Internet

Eben Moglen: "Snowden and the Future"

The ongoing Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance have all sorts of implications for the rule of law, constitutional democracy, geopolitical alignments, human rights and much else.  The disclosures deserve our closest attention for these reasons alone.  But what do these revelations have to do with the commons?

If we regard the act of commoning as a genre of citizenship – acts of voluntary association and action that are critical to human freedom and democracy – we can see that snooping by both the NSA and its corporate brethren are profoundly hostile to the future of the commons.  They violate some fundamental notions of human rights, civil freedoms and the ability of individuals to protect their privacy and thus their sovereignty.

If the market/state apparatus can digitally monitor our reading habits and telephone calls, email correspondence and purchases, physical movements and much else, then it has effectively snuffed out the sovereignty of a free people. The barrage of the successive Snowden disclosures has been followed by a relentless government propaganda war, cable TV denunciations and even attacks on Greenwald by the liberal nomenklatura (Michael Kinsley, George Packer). It’s as if "respectable opinion" did not care to note or defend the elemental human freedoms that a functioning democracy requires.

It was such a pleasure therefore to (belatedly) encounter a series of four lectures delivered last fall by Eben Moglen, a law scholar and historian at Columbia Law School, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, and former general counsel of the Free Software Foundation.  The four talks -- "Snowden and the Future" -- offer one of the most eloquent and historically informed critiques of the Snowden revelations and their implications for freedom, democracy and – I would add – the capacity of people to common.

The French-based group OuiShare recognized five exemplary projects in the “collaborative economy” at its recent OuiShare Fest conference in Paris. The three-day event was itself was a remarkable gathering of more than 1,000 passionate fans of innovative models of sharing and mutual support. 

The OuiShare awards focused on five broad categories – collaborative consumption, open knowledge, crowdfunding and P2P banking, makers and open manufacturing, and open and horizontal governance.  With 127 applications from 31 countries, it was a rather competitive field.

The winners this year included one of my favorites, Guerrilla Translation, “a collaborative hub for authors and translators to network and share stimulating ideas internationally.”  The group describes itself as “exporters of fine interlinguistic memes,” adding: 

Guerrilla Translation is building bridges between cultures, starting with Spanish and English. We select written and video pieces with a focus on constructive change and long-range analysis, translate them, and share them.  We’re connecting authors with new audiences, and people with new ideas, shared through technology but created in a very personal, artisanal way.  We feel strongly that translation is best handled not by software, but instead, by committed and passionate translators working together to achieve the highest level of professional quality in our work.

The nine-month effort in Ecuador to develop a new vision and policy architecture for commons-based peer production is coming into much sharper focus.  To refresh your memory on this project, the Government of Ecuador last year commissioned the FLOK Society (FLOK = “Free, libre, open knowledge”) to come up with a thoughtful plan for enabling every sector of Ecuador to be organized into open knowledge commons, to the maximum degree possible.  The project has now released a transition plan accompanied by more than a dozen policy frameworks for specific social and economic domains.

The main document can be read here – and here is a version that anyone can comment upon.  Here is series of specific sectoral policy proposals.  

What makes the FLOK Society report so significant is its informed analysis of global trends in the production of knowledge and culture -- and its bold attempt to reformulate state policies to assure maximum social benefits flow from them. The “advanced” industrial economies continue to cling to archaic intellectual property regimes that ignore network dynamics and prey upon the value created by nonmarket communities.  But Ecuador’s path-breaking project seeks to go beyond neoliberal economics and policy. Many of us are excited because the FLOK Society report is a comprehensive, sophisticated and integrated synthesis for moving to the next stage of commoning and peer production on open networks.

A guiding idea in this effort is Buen Vivir (Sumak Kawsay) or “good living,” an indigenous peoples’ concept that refers to a life that balances material, social and spiritual needs and satisfactions (i.e., getting beyond compulsive material growth and consumerism).  FLOK Society researchers realize that Buen Vivir is impossible without Buen Conocer (Sumak Yachay), which is the idea of “good knowledge.”  Ecuadorian President Correa himself has urged young people to achieve and fight for this open knowledge societ

This and other questions are addressed in “The Weightless Marketplace:  Coming to Terms with Innovative Payment Systems, Digital Currencies and Online Labor Markets,” a just-released report that I wrote for the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program. The report distills the more salient points raised at a three-day conference last August that brought together leading players in banking, financial services and online labor platforms.   

Most of the conference participants are in the business of inventing or adapting to new types of digital payment systems or data-based services. They include major players like JP Morgan Chase, Intuit and VISA as well as upstarts such as Bitcoin, ID3 and the identity-management service Personal.

The basic story in digital markets is the ongoing elimination of “friction” in making transactions – reducing the barriers of geography, time and transaction costs. Hence the title “the weightless marketplace.”  “Reducing economic friction” has been the story of the World Wide Web from its beginnings, of course, but the trend is now reaching new levels of intensity and disruption.  My role, as rapporteur, was to represent the diverse points of view while providing my own interpretive synthesis. 

Perhaps the most fascinating points of discussion revolved around Bitcoin.  Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding it, Bitcoin’s basic functionality and soaring popularity have some serious implications for banks, credit card companies, PayPal and other payment systems. Peter Vessenes of the Bitcoin Foundation noted that digital technology can move value to anywhere in the world, at any time, using just 100 bytes of data.  And it can do it at very little cost – much less than the per-transaction charges levied by credit cards, for example.

Critics charge that Bitcoin facilitates illicit transactions, money laundering and terrorist activity, not to mention tax evasion.  Vessenes replied that Bitcoin is “way less anonymous than cash” – because the permanent global ledger of transactions for each Bitcoin is accessible and can be used to help identify buyers and sellers.  Another reason that Bitcoin is controversial is that it represents a potential threat to the sovereignty of nation-states, because it could undermine their monetary and fiscal policies.  That’s why regulation of Bitcoin is inevitable, many agreed.

But apart from Bitcoin’s fate, the larger question may be how existing banks and financial companies will respond to the coming “democratization of money.”  Several factors are fueling this trend, according to Gartner, the consulting firm:  individual access to massive, high-speed flows of information, the proliferation of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the rise of the cloud, and the social commons of highly specialized communities of interest.

Save Medialab Prado!

For people who care about socially engaged, commons-minded tech innovation, there are few institutions in the world as bold and courageous as Medialab Prado, in Madrid.  For the past ten years it has been a technology lab, an interdisciplinary forum, a space that welcomes public participation, a hub for citizen activism, and a host of provocative workshops and conferences.  And yes, the Medialab Prado has also been deeply engaged with the commons paradigm as an important way of shaping a better, more socially constructive future. 

Now, after a decade of fantastic work as a pioneering social/technological laboratory, the Madrid city council is threatening to let a giant telecom corporation, Telefónica, take over its new building.  The municipal government – apparently clueless about the international stature and significance of Medialab – is in talks to let Telefónica use the brand new building that MLP moved into less than a year ago. Telefónica wants to open its own startup incubator there. The move  would cast Medialab into limbo, without any assurance of appropriate space in a suitable location or adequate funds.  

Many of us who participate in the international tech, P2P, commons or activist worlds are appalled at this recent turn of events.  Doesn’t the Madrid political establishment recognize the immense value that Medialab Prado has for the city and Spain (and the rest of the world)? 

Doesn’t it realize that Medialab is a magnet for the most exciting thinkers, technologists and social activists – a place that elevates Madrid’s reputation and Spain’s leadership in cultural and tech circles?  After citizen uprisings in so many countries around the world, does the Madrid political establishment not appreciate the need to explore new models of social outreach and public engagement, as Medilab Prado does?

It’s clear that there is a great deal of momentum for developing new forms of online deliberation and decisionmaking.  I’ve discussed LiquidFeedback in the past and how open networks are making it inevitable that we will soon have some major shifts of authority and governance to online platforms. 

Now comes word of a crowdfunding campaign underway for Loomio, “a user-friendly tool for collaborative decision-making: not majority-rules polling, but actually coming up with solutions that work for everyone.”  We must be in a Cambrian explosion of rapid evolution!

The Loomio project is driven by a small team in Wellington, New Zealand that is trying to take its prototype to a new level entirely.  The platform provides a way for participants to start a discussion on any topic and bring a variety of perspectives into the open.  Then anyone can propose a course of action with which people can agree, disagree, abstain or block.  With enough agreement, a proposal can be developed and a deadline set for achieving group goals.  Here is a video describing how lots of people can have a complex discussion and make decisions.  

Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation recently published a short essay noting that the economic fruits of peer production in today’s world tend to be captured by capitalists – whereas what we really need is a system to enable capital accumulation for and by commoners themselves.  To that end, Bauwens embraces the idea of a Peer Production License, as designed and proposed by Dmitri Kleiner.  

The idea is to emancipate online commons from the control of capital and corporations, and to enable cooperatives working within the market system to reorient themselves to the larger common good, and not just their members. Bauwens’ essay, originally published on the P2P Foundation blogfollows below:

The labor/p2p/commons movements today are faced with a paradox.

On the one hand we have a re-emergence of the cooperative movement and worked-owned enterprises, but they suffer from structural weaknesses. Cooperative entities work for their own members, are reluctant to accept new cooperators that would share existing profits and benefits, and are practitioners of the same proprietary knowledge and artificial scarcities as their capitalist counterparts. Even though they are internally democratic, they often participate in the same dynamics of capitalist competition which undermines their own cooperative values.

On the other hand, we have an emergent field of open and commons-oriented peer production in fields such as free software, open design and open hardware, which do create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but at the same time, are dominated by both start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same commons.

Thus, we need a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models. What follows is a more detailed argument on how such transition could be achieved.

Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P Foundation, has recorded four short videos describing the FLOK Society’s pioneering research project in Ecuador.  FLOK stands for “Free, Libre, Open Knowledge,” and the FLOK Society is a government-sponsored project to imagine how Ecuador might make a strategic transition to a workable post-capitalist knowledge economy. As Research Director of the project, Michel and his team are exploring the practical challenges of making commons-based peer production a widespread, feasible reality as a matter of national policy and law. 

The four videos – each four to six minutes in length – are a model of succinct clarity.  Here is a short summary of each one, which I hope will entice you to watch all of them (links are in the titles below):

Part I: The FLOK Society

Bauwens explains the significant of the FLOK Society project as “the first time in the history of mankind that a nation-state has asked for a transition proposal to a P2P economy.” He asks us to “imagine that for every human activity, there is a commons of knowledge that every citizen, business and public official can use.”  This regime of open, shareable knowledge would move away from the idea of privatized knowledge accessible only to those with the money to pay for copyrighted and patented knowledge.  The system could be adapted for education, science, medical research and civic life, among other areas. 

The FLOK Society project is actively looking for what it calls the “feeding mechanisms” to enable and empower commons-based peer production.  For open education, for example, open textbooks and open educational resources would help people enter into this alternative regime.  However, there are both material and immaterial conditions that must be addressed as well. 

One material condition is proprietary hardware, for example.  If open systems could replace the existing lock-down of proprietary systems, all users could spend one-eighth of what they are currently paying, on average.  Moreover, eight times more students could participate in creating and sharing, said Bauwens, which itself would yield enormous gains.  As for "immaterial conditions" that need to change, innovations like “open certification” are needed to recognize the skills of those who learn outside of traditional institutions, as in hacker communities.

The Principles of LiquidFeedback

Several years ago some software programmers in Berlin came up with a new software platform to let diverse groups of people self-organize themselves to make democratic decisions online.  The program, LiquidFeedback, gives everyone a chance to participate without the need for physical assemblies or in-person voting. 

The program was first used by the German Pirate Party, but it has been also been used by citizen associations, cooperatives and even corporations to elicit the collective sentiment of groups of people, including for binding votes. The idea behind the program is to avoid the classic problems of representative democracy and hierarchies.  As we all know, elected leaders are often happy to ignore or misrepresent the will of the people if it helps them stay in power.  LiquidFeedback was intended as something of an antidote.

Now, the programmers behind LiquidFeedback, the Public Software Group of Berlin, have published a book, The Principles of LiquidFeedback, describing the philosophical, political and operational details of the software system. The authors – Jan Behrens, Axel Kistner, Andreas Nitsche and Bjorn Swierczek – bill their book as “a must-read for anybody planning to make online decisions or to build online decision platforms and is also interesting for anybody interested in the future of democracy in the digital age.”

At a time when elections, legislatures and other democratic processes do a poor job at representing the will of the people, LiquidFeedback is a welcome experiment in demonstrating a better way. It is not seen as a substitute for representative democracy, but more as a complement to it.  I blogged about the program in 2012 and concluded that it “clearly shows the potential for re-imagining more open, legitimate and responsive forms of governance.” 

LiquidFeedback empowers any accredited member of a group to propose a new initiative; make suggestions about it; create alternatives to the proposed initiative; and vote on a final proposal.  Discussion generally takes place on other platforms, however, outside of LiquidFeedback. But the authors warn that "in the real world it is not possible to implement a secret electronic voting system whose functionality can be verified by the voters." Liquid Feedback uses open ballots.

For a while, Couchsurfing had an amazing run, connecting travelers with hosts and helping strangers become friends.  Until around 2011, it was a way-crazy gift-economy for hospitality on a global scale, with more than five million members (now seven million) in 90,000+ cities.  Who would have thought that a loose non-market community could ever get so big while retaining its ideals and ethical stance?

Alas, Couchsurfing’s popularity created some new problems of its own, and the site was plagued by some dubious management decisions, technical challenges, and the lack of funds.  At Medium.com, Roy Marvelous explains what happened in 2011:

Basically, Couchsurfing owed tax money (its tax-exempt status as a non-profit was not approved), it needed far more investment in servers and it needed to hire more engineers to reprogram the site to make it scalable. And apparently, the only viable solution was to become a for-profit, sell a portion to venture capitalists and have it run by professionals.

The problems were real but I’ll be blunt: Couchsurfing was stolen from its members. This was code, content & community built by the members, for the members. None of those volunteers, working for free under the false pretense that Couchsurfing would stay non-profit, received any equity in this new corporation. Why couldn’t there have been another way? I would have donated money. I would have been happy with advertising. They could have moved Couchsurfing HQ to Berlin or Chang Mai or Santiago rather than be based in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The moment Couchsurfing was sold, it stopped becoming a community and started becoming a service, not unlike Yelp or Meetup or Facebook. And herein lies the problem: Couchsurfing now has an identity-crisis.

After the Internal Revenue Service refused to grant Couchsurfing tax-exempt nonprofit status – formally known as “501(c)(3)” status under the tax code – Couchsurfing decided to become a “Certified B Company,” or “for-benefit” corporation.  As Marvelous points out, this was apparently the only way to move forward.  (But is this true?)  By 2012, Couchsurfing had raised more than $22 million in venture capital money and it was on its way to becoming another profit-oriented corporation in the “sharing economy.”  (The so-called sharing economy, it should be noted, is less about sharing than about micro-rentals of things that previously could not be marketized.)

Syndicate content