infrastructures based on the principles of the digital commons.
- Ensure European or multi-regional governance of digital commonsavoiding any dependence on exclusively non-European governance
- Structuring a European digital industry ecosystem based on open innovation and interoperability
- Create a support fund for free software, cooperative platforms and other digital commons. This fund must provide long-term funding and be co-governed by the actors of the digital commons themselves.
- Pursue and structure public-community digital partnerships. Administrations can become important users and contributors of digital commons.
It is urgent to bring a new vision as well as a renewal of the way of thinking on these questions. This renewal is necessary on the one hand, for the sustainability of the digital commons (without mobilization and contribution, the commons are doomed to disappear) and, on the other hand, for a more open, innovative, sovereign and democratic Europe. Digital technologies must facilitate the advent of a fair and democratic society, where fundamental rights and freedoms are protected, where strong public institutions operate in the general interest and where citizens have a say in the functioning of society, not the other way around. We believe that Europe has the ability and the duty to shape the digital society of tomorrow.
- Association Wikipedia
- Clever Cloud
- Collective for a society of the commons
- Europeana Foundation
- Free Knowledge Advocacy Group
- Open Food Facts
- Open Future
- Open Terms Archive
- Tela Botanica
- Wikimedia Deutschland
- Wikimedia France
- Wikimedia Switzerland
- XWiki SAS