Archive for October, 2013

Economics and the Commons Conference [knowledge stream] report

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Economics and the Common(s): From Seed Form to Core Paradigm. A report on an international conference on the future of the commons (pdf) by David Bollier. Section on the knowledge stream (which I coordinated; pre-conference post) copied below, followed by an addendum with thanks and vague promises. First, video of the stream keynote (slides) by Carolina Botero (introduced by me; copy).

III. “Treating Knowledge, Culture and Science as Commons”

Science, and recently, free software, are paradigmatic knowledge commons; copyright and patent paradigmatic enclosures. But our vision may be constrained by the power of paradigmatic examples. Re-conceptualization may help us understand what might be achieved by moving most provisioning of knowledge to the commons; help us critically evaluate our commoning; and help us understand that all commons are knowledge commons. Let us consider, what if:

  • Copyright and patent are not the first knowledge enclosures, but only “modern” enforcement of inequalities in what may be known and communicated?
  • Copyright and patent reform and licensing are merely small parts of a universe of knowledge commoning, including transparency, privacy, collaboration, all of science and culture and social knowledge?
  • Our strategy puts commons values first, and views narrow incentives with skepticism?
  • We articulate the value of knowledge commons – qualitative, quantitative, ethical, practical, other – such that knowledge commons can be embraced and challenged in mainstream discourse?

These were the general questions that the Knowledge, Culture and Science Stream addressed.

Knowledge Stream Keynote Summary

Carolina Botero Cabrera, a free culture activist, consultant and lawyer from Colombia, delivered a plenary keynote for the Knowledge Stream entitled, “What If Fear Changes Sides?” As an author and lecturer on free access, free culture and authors’ rights, Botero focused on the role of information and knowledge in creating unequal power relationships, and how knowledge and cultural commons can rectify such problems.

“If we assume that information is power and acknowledge the power of knowledge, we can start by saying that controlling information and knowledge means power. Why does this matter?” she asked. “Because the control of information and knowledge can change sides. The power relationship can be changed.”

One of the primary motives of contemporary enclosures of information and knowledge, said Botero, is to instill fear in people – fear of violating copyright law, fear of the penalties for doing so. This inhibits natural tendencies to share and re-use information. So the challenge facing us is to imagine if fear could change sides. Can we imagine a switch in power relationships over the control of knowledge – how we produce, distribute and use knowledge? Botero said we should focus on the question: “How can we switch the tendency of knowledge regulation away from enclosure, so that commons can become the rule and not the exception?”

“There are still many ways to produce things, to gain knowledge,” said Botero, who noted that those who use the word “commons” [in the context of knowledge production] are lucky because it helps name these non-market forms of sharing knowledge. “In Colombia, we don’t even have that word,” she said.

To illustrate how customary knowledge has been enclosed in Colombia, Botero told the story of parteras, midwives, who have been shunted aside by doctors, mostly men, who then asserted control over women’s bodies and childbirth, and marginalized the parteras and their rich knowledge of childbirth. This knowledge is especially important to those communities in remote areas of Colombia that do not have access to doctors. There is currently a huge movement of parteras in Colombia who are fighting for the recognition of their knowledge and for the legal right to act as midwives.

Botero also told about how copyright laws have made it illegal to reproduce sheet music for songs written in 18th and 19th century Colombia. In those times, people simply shared the music among each other; there was no market for it. But with the rise of the music industry in the 20th century, especially in the North, it is either impossible or unaffordable to get this sheet music because most of it is copyrighted. So most written music in Colombia consists of illegally photocopied versions. Market logic has criminalized the music that was once natural and freely flowing in Colombian culture. Botero noted that this has increased inequality and diminished public culture.

She showed a global map illustrating which nations received royalties and fees from copyrights and patents in 2002; the United States receives more than half of all global revenues, while Latin America, Africa, India and other countries of the South receive virtually nothing. This is the “power relationships” that Botero was pointing to.

Botero warned, “We have trouble imagining how to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control.” Part of the problem is the difficulty of measuring commons values. Economists are not interested, she said, which makes it difficult to go to politicians and persuade them why libraries matter.

Another barrier is our reliance on individual incentives as core value in the system for regulating knowledge, Botero said. “Legal systems of ‘intellectual property’ place individual financial incentives at the center for knowledge regulation, which marginalizes commons values.” Our challenge is to find ways to switch from market logics by showing that there are other logics.

One reason that it is difficult to displace market logics is because we are reluctant or unable to “introduce the commons discourse from the front door instead of through the back door,” said Botero. She confessed that she herself has this problem because most public debate on this topic “is based on the premise that knowledge requires enclosure.” It is difficult to displace this premise by talking about the commons. But it is becoming increasingly necessary to do so as new policy regimes, such as the Transpacific Trade (TPP) Agreement, seek to intensify enclosures. The TPP, for example, seeks to raise minimum levels of copyright restriction, extend the terms of copyrights, and increase the prison terms for copyright violations.

One way to reframe debate, suggested Botero, is to see the commons “not as the absence of exclusivity, but the presence of non-exclusivity. Th is is a slight but important difference,” she said, “that helps us see the plenitude of non-exclusivity” – an idea developed by Séverine Dussolier, professor and director of the Revue Droit des Technologies de l’Information (RDTI, France). This shift “helps us to shift the discussion from the problems with the individual property and market-driven perspective, to a framework and society that – as a norm – wants its institutions to be generative of sharing, cooperation and equality.”

Ultimately, what is needed are more “efficient and effective ways to protect the ethic and practice of sharing,” or as she put it, “better commoning.” Reforming “intellectual property” is only one small part of the universe of knowledge commoning, Botero stressed. It also includes movements for “transparency, privacy, collaboration, and potentially all of science and culture.”

“When and how did we accept that the autonomy of all is subservient to control of knowledge by the few?” asked Botero. “Most important, can we stop this? Can we change it? Is the current tragedy our lack of knowledge of the commons?” Rediscovering the commons is an important challenge to be faced “if fear is going to change sides.”

An Account of the Knowledge, Culture and Science Stream’s Deliberations

There were no presentations in the Knowledge Stream breakout sessions, but rather a series of brief provocations. These were intended to spur a lively discussion and to go beyond the usual debates heard at free and open software/free culture/open science conferences. A primary goal of the breakout discussions was to consider what it means to regard knowledge as a commons, rather than as a “carve-out” exception from a private property regime. The group was also asked to consider how shared knowledge is crucial to all commoning activity. Notes from the Knowledge Stream breakout sessions were compiled through a participatory titanpad, from which this account is adapted.

The Knowledge Stream focused on two overarching themes, each taking advantage of the unique context of the conference:

  1. Why should commoners of all fields care about knowledge commons?
  2. If we consider knowledge first as commons, can we be more visionary, more inclusive, more effective in commoning software, science, culture, seeds … and much more?

The idea of the breakout session was to contextualize knowledge as a commons, first and foremost: knowledge as a subset of the larger paradigm of commons and commoning, as something far more than domain-specific categories such as software, scientific publication and educational materials.

An overarching premise of the Knowledge Stream was the point made by Silke Helfrich in her keynote, that all commons are knowledge commons and all commons are material commons. Saving seeds in the Svalbaard Seedbank are of no use if we forget how to cultivate them, for example, and various digital commons are ultimately grounded in the material reality of computers, electricity infrastructures and the food that computer users need to eat.

There is a “knowledge commons” at the center of each commons. This means that interest in a “knowledge commons” isn’t confined to those people who only care about software, scientific publication, and so on. It also means that we should refrain from classifying commons into categories such as “natural resources” and “digital,” and begin to make the process of commoning itself the focal point.

Of course, one must immediately acknowledge that digital resources do differ in fundamental ways from finite natural resources, and therefore the commons management strategies will differ. Knowledge commons can make cheap or virtually free copies of intangible information and creative works, and this knowledge production is often distributed at very small scales. For cultural commons, noted Philippe Aigrain, a French analyst of knowledge governance and CEO of Sopinspace, a maker for free software for collaboration and participatory democracy, “the key challenge is that average attention becomes scarcer in a world of abundant production.” This means that more attention must be paid on “mediating functions” – curating – and “revising our cultural expectations about ‘audiences’.”

It is helpful to see the historical roots of Internet-enabled knowledge commons, said Hilary Wainwright, the editor behind the UK political magazine Red Pepper and a research at the Transnational Institute. The Internet escalated the practice of sharing knowledge that began with the feminist movement’s recognition of a “plurality of sources.” It also facilitated the socialization of knowledge as a kind of collective action.

That these roots are not widely appreciated points to the limited vision of many knowledge commons, which tend to rely on a “deeply individualistic ethical ontology,” said Talha Syed, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. This worldview usually leads commoners to focus on coercion – enclosures of knowledge commons – as the problem, he said. But “markets are problematic even if there is no monopoly,” he noted, because “we need to express both threats and positive aspirations in a substantive way. Freedom is more than people not coercing us.”

Shun-Ling Chen, a Taiwanese professor of law at the University of Arizona, noted that even free, mass-collaboration projects such as Wikipedia tend to fall back on western, individualistic conceptions of authorship and authority. This obscures the significance of traditional knowledge and history from the perspective of indigenous peoples, where less knowledge is recorded by “reliable sources.”

As the Stream recorded in its notes, knowledge commons are not just about individual freedoms, but about “marginalized people and social justice.” “The case for knowledge commons as necessary for social justice is an undeveloped theme,” the group concluded. But commons of traditional knowledge may require different sorts of legal strategies than those that are used to protect the collective knowledge embodied in free software or open access journal. The latter are both based on copyright law and its premises of individual rights, whereas traditional knowledge is not recognized as the sum of individual creations, but as a collective inheritance and resource.

This discussion raised the question whether provisioning knowledge through commons can produce different sorts of “products” as those produced by corporate enclosures, or whether they will simply create similar products with less inequality. Big budget movies and pharmaceuticals are often posited as impossibilities for commons provision (wrongly, by the way). But should these industries be seen as the ‘commanding heights’ of culture and medicine, or would a commons-based society create different commanding heights?”

One hint at an answer comes from seeing informality as a kind of knowledge commons. “Constructed commons” that rely upon copyright licenses (the GPL for software, Creative Commons licenses for other content) and upon policy reforms, are generally seen as the most significant, reputable knowledge commons. But just as many medieval commons relied upon informal community cooperation such as “beating the bounds” to defend themselves, so many contemporary knowledge commons are powerful because they are based on informal social practice and even illegality.

Alan Toner of Ireland noted that commoners who resist enclosures often “start from a position of illegality” (a point made by Ugo Mattei in his keynote talk). It may be better to frankly acknowledge this reality, he said. After all, remix culture would be impossible without civil disobedience to various copyright laws that prohibit copying, sharing and re-use – even if free culture people sometimes have a problem with such disrespectful or illegal resistance. “Piracy” is often a precursor to new social standards and even ne w legal rules. “What is legal is continent,” said Toner, because practices we spread now set traditions and norms for the future. We therefore must be conscious about the traditions we are creating. “The law is gray, so we must push new practices and organizations need to take greater risks,” eschewing the impulse to be “respectable” in order to become a “guiding star.”

Felix Stalder, a professor of digital culture at Zurich University of the Arts, agreed that civil disobedience and piracy are often precisely what is needed to create a “new normal,” which is what existing law is explicitly designed to prevent. “Piracy is building a de facto commons,” he added, “even if it is unaware of this fact. It is a laboratory of the new that can enrich our understanding of the commons.”

One way to secure the commons for the future, said Philippe Aigrain of Sopinspace, is to look at the specific challenges facing the commons rather than idealizing them or over-relying on existing precedents. As the Stream discussion notes concluded, “Given a new knowledge commons problem X, someone will state that we need a ‘copyleft for X.’ But is copyleft really effective at promoting and protecting the commons of software? What if we were to re-conceptualize copyleft as a prototype for effective, pro-commons regulation, rather than a hack on enclosure?”

Mike Linksvayer, the former chief technology officer of Creative Commons and the coordinator of the Knowledge Stream, noted that copyleft should be considered as “one way to “force sharing of information, i.e., of ensuring that knowledge is in the commons. But there may be more effective and more appropriate regulatory mechanisms that could be used and demanded to protect the commons.”

One provocative speculation was that there is a greater threat to the commons than enclosure – and that is obscurity. Perhaps new forms of promotion are needed to protect the commons from irrelevance. It may also be that excluding knowledge that doesn’t really contribute to a commons is a good way to protect a commons. For example, projects like Wikipedia and Debian mandate that only free knowledge and software be used within their spaces.


Thanks to everyone who participated in the knowledge stream. All who prepared and delivered deep and critical provocations in the very brief time allotted:
Bodó Balázs
Shun-Ling Chen
Rick Falkvinge
Marco Fioretti
Charlotte Hess
Gaëlle Krikorian
Glyn Moody
Mayo Fuster Morrell
Prabir Purkayastha
Felix Stalder
Talha Syed
Wouter Tebbens
Alan Toner
Chris Watkins

Also thanks to Mayo Fuster Morrell and Petros for helping coordinate during the stream, and though neither could attend, Tal Niv and Leonhard Dobusch for helpful conversations about the stream and its goals. I enjoyed working with and learned much from the other stream coordinators: Saki Bailey (nature), Heike Löschmann (labor & care), Ludwig Schuster (money), and especially Miguel Said Vieira (infrastructure; early collaboration kept both infrastructure and knowledge streams relatively focused); and stream keynote speaker Carolina Botero; and conference organizers/Commons Strategy Group members: David Bollier, Michel Bauwens, and Silke Helfrich (watch their post-conference interview).

See the conference wiki for much more documentation on each of the streams, the overall conference, and related resources.

If a much more academic and apolitical approach is of interest, note the International Association for the Study of the Commons held its 2013 conference about 10 days after ECC. I believe there was not much overlap among attendees, one exception being Charlotte Hess (who also chaired a session on Governance of the Knowledge and Information Commons at the IASC conference).

ECC only strengthened my feeling (but, of course I designed the knowledge stream to confirm my biases…) that a much more bold, deep, inclusive (domains and methods of commoning, including informality, and populations), critical (including self-critical; a theme broached by several of the people thanked above), and competitive (product: displacing enclosure; policy: putting equality & freedom first) knowledge commons movement, or vanguard of those movements. Or as Carolina Botero put it in the stream keynote: bring the commons in through the front door. I promise to contribute to this project.

ECC also made me reflect much more on commons and commoning as a “core paradigm” for understanding and participating in the arrangements studied by social scientists. My thoughts are half baked at best, but that will not stop me from making pronouncements, time willing.

Stop Killing Them

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Stop Watching Us.
The revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus, if true, represent a stunning abuse of our basic rights. We demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.

Sure. But I can’t help feeling outrage at the outrage. This apparent stunning abuse is “us” reaping the whirlwind from having supported the growth of the security state and its unquestionable and extraordinary acts and support of mass murder and torture worldwide. We voted for empire, we got imperial methods and institutions.

Saudi Arabia could be the first to ban all human drivers

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Saudi Arabian politicians and clerics are in a pickle: maintaining ban on women drivers decreases worldwide status, but permitting women to drive would be sinful. Solution: be the first to ban all human drivers. The Kingdom knows how to make massive, prestige-enhancing investments. Rather than copying expensive legacy institutions decades too late, spend whatever it takes to make KSA the worldwide leader in autonomous vehicles. For clerics: is not licensing statistical murder sinful, period? Banning all human drivers would be mandated by this new finding of religious science.

Saudi Arabia does not issue driver licenses to women, amounting to an effective legal ban on women drivers. Even if the ban were lifted tomorrow (as someone not enlightened, as clerics are, I support lifting it immediately), it would take some years for a large number of women to gain licenses, especially given social barriers which would be slower to lift. Instead, and as a transition to banning all licensing of statistical murderers, stop issuing licenses, period. When the last license expires, the ban on human drivers, applied equally to all genders, will be complete. KSA will be a technological powerhouse, and more pure and holy than ever.

I highly recommend the recent premium video Wadjda. It addresses women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and much more, in a very understated way. I don’t think it is the intention of the premium videomakers to show that Saudi Arabia is backwards relative to “the west”; nor is that my intention in this post. It is a polity and society in transition, as are all. If you’re amped up about human rights, as you should be, I suspect it most effective to fix things closer to home (geographic or interest). If you can’t let how awful another jurisdiction is go, remember that yours is helping the oppressor by not allowing the oppressed to choose to live and work in your supposedly better, but global apartheid enforcing jurisdiction.

5 fantasy Internet Archive announcements

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Speaking of public benefit spaces on the internet, tonight the Internet Archive is having its annual celebration and announcements event. It’s a top contender for the long-term most important site on the internet. The argument for it might begin with it having many copies at many points in time of many sites, mostly accessible to the public (Google, the NSA and others must have vast dark archives), but would not end there.

I think the Internet Archive is awesome. Brewster Kahle, its founder, is too. It is clear to me that he’s the most daring and innovative founder or leader in the bay area/non-profit/open/internet field and adjacencies. And he calls himself Digital Librarian. Hear, hear!

But, the Internet Archive could be even more awesome. Here’s what I humbly wish they would announce tonight:

  • A project to release all of the code that runs their websites and all other processes, under free/open source software licenses, and do their work in public repositories, issue trackers, etc. Such crucial infrastructure ought be open to public audit, and welcoming to public contribution. Obviously much of the code is ancient, crufty, and likely has security issues. No reason for embarrassment or obscurity. The code supporting the recording of this era of human communication is itself a dark archive. Danger! Fix it.
  • WikiNurture media collections. I believe media item metadata is now unversioned. It should be versioned. And the public should be able to enhance and correct metadata. Currently media in the Internet Archive is much less useful than it could be due to poor metadata (eg I expect music I download from the archive to not have good artist/album/title tags, making it a huge pain to integrate into my listenng habits, including to tell the world and make popular) and very limited relations among media items.
  • Aggressively support new free media formats, specifically Opus and WebM right now. This is an important issue for the free and open issue, and requires collective action. Internet Archive is in a key position, and should be exploit is strong position.
  • On top of existing infrastructure and much richer data, above, build Netflix-level experiences around the highest quality media in the archive, and perhaps all media with high quality metadata. This could be left to third parties, but centralization is powerful.
  • Finally, and perhaps the deadly combination of most contentious and least exciting: stop paying DRM vendors and publishers. Old posts on this: 1, 2, 3. Internet Archive is not in the position Mozilla apparently think they are, of tolerating DRM out of fear of losing relevance. Physical libraries may think they are in such a position, but only to the extent they think of themselves as book vendors, and lack vision. Please, show leadership to the digital libraries we want in the future, not grotesque compromises, Digital Librarian!

These enhancements would elevate Internet Archive to is proper status, and mean nobody could ever again justifiably say that ‘Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good.’

Addendum: The actual announcements were great, and mostly hinted at on the event announcement post. The Wayback Machine now can instantly archive any URL (“Save Page Now”). I expect to use that all the time, replacing This post pre-addendum, including many spelling errors (written on the 38 Geary…). Javascript MESS and the software archive are tons of fun: “Imagine every computer that ever existed, in your browser.” No talk of DRM, but also no talk of books, unless I missed something.

Addendum 20131110: “What happened to the Library of Alexandria?” as a lead in to explaining why the Internet Archive has multiple data centers will take on new meaning from a few days ago, when there was a fire at its scanning center (no digital records were lost). Donate.

What’s *really* wrong with the free and open internet — and how we could win it

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

A few days ago Sue Gardner, ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, posted What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits — and how we can fix it. Judging by seeing the the link sent around, it has been read to confirm various conflicting biases different people in the SF bay area/internet/nonprofit space and adjacent already had. May I? Excerpt-based-summary:

A major structural flaw of many nonprofits is that their revenue is decoupled from mission work, which pushes them to focus on providing a positive donor experience often at the expense of doing their core work.

WMF makes about 95% of its money from the many-small-donors model

I spend practically zero time fundraising. We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers

I think the usefulness of the many-small-donors model, ultimately, will extend far beyond the small number of nonprofits currently funded by it.

[Because Internet.]

For organizations that can cover their costs with the many-small-donors model I believe there’s the potential to heal the disconnect between fundraising and core mission work, in a way that supports nonprofits being, overall, much more effective.

I agree concerning extended potential. I thought (here comes confirmation of biases) that Creative Commons should make growing its small donor base its number one fundraising effort, with the goal of having small donors provide the majority of funding as soon as possible — realistically, after several years of hard work on that model. While nowhere close to that goal, I recall that about 2006-2009 individual giving grew rapidly, in numbers and diversity (started out almost exclusively US-based), even though it was never the number one fundraising priority. I don’t think many, perhaps zero, people other than me believed individual giving could become CC’s main source of support. Wikimedia’s success in that, already very evident, and its unique circumstance, was almost taken as proof that CC couldn’t. I thought instead Wikimedia’s methods should be taken as inspiration. The “model” had already been proven by nearby organizations without Wikimedia’s eyeballs; e.g., the Free Software Foundation.

An organization that wants to rely on small donors will have to work insanely hard at it. And, if it had been lucky enough to be in a network affording it access to large foundation grants, it needs to be prepared to shrink if the foundations tire of the organization before individual giving supplants them, and it may never fully do so. (But foundations might tire of the organization anyway, resulting in collapse without individual donors.) This should not be feared. If an organization has a clear vision and operating mission, increased focus on core work by a leaner team, less distracted by fundraising, ought be more effective than a larger, distracted team.

But most organizations don’t have a clear vision and operating mission (I don’t mean words found in vision and mission statements; rather the shared and deep knowing-what-we’re-trying-to-do-and-how that allows all to work effectively, from governance to program delivery). This makes any coherent strategic change more difficult, including transitioning to small donor support. It also gives me pause concerning some of the bits of Gardner’s post that I didn’t excerpt above. For most organizations I’d bet that real implementation of nonprofit “best practices” regarding compliance, governance, management, reporting, etc, though boring and conservative, would be a big step up. Even trying to increase the much-maligned program/(admin+fundraising) ratio is probably still a good general rule. I’d like to hear better ones. Perhaps near realtime reporting of much more data than can be gleaned from the likes of a Form 990 will help “big data scientists” find better rules.

It also has to be said that online small donor fundraising can be just as distracting and warping (causing organization to focus on appearing appealing to donors) as other models. We (collectively) have a lot of work to do on practices, institutions, and intermediaries that will make the extended potential of small donor support possible (read Gardner’s post for the part I lazily summarized as [Because Internet.]) in order for the outcome to be good. What passes as savvy advice on such fundraising (usually centered around “social media”) has for years been appalling and unrealistic. And crowdfunding has thus far been disappointing in some ways as an method of coordinating public benefit.

About 7 months ago Gardner announced she would be stepping down as ED after finding a replacement (still in progress), because:

I’ve always aimed to make the biggest contribution I can to the general public good. Today, this is pulling me towards a new and different role, one very much aligned with Wikimedia values and informed by my experiences here, and with the purpose of amplifying the voices of people advocating for the free and open internet. I don’t know exactly what this will look like — I might write a book, or start a non-profit, or work in partnership with something that already exists.

My immediate reaction to this was exactly what Виктория wrote in reply to the announcement:

I cannot help but wonder what other position can be better for fighting consumerisation, walling-in and freedom curtailment of the Internet than the position of executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

I could take this as confirming another of my beliefs: that the Wikimedia movement (and other constructive free/open movements and organizations) do not realize their potential political potency — for changing the policy narrative and environment, not only taking rear guard actions against the likes of SOPA. Of course then, the Wikimedia ED wouldn’t think Wikimedia the most effective place from which to work for a free and open internet. But, my beliefs are not widely held, and likely incorrect. So I was and am mostly intrigued, and eager to see what Gardner does next.

After reading the What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits post above, I noticed that 4 months ago Gardner had posted The war for the free and open internet — and how we are losing it, which I eagerly read:

[non-profit] Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It’s NOT the general rule: it’s the exception that proves the rule.

The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public. That for example was the story of SOPA.

[Stories of how Wikipedia can fight censorship because it is both non-profit and very popular]

Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground.

The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good.

Final exercise in confirming my biases (this post): yes, what the internet needs is more spaces carved our for the public good — more Wikipedias — categories other than encyclopedia in which a commons-based product out-competes proprietary incumbents, increasing equality and freedom powerfully in both the short and long (capitalization aligned with rent seeking demolished) term. Wikipedia is unique in being wildly successful and first and foremost a website, but not alone (free software collectively must many times more liberating by any metric, some of it very high profile, eg Firefox; Open Access is making tremendous progress, and I believe PLOS may have one of the strongest claims to operating not just to make something free, but to compete directly with and eventually displace incumbents).

A free and open internet, and society, needs intense competition from commons-based initiatives in many more categories, including those considered the commanding heights of culture and commerce, eg premium video, advertising, social networking, and many others. Competition does not mean just building stuff, but making it culturally relevant, meaning making it massively popular (which Wikipedia lucked into, being the world’s greatest keyword search goldmine). Nor does it necessarily mean recapitulating proprietary products exactly, eg some product expectations might moved to ones more favorable to mass collaboration.

Perhaps Gardner’s next venture will aim to carve out a new, popular space for the public good on the internet. Perhaps it will be to incubate other projects with exactly that aim (there are many experiments, as her post notes, but not many with “take overliberate the world” vision or resources; meanwhile there is a massive ecosystem churning out and funding attempts to take over the world new proprietary products). Perhaps it will be to build something which helps non-profits leverage the extended potential of the small donor model, in a way that maximizes public good. Most likely, something not designed to confirm my biases. ☺ But, many others should do just that!

The real Open Source _ proliferation problem

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The Open Source Initiative, best known for keeping a list of licenses compliant with its Open Source Definition, has hired its first-ever full time paid staffer, Patrick Masson as General Manager.

Masson’s blog has lots of good entries (if you just want to be amused, try a 10 year press release diff). One thing he bemoans repeatedly and pithily (It’s “many eyeballs…” not “many projects…”) is too much fragmentation and too little collaboration among open source projects. His most recent post, Joiners, Not Starters:

What’s painful is that there are already over 350 open source communities developing learning management systems. I find it frustrating and hypocritical to hear, “This is a great time to get involved for people who are interested in helping to shape this project…” from people who chose not to get involved–rather, choosing to do something on their own. Why is it a great time to join the Adapt project over any other existing effort looking to build community for support, contribution and collaboration? Why didn’t the folks who are developing Adapt take advantage of this great time in open source development and join an existing initiative? Indeed, couldn’t every current open source project (substituting out Adapt for their own name) use the above announcement to generate awareness and adoption of their own project?

Sounds just like the first question/advice for anyone looking to start a new organization. Economies of scale are hard to beat. But fragmentation is much worse for software, so much of its value coming from network effects. When lots of people, preferably most of the relevant population, are using a software application, it’s easy to find training, advice, employees, commercial support, and preinstalls of that software. It is easy to figure out which software is pertinent. Massively valuable stuff. Oh, and more people contributing to making the software better, if it is open source.

When there are lots of open source alternatives for a particular kind of software, and this contributes to none of them being dominant, the ability of open source to compete with proprietary vendors and deliver freedom to users and society, is severely hampered. More or less killed. (The inverse can also be true, but probably with many fewer instances.) The Linux desktop is probably an example. Further, public policy is negatively impacted: fragmented projects serve at best as existence proofs, dominant open projects powerfully shape the policy conversation, and the policy ecosystem — by wiping out the capitalization of entities aligned with rent seeking.

People who know the open source world well like to worry about about “license proliferation” (which the OSI’s license list mentioned at the beginning serves to throttle) and related, license incompatibility. I do too, including in and across nearby spaces, to the extent I think it is a minor tragedy that licenses first developed for software didn’t also come to dominate culture, data, hardware, etc, yet. But I’m pretty sure the open world could cope with each project adapting or developing a license just for its own use, though it would be hugely annoying. Fortunately, progress has often been in the right direction.

Project/program proliferation and related dwarfish network effects and collaboration are much, much bigger problems. There are cases where a dominant program has arisen from a highly fragmented field (eg WordPress among a mess of open source blog engines, Django among lots of Python web frameworks, git among a smaller number of distributed version control systems), but I’m not sure this has ever come about because people agitated against proliferation. There are standards-like collaborations among projects, such as, which can result in more sharing of code and collaboration among projects, but I’m not sure do much to enable mass adoption and network effects. What more can be done, given that of course it will always be acceptable, often educational, and very occasionally wildly successful to work on Yet Another Foo?

  • The low-hanging fruit is to help projects become easier for new contributors to get involved in, and friendly for staying involved in. Decrease the cost of contributing to existing projects, more will choose to do that rather than start, or leave to start, new projects.
  • I don’t have much insight into the politically charged process of picking winners and merging efforts. Distributions (which are themselves terribly fragmented) probably already do a lot. Could they do more? Could institutions broker mergers? Could OSI? Stun all by bringing LibreOffice and OpenOffice together. GNOME, KDE, and Unity as well. How about federated social web efforts?
  • Marketing, promotion, sales. These are what any large proprietary software company does (same outside software, for publishing, etc.), and what open source projects need a lot more of, both to compete directly with proprietary industry, and to help winners with huge network effects emerge.

Each of these points also apply very strongly to non-software projects.

Another thing Masson repeatedly bemoans on his blog, and that I very much agree with, is the lack of “open” advocates eating their own dogfood — using open things other than the one they’re promoting, or open things from fields other than the one they’re supposedly opening:

However with so little folks actually interested in openness, but rather promoting their open product, we just don’t see the level of adoption we should with all open initiatives. Basically, if I can be blunt, you’re a hypocrite if you get up in front of your peers to proclaim the superiority of your project because it embraces open principles and practices, arguing it is those principles and practices that yield better products, but you yourself have not adopted other open resources. “Hold on, let me open up PowerPoint to tell you about how bad commercial software is.”

This not only harms network effects (or rather, has “open” advocates contributing to the network effects of proprietary software, culture, etc), but reduces knowledge transfer across open projects and fields. Masson seems to come from the education technology world; if that is anything like the open education[al resources] world, I suspect he’s speaking from painful experience.

Congratulations to OSI and Masson. I look froward to amazing progress on the above problems and many others! You can support their work by joining OSI as an individual member. Of course I also recommend joining the Free Software Foundation as an individual member. Because open source means freedom.

Pro-DRM stories

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Microsoft Thinks DRM Can Solve the Privacy Problem:

Under the model imagined by Mundie, applications and services that wanted to make use of sensitive data, such as a person’s genome sequence or current location, would have to register with authorities. A central authority would distribute encryption keys to applications, allowing them to access protected data in the ways approved by the data’s owners.

The use of cryptographic wrappers would ensure that an application or service couldn’t use the data in any other way. But the system would need to be underpinned by new regulations, said Mundie: “You want to say that there are substantial legal penalties for anyone that defies the rules in the metadata. I would make it a felony to subvert those mechanisms.”

If I understand correctly, this idea really is calling for DRM. Only difference is the use case: instead intending to restrict individual user’s control over their computing device in order to prevent them from doing certain things with some “content” on/accessed their device, Mundie wants applications (i.e., organizations) to be prevented from doing certain things with some “data” on/accessed via their computers.

Sounds great. Conceivably could even be well intentioned. But, just as “consumer” DRM abets monopoly and does not prevent copying, this data DRM would…do exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, law enforcement, politicians, and media see devices locked down by a vendor, rather than controlled by users, as the solution to device theft (rendering the device relatively unsalable, and data inaccessible).

I want but don’t recall any anti-info-freedom (not how it’d self-describe anyway) speculative/science fiction/fantasy, dystopian, utopian, or otherwise. Above gives some hint about how to go about it: imagine a world in which DRM+criminal law works great, and tell stories about how various types of bad actors are thwarted by the combination. Or, where society falls apart because it hasn’t been implemented.

Another pro-IP story idea: the world faces some intractable problem that requires massive intellectual input, cannot coordinate to solve. Maybe a disease. Maybe in the form of alien invasion that can only be defeated by creating an alien disease. Or everyone is enslaved because all is known, and everyone knows that no privacy means no freedom. But someone has the bright idea to re-introduce or strengthen IP mechanisms which save the day.

One story I’d like to think wouldn’t work in even cardboard form is that nobody produces and promotes big budget cultural artifacts due to lack of IP or its enforcement, and as a result everyone is sad. The result is highly unlikely as people love whatever cultural works they’re surrounded by. But, maybe the idea could work as a discontinuity: suddenly there are no more premium video productions. People have grown up with such being the commanding heights of culture, and without this, they are sad. They have nothing to talk to friends about, and society breaks down. If this story were a film, people could appear smart by informing their friends that maybe the director really intended to question our dependence on premium video such as the film in question.


Monday, October 14th, 2013

Video from my conversation with Stephanie Syjuco on “intellectual property & the future of culture” at ZERO1 Garage 11 months ago is available at YouTube and (direct link to theora encoding).

As expected (see my pre-event post) the setting was great: nice space, thoughtful, well-executed and highly appropriate installation. I enjoyed the conversation; perhaps you will too.

With more time it would’ve been great to talk about some of Syjuco’s other works, many of which deal more or less directly with copying (see also interviews with Syjuco). I don’t think either of us even used the word appropriation. Nor the term “open source”, despite being in the installation title — for example, why is intersection of formal Open Source (and similar legally/voluntarily constructed commons) and art, appropriation or otherwise, vanishingly small?

ZERO1 Garage presently holds another “IP” related exhibition, Patent Pending, featuring “artworks by contemporary artists that have either resulted from, or led to, a patent that the artist has either received a patent for or is patent pending.” Sounds problematic! If you’re anywhere near San Jose, I recommend checking out the exhibition and one of its upcoming events — October 17 Post-Natural Properties: The Art of Patented Life Forms and November 1 Does the U.S. Patent System stifle innovation? As I say in the video above, and elsewhere, I hope they also consider equality and freedom.

Why does the U.S. federal government permit negative sum competition among U.S. states and localities?

Monday, October 14th, 2013

I dimly recall learning that the point of the second paragraph of Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution was to avoid ruinous trade competition among the states:

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Controul of the Congress.

Any remotely modern conception of trade competition includes non-tariff barriers.* To what extent have U.S. states and localities been prohibited from implementing such barriers, and why hasn’t civic extortion — large businesses negotiating with several jurisdictions for ever larger public subsidy — been outlawed?

Of course I’m thinking of the professional sports racket. Another example in today’s media: $285m public subsidy for Detroit pro sports teams, while the city is bankrupt. But there’s also a probably much larger practice of states and localities goaded to offer huge subsidies to businesses in order to move their headquarters or other facilities. Sometimes only a matter of blocks, as in the case of Kansas-Missouri competition in the Kansas City metro area. What could be more clearly negative sum?

*Internationally, non-tariff barrier removal by treaty and other negotiation is often cover for spreading other anti-competitive and inequality promoting practices. I’m not a fan, especially considering that non-treaty autonomous liberalization has for decades been the main source of trade barrier reduction. I’m amused that contributors to the English Wikipedia article on non-tariff barriers to trade have listed “Intellectual property laws (patents, copyrights)” as examples of such barriers. This should be taken literally.

Wikipedia’s economic values

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Jonathan Band and Jonathan Gerafi have written a survey of papers estimating Wikipedia’s Economic Value (pdf), where Wikipedia is all Wikipedia language editions, about 22 million articles total. I extracted the ranges of estimates of various types in a summary.

Valuation if Wikipedia were for-profit:

  • $10b-$30b based on valuation of sites with similar visitor and in-link popularity
  • $21.1b-$340b based on revenue if visitors had to pay, akin to Britannica
  • $8.8b-$86b based on potential revenue if Wikipedia ran ads

One-time replacement cost:

  • $6.6b-$10.25b based on freelance writer rates

Ongoing maintenance cost:

  • $630m/year based on hiring writers

Annual consumer surplus

  • $16.9b-$80b based on potential revenue if visitors had to pay
  • $54b-$720b based on library estimates of value of answering reference inquiries

Conclusion: “Wikipedia demonstrates that highly valuable content can be created by non-professionals not incentivized by the copyright system.”

Though obvious and underwhelming, it’s great to see that conclusion stated. Wikipedia and similar are not merely treasures threatened by even more bad policy, but at the very least evidence for other policy, and shapers of the policy conversation and environment.

They don’t do this through just the creation of great content. To fully appreciate “highly valuable” here, consider that Wikipedia is also popular — the first, best, only example of peer produced free cultural relevance that I can think of. That is what is needed to compete with products which depend on and further bad policy, not mere creation of good content.

Much about the ranges above, the estimates they include, and their pertinence to the “economic value of Wikipedia”, is highly speculative. Even more speculative, difficult, and interesting would be estimates of the value due to Wikipedia being a commons. The winning online encyclopedia probably would’ve been a very popular site, even if it had been proprietary, rather than Wikipedia or other somewhat open contenders. Consider that Encarta, not Wikipedia, mostly killed Britannica, and that people are very willing to contribute freely to proprietary products.

A broader (than just Wikipedia) take on this harder question was at the core of a research program on the welfare impact of Creative Commons that was in very early stages, and sadly ended coincident with lots of people leaving (including me).

How do we characterize the value (take your pick of value value) of knowledge systems that promote freedom and equality relative to those that promote enclosure? I hope many pick up that challenge, and activists use the results offensively (pdf, slideshare).