Late last month, the European Working Team on Digital Commons – that had been convened by the French Council Presidency – published its report on the Digital Commons. The report Towards a sovereign digital infrastructure of Commons is the result of a four-month-long process that brought together representatives of 19 EU member states, the European Commission and was accompanied by the reflection group of representatives from European digital commons initiatives. The report makes it clear that investing in digital commons should be a core element of the European effort to build sovereign digital infrastructures that leverage the power of digital networks in a non-hegemonic way.
To achieve this, the report calls for — among other measures — the establishment of a European foundation for digital commons that can act as a facilitator between digital commons ecosystem actors and public authorities, and contribute to nurturing the development of digital commons ecosystems across Europe.
At the occasion of the launch of the report at the 2022 Digital Assembly in Toulouse, Henri Verdier — the French digital Ambassador who has been the driving force behind the Digital Commons initiative — re-iterated the commitment of the French government to support the objectives identified in the report.
The report — which has support from 17 EU Member States — establishes an important baseline for future work on strengthening the digital commons, while at the same time outlining a number of possible interventions to achieve this objective. Let’s look at some of these in more detail.
The report takes a broad approach to define the digital commons and goes beyond the focus on open data and open-source software development that has long been at the core of open government initiatives in the digital space. The authors of the report define Digital Commons (the term is used in the plural to account for the wide variety of initiatives) as
…non-rivalrous and non-exclusive resources defined by distributed and communal production, ownership and governance of informational capacities and technology. They intertwine collaborative governance and open data, open source as well as the principles of open standardisation. As defined by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, a commons is a resource designed and governed by a community with established access and sharing rules. Social researcher Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as “information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favour use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources.”
The authors of the report go on to suggest that these characteristics of digital commons should be leveraged to strengthen Europe’s digital sovereignty:
[…] digital commons offer a unique opportunity to support European digital sovereignty. By building upon collective intelligence and networking to contribute knowledge, digital commons challenge the enclosure strategies pursued by some governments and major digital services providers. Additionally, they constitute a significant lever for setting up multilateral governance – in the sense of mutual and mutually accepted constraint – of our data and the tools that use them, and for recovering a share of digital strategic autonomy.
This creates an obligation on the European Union and the Member States to invest in digital commons and to steer efforts related to the digital transformation “towards digital commons and make sure they remain accessible and part of the public good” and to unlock “their full potential for Europe’s economy, innovations, security, resilience, and democracy.”
To achieve this, the report suggests that the EU Member States “would greatly benefit from a pooling of resources” and from shifting their efforts away from a procurement logic towards a logic that is based on the idea of investing in the creation of digital commons. The working team proposes “the creation of a flagship to steer efforts at the European scale.” The flagship initiative envisaged by the working team would “create a strong public-civic-private partnership and participate in the development of sustainable open data and open source ecosystems for the public good” and “promote the use and creation of digital commons within the European institutions and Member States’ public services.” It would do this by “exploring opportunities to enhance the public contribution to strategic commons, with the ultimate aim of improving the competitiveness of digital commons to enable large-scale adoption.”
Here the report also highlights the fact that in order to thrive, “digital commons not only need support during the creation of resources but also for their continued maintenance.” This insight should be an important consideration in the design of the proposed flagship initiative. To address the structural needs of digital commons, the working team suggests that the EU and Member State governments need to reevaluate the rules framing public funding and public procurement with an eye on “building sustainable, long-term financial, human and legal contributions.”
Based on this observation, the working team makes four proposals for strengthening the digital commons in Europe:
Of these four, the idea to establish a European foundation for the digital commons is clearly the most consequential idea, with the one-stop shop and the call for proposals being more short-term steps towards realizing the objective. The report repeatedly stresses the need to develop these instruments in cooperation with digital commons communities, and then to involve them in the governance of these instruments. Finally, it highlights the importance of supporting existing initiatives, instead of focusing on innovation. Both of these points are long-standing concerns of organizations working in the field, and it is good to see them explicitly acknowledged.
For now, the French government has announced that it is willing to provide funding for the one-stop-shop and for the call for proposals. The report “invites Member States to dedicate a permanent team to the support of a European structure for digital commons.”
This European foundation for digital commons is the single most important element of the proposal. Prior experiences of such organizations as Europeana, Open Data Institute or Eta Lab show the importance of public bodies that are capable of driving institutional and social change. The proposed foundation is modeled in part on existing foundations that steward digital commons — such as Wikimedia Foundation or the Apache Foundation — and would be tasked to:
- Create an umbrella aiming at nurturing the development of digital commons ecosystems across Europe, in order to strengthen the existing communities and to foster the reuse of digital resources.
- Target support for the continuity of the life cycle to ensure continuity and support free services and updates for viable digital commons.
- Provide policy recommendations to European and national authorities in order to move from a procurement situation to an investment strategy.
- Provide security requirements and steer efforts towards audits to have indirect positive effects on digital security and innovation in Europe.
This is an ambitious set of objectives for a single entity, and it shows that a structural re-orientation of EU Digital policymaking away from procuring services in the market towards investing in commons-based digital public infrastructures needs more than the occasional funding program for open source software. And — most importantly — it requires collaboration with existing digital commons initiatives.
It is this insight — and level of ambition — that makes the report of the working team so valuable. To underline this, the working team notes that “the main challenge of this initiative would be to get trust from digital commons communities. One way to do it is to give trust by setting up the entity and its rules hand-in-hand with them”. In practical terms, this means that the working group suggests that after the 2022 Digital Assembly, the first task of the initiative would be to set up a broad consultation and stakeholder dialogue, coordinated with the launch of the call for proposals. This will be something that now needs to be continued by the Czech presidency — which is conspicuously absent from the list of supporting Member States.
The final proposal (“Digital Commons first”) pales a bit in comparison to the ambition of the previous ones. Here, the authors of the report mainly focus on the procurement of data and services. While there is nothing wrong with introducing the principle that Public Sector bodies should “first evaluate the possibility of using open source or open data solutions, and [to] contribute to their development”, this is a rather limited approach to putting digital commons first. As we have recently argued together with a number of digital commons initiatives, the principle to put digital commons first must also extend to the regulatory sphere. To strengthen the digital commons (and the public sphere more broadly), legislators must take the needs and practices of digital commons and public institutions into account when drafting regulatory interventions.
The current practice of regulating the digital space primarily as a market, and addressing the needs of other initiatives and institutions as exceptions to the general approach, means limiting the contribution that these actors can make to the development of a democratic digital society in Europe. And the report rightly argues that Europe needs to go beyond regulating digital markets and services and that policies oriented toward Digital Commons are a way to achieve this:
By fully including digital commons in its digital strategy, Europe is able to unlock the full potential of these resources while offering a new method to assert the Union’s values and principles. Europe has an unmatched opportunity to position itself at the forefront of the defence of a free, open, and democratic digital society: let’s take action.
Digital Commons policies are sometimes framed in the context of industrial policies, or seen as means of transforming the public sector. The French initiative on Digital Commons shows that the stakes are much higher and rightly connects it with the fundamental issue of the autonomy and democracy of our societies. As European policymakers are debating about fundamental principles that should underpin Europe’s vision of a digital society, the Digital Commons narrative offers a set of principles and values that should be at its heart.