by Nathan Schneider
May 21, 2016
I am a pretty assiduous digital commoner, for what it’s worth. I almost exclusively use free/libre/open-source software (hereafter FLOSS), evangelistically so. I try to practice open journalism. I’ve run and developed business models for organizations devoted to producing Creative Commons content. I believe that property is theft, ultimately, and I hold the ancient doctrine of the universal destination of goods. But I also consider my support of the platform cooperative movement to be, in part, a critique of the digital commons movement so far.
It has been through my affection for and participation in the FLOSS movement that I came to this critique. Those who use FLOSS self-consciously are overwhelmingly those who enjoy privileges like whiteness, maleness, and affluence. Lots more people benefit from this stuff as users of Firefox, WordPress, and LAMP servers, but huge portions of the economic benefit end up with shareholders of big companies like Google and IBM. These companies also help finance and sit on the boards of major FLOSS foundations. The result is products like Android, an operating system that employs Linux to carry out perhaps the most powerful engine of corporate surveillance ever invented.
FLOSS was the result of an ingenious series of legal hacks, engineered in most cases by well-meaning commoners seeking only to enable commons-based peer production. They have successfully protected their commons from the most direct forms of corporate enclosure. They’ve developed remarkable forms of democratic self-governance, like the Debian Constitution. But this arrangement has also produced valuable, low-cost raw material for corporations that are designed to produce wealth for investors, not livelihoods for commoners.
These corporations (reinforcing tendencies of hacker cultures) have little interest in seeing FLOSS become accessible to non-hacker users. As a result, it has been very rare that, for all my enthusiasm, I succeed in persuading friends to use such tools. And since the economic rewards for FLOSS use and contributions are usually indirect (i.e., social capital that aids in securing a lucrative tech job), people with less free time (disproportionately women) or extra income (disproportionately people of color) face barriers to participation. FLOSS has wonderful potential for nourishing truly liberating commons, but so far this promise has been pretty effectively hindered.
The platform co-op movement has close affinities with FLOSS. Lots of tech co-ops develop exclusively open products; through FLOSS, platform co-ops like Fairmondo find ways to spread and grow through federation rather than globalization; there have been eloquent calls for “open co-ops.” FLOSS principles like transparency and open participation resonate beautifully with cooperative principles. But what we seek to add is democratic control and equitable enjoyment of the benefits. We call for solidarity with workers at all levels of the platform economy and data sovereignty for user-contributors. It’s an economic-justice layer atop—or, better, at the root of—the FLOSS stack. Without that, I’m not going to scold my busy friends if they don’t run Linux (though if they want to, I’ll gleefully help).
Finally we are beginning to hack corporate ownership design with the same gusto and imagination with which the progenitors of FLOSS hacked intellectual property. We’re coming up with democratic financing, open companies, and diverse, multi-stakeholder co-ops. And we’re also rethinking the rules of the digital commons. The “copyfarleft” licenses of Dmytri Kleiner and the P2P Foundation, for instance, are designed to protect commons from exploitation by extractive companies while allowing their use by democratic and non-commercial enterprises. Some platform co-ops deem it necessary to use full copyright. There is disagreement about intellectual property in the platform co-op community, and I view this as a good thing; robust debate is needed to address the challenge of cultivating the commons while also doing business democratically.
In capitalism, commons that don’t challenge capital will end up serving capital. Our digital commons are doing little to aid low-wage workers who lack control over their platform labor markets, or precarious consumers targeted for scams due to corporate surveillance of their online habits. We need commons that serve commoners.
At least since the Charter of the Forest, commoners have had to protect their commons from the greedy hands of the lords. We can pull the levers of corporate ownership law to do this by cooperativizing our networks and platforms. But I hope that ownership restrictions are not our chief objective; these are a strategy for cultivating a commons-based society whose abundance we can share on equitable terms.