Barbed wire on the Internet prairie: against new enclosures, digital commons as drivers of sovereignty (31 July 2020)


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The “digital commons” – which, like their physical counterparts (forests, groundwater, fish stocks, etc.) are resources which are managed collectively – refer to digital assets born out of information commons and the movement for free software which emerged in the late 1980s (GNU/Linux) and started to develop rapidly with the advent of the Internet in the 2000s (Wikipedia, Mozilla, OpenStreetMap, etc.).

While the Internet may originally have been seen as a “global commons”, the creation of “sovereign” networks by certain authoritarian regimes have led to its fragmentation, whereas the commodification of digital activity and the boom of monopolistic players pursuing lucrative ends led to new forms of “enclosures” comparable to those that transformed England’s agrarian system between the 16th and 18th centuries . By exploiting data from captive users, these monopolistic players have thus reintroduced “exclusivity” and “rivalry” in accessing the digital assets they produce, and created barriers to innovation detrimental to the creation of new value.

However, because they preserve a collective control of data and their use, digital commons indirectly challenge the hegemonic strategies of the major platforms. As a result, they constitute a significant lever for implementing multilateral governance – in the sense of mutual and mutually accepted constraints – of our data and the tools that use it, and to recover part of our digital sovereignty, in an open and non-hegemonic sense. It is therefore not only necessary to protect and strengthen the sustainability of existing digital commons, but also to encourage and support the creation of new commons.

Insofar as the development of digital commons is relatively absent from sovereignty policies at the European level, it is necessary to identify the resources likely to be jointly managed and exploited, while raising awareness among our partners, particularly European ones, of the strategic dimension of digital commons, in order to mobilize them accordingly.

The purpose of this article is therefore not to define the scope of digital commons in a technical, economic or political perspective, but rather to reflect on their strategic potential for Europe, within a digital world dominated by private monopolistic players, and driven by the structuring rivalry between China and the United States.

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