Internet

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.)

Morozov on the Maker Movement

The New Yorker recently featured an interesting overview of the Maker movement – a welcome bit of exposure for a subculture that is nearly invisible to the mainsteam.  It’s refreshing to see the hacker ethic given some due recognition and reportage – and more, serious political and economic analysis.

Alas, the analysis has its limits because it is served up by the ubiquitous scourge and skeptic of all things digital, Evgeny Morozov.  Morozov has carved out a franchise for himself by providing well-written, reflexively negative critiques of the digital world.  Morozov excels at penetrating analysis and he deserves credit for original reportage and historical research.  But he tends to wallow in the “dark side” of the digital universe, conspicuously avoiding or discounting the positive, practical alternatives. 

Almost every piece of his that I’ve read seems to conform to this narrative arc:  “You are being so screwed by digital technologies in so many ways that you can’t even imagine.  Let me expose your naivete.”  Then we are left to splutter and stew in the dismal scenario that is sketched -- and then Morozov exits.  He is rarely willing to explore alternative institutions or movement strategies that might overcome the problems that he limns. 

Still, I must thank Morozov for pointing out some important truths in his survey of the Maker world. Besides suggesting the wide extent of the movement, he does a nice job exposing the sly propagandizing of Chris Anderson, Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand.  These are among the leading tech gurus who rhapsodize about the coming era of individual freedom and progressive social change that 3D printing, fablabs and hackerspaces are ushering in.      

Morozov revisits the history of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s, which in its time touted  amateur crafting as a force for personal autonomy and liberation. The idea was that do-it-yourself craft projects would help overcome the alienation of industrial production and provide a basis for political transformation.  As some critics at the time pointed out, however, the real problems were economic inequality and corporate power – something that the craft ethic and individual projects could never overcome on their own.

Now that free market dogma has become the dominant narrative about value – and yet that narrative is neither credible nor readily displaced -- we are descending deeper and deeper into a legitimacy crisis.  There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational markets” has become something of a joke.  There are too many external forces propping up markets – government subsidies, legal privileges, oligopoly power, etc. – to believe the textbook explanations of “free markets.”

This is a serious quandary.  We’re stuck with a threadbare story that few people really believe -- the “magic of the marketplace” advancing human progress and opportunity – and yet it is simply too useful for elites to abandon.  How else can they justify their entitlements?  These are among the themes explored in an astute new book, The Ethical Economy:  Rebuilding Value After the Crisis  (Columbia University Press, 2013), by sociologist Adam Arvidsson and entrepreneur/scholar Nicolai Peitersen. 

The implicit “social contract” that people have with the reigning institutions of society is coming apart.  As the authors note:  “Three decades of neoliberal policies have separated the market from larger social concerns and relegated the latter to the private sphere, creating a situation where there is no society, only individuals and their families, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, and no values, only prices.”  Meanwhile, the catastrophic ecological harm being caused by relentless consumerism and economic growth is becoming all too clear, especially as climate change inexorably worsens.

Our “value crisis” is tenacious, say Arvidsson and Peitersen, because we have “no common language by means of which value conflicts can be settled, or even articulated.”  Few people believe in “free markets” and government as benign, mostly responsible influences any more; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  And who believes that the Market/State as constituted can solve the many cataclysms on the horizon?

Arvidsson & Peitersen’s ambitious goal is to outline a scenario by which we might come to accept a new, more socially credible justification for socially responsive production and governance.  They want to imagine a “new rationality” that could explain and justify a fair, productive economics and civil polity.  A tall order! 

While I don’t agree with all of their arguments, they do make a penetrating critique of the problems caused by neoliberalism and offer some useful new concepts for understanding how we might imagine a new order.  The Ethical Economy provides a bracing, sophisticated look at these issues.

Readers of my blog may recall the announcement several months ago of Michel Bauwens’ appointment to head a strategic research project for the government of Ecuador. Under the auspices of the Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK) Society Research Project, Bauwens and a small team have embarked upon an ambitious effort to imagine how to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The Project is now seeking the help of people around the world who are engaged in transformative social change inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons.  Here is a lengthy excerpt from the FLOK Society’s letter:

Our aim is to finalize proposals to be presented at a conference in April 2014, which will bring together the President, government officials, civil society participants, and global experts on the commons. The project received its impulse from IAEN Rector Carlos Prieto, Project Leaders Xabier E. Barandiaran & Daniel Vázquez, and Research Director Michel Bauwens.

Here is the link to the FLOK Society project: http://www.floksociety.org

The project seeks the involvement and input of local civil society, but also includes an explicit appeal to the global co-operative and commons movements to assist us with advice and policy proposals. It is our belief that the Ecuadorian people will be inspired by the best of what is happening abroad, in all countries of the world. Hence our appeal to you, global co-operators and commoners.

If you are engaged in transformative social change that is inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons for the well being of all, we ask you to send us information and benchmark proposals on leading local or global initiatives in your area of expertise.

Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.

Writer’s Voice, a national radio show and podcast featuring authors, recently devoted an hour to talking with me about the commons. The chief focus was on my new book co-authored with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, which Cambridge University Press published in January. 

Our book recovers from history many fragments of what we call “commons-based law” from such sources as Roman law, the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, and public trust doctrine governing natural resources.  We also point to many modern-day analogues such as international treaties to manage Antarctica and space as commons. We wish to show that commons-based law is in fact a long and serious legal tradition – but one that has also been quite vulnerable, particularly over the past two centuries as market-oriented priorities have eclipsed the commons. 

Burns Weston and I argue that the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to access to nature for subsistence (as opposed to for profit-making market purposes), should be recognized as a human right.  The right to meet one’s everyday household needs – by responsibly managing forests, pasture, orchards and wild game as a commons – was recognized by the Charter of the Forest, adopted by King Henry III, the son of King John, in 1217.

This right was essentially a right to survive because commoners depended on the forest for food, fuel, economic security and other basic needs. Such precedents ought to inform our discussions today, when the rights of investors and markets in effect override any human right to survival (consider the many free trade treaties that override democratic sovereignty, ecological protections and local control).

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

Ever since the World Wide Web went wide in 1994, film studios, music labels and publishers have tried to neuter this unparalleled communications commons.  Much of the Web’s power stems from its open technical protocols known as hypertext markup language, or HTML, which are used to build webpages.  HTML has always put users, not "content-makers," in control of content, and as a result, people could (for example) copy and save the “source code” for a webpage.  Bottom-up innovation could emerge and prevail.    

The truly dismaying news is that the official steward of technical standards for the Web – the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C – plans to adopt a new set of standards, HTML5, that will let content owners add digital rights management, or DRM, to their web content.  As Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, “the decision to go forward with the project of standardizing DRM for the Web came from Tim Berners-Lee himself [who invented the Web in the early 1990s], who seems to have bought into the lie that Hollywood will abandon the Web and move somewhere else (AOL?) if they don’t get to redesign the open Internet to suit their latest profit-maximization scheme.”

What makes the new HTML5 standards so alarming is that it kicks open the door for still other new forms of proprietary control over Web-based video, images, fonts and more.  Danny O'Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a good account of the struggles to prevent this outcome at the W3C, which could lead to the piecemeal privatization of the Web infrastructure.  

Book publishers love that libraries can act as free marketing venues, introducing readers to new authors and keeping them focused on books.  But publishers don’t like it when libraries act as commons – that is, when they promote easy access and sharing of knowledge.  A successful commons may modestly limit a publisher’s absolute copyright control – and even minor incursions on this authority must be stoutly resisted, publishers believe.     

One of the more egregious such battles now underway is a lawsuit filed by Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley and the University of Chicago Press against the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.  ISCE  is a small, nonprofit membership group that “facilitates the conversation between academics and business people regarding social complexity theory, particularly the implications for the management of organizations.” 

The focus of the publishers’ lawsuit is ISCE’s virtual library of 1,200 books.  May ISCE self-digitize and lend its virtual books to its members on a one-usage-at-a-time basis, for private, educational, non-commercial purposes? 

The publishers say no, and are seeking to establish their legal authority to shut down such unauthorized “reproduction, display and distribution” of the books.  But ISCE counter-claims that the fair use and first-sale doctrines of copyright law give it the legal right to lend its virtual books.  (Fair use is the legal doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpts to be shared noncommercially.  The first-sale doctrine prohibits the seller from controlling what a consumer does with a book or DVD after it is purchased, such as renting it, lending it or giving it away.)  ISCE claims, in addition, that libraries are entitled to special-use privileges under copyright law, which apply in this instance.

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