Paradox of Open: Policies for the Digital Commons

January 25, 2024

The development of Digital Commons is one of the greatest achievements of the digital transformation of the last 25 years. New forms of collaboration and sharing enabled by the internet have given rise to digital resources that are created and managed by communities that share them openly according to established rules, the Open Source software industry, open-access research in the European Research Area, Wikipedia, and open government data being prime examples.

Over the same period of time, Europe faced the challenge of the growing power of commercial platforms that dominate the internet today. The initial vision of an open, non-commercial internet has been replaced by a digital domain divided into closed communication networks controlled by commercial actors. The original, interoperable internet still functions as a basic communication layer. Yet commercial networks built on top of it made users dependent on their proprietary systems and solutions. The story of their growth is also a story of extracting value from publicly available information and data produced by users.

Large AI models developed by commercial entities that are trained by scraping the publicly available internet and benefit from resources such as Wikipedia are the latest iteration of the enclosure of the Digital Commons. This is the Paradox of Open: while openness offers the strongest counterbalance to the corporate enclosure of information and culture, it is also vulnerable to exploitation and can even serve as an enabler of the concentration of power.

Over the last five years, the European Commission has redefined its approach to the Digital Single Market by introducing policies that focus on safeguarding fundamental rights and European values. Symptomatically, the flagship initiatives of the Commission’s current digital policy package — the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act — regulate dominant platforms to protect fundamental rights, create a safer digital space, and increase competition in digital markets. These regulations address the above paradox by reducing forms of exploitation, making commercial platforms more accountable for the systemic risks they create, and forcing at least a limited opening up of their services and resources. In parallel, the policies and regulations that give life to Europe’s new data strategy are based on a vision of data governance that balances the protection of rights with the flow and reuse of data. New regulatory mechanisms create new opportunities for data sharing, and Europe hopes to create open and interoperable data spaces.

In other words, these policies create an opportunity to build an internet that is not only a commercial marketplace but also a Digital Public Space. This ambition has been recognized in the European Union’s Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, which includes participation in the digital public sphere as one of its key principles. This is an important declaration that paves the way for new policies to ensure that digital technologies enable a just and democratic society. Where fundamental freedoms and rights are protected, strong public institutions work in the public interest, and where people have a say in how services they depend on work.

We believe that in the coming years, Europe will have the opportunity to shape such a digital society. Building on the foundations set by this Commission’s regulation of commercial platforms, the next digital policy package needs to focus on strengthening different forms of Digital Commons and protecting them from exploitation. As input for the digital policy agenda for the second part of Europe’s Digital Decade, we are offering seven suggestions for policy interventions in support of the Digital Commons:


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Alek Tarkowski
Paul Keller
Zuzanna Warso
Melissa Hagemann
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