Information commons and global democratic capabilities
posted by Philippe Aigrain
Most chapters in the Access to Knowledge in the age of intellectual property book have been initially drafted several years ago. As we are holding from today a 3-days on-line symposium to celebrate the publication of the book, the ideas covered in the book prove to be not just resilient, but at the heart of a difficult but exciting democratic renaissance.
As many, I joined the Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement from a specific perspective. For me, it was advocacy for commons-based innovation and culture, and struggles against legal and policy mechanisms that threaten their potential. Underlying this involvement was a wider perspective: the idea that information and communication technology (ICT) are at the root of new human capabilities, and that the a proper legal, policy and cultural environment will decide how well we seize this opportunity. As I write these lines, the link between ICT, freedom of expression, democratic empowerment and human development is hot news. And with these news come new questions and challenges.
When my book Cause commune: l’information entre bien commun et propriété was published, I did not invest much energy to get it translated in English, as the aim of the book was to reformulate American knowledge commons-thinking for European, emerging and developing country readers. But one day, I received an email from a Tunisian translator, Abdelouadoud El Omrani, who offered to produce a voluntary translation of the book in Arabic. It ended being published as a paper book by the Qatari National Centre for Culture, Heritage and the Arts, disseminated on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Let’s be frank, I am not sure that many people read this book in Tunisia (where many likely readers read also French) or in Egypt. That’s partly because the distribution of books (and even ideas) is still very segmented in the Arabic world, and partly because potential readers had more urgent things to do. However, the publication brought me to visit a few Arabic-speaking countries, and to meet Internet users, knowledge sharing advocates, lawyers and writers from the Arab world. I witnessed their courage, their inventive use of poetry and fiction (when they explained it to me, as I don’t understand any Arabic), whether in face of authoritarian regimes for instance in Tunisia or Egypt or in face of the totalitarian imposition of religious prescriptions on individuals, for instance in Saudi Arabia1.
I was thus not surprised to see a growing Internet-based public expression in Arab countries (as well as in Iran). But none of this had prepared me to see this expression lead to expression and action in the streets, that then developed its own logic and power. I should have known better. The recent democratic uprisings are testimony to the fact that the capabilities built in information-mediated activities can exert influence well beyond their direct reach, and even survive when the Internet and other digital communication channels are being attacked by all available means. They give evidence of the massive presence of smart, self-reflecting, collectively minded individuals. Don’t mistake me, Internet-initiated mobilization will not necessarily be for aims with which each of us will agree. Democracy is not just for what we like. Furthermore, even democratic policy and action has to respect the limits of fundamental human rights as expressed in the UHDR, for instance, because, without such safeguards, it could sometimes damage them beyond repair.
Has this anything to do with information and knowledge commons? If may not be evident today, but it did, and it will.
It did, because the resilience of information and universal communication technology owes a lot to the fact that they are the product of a knowledge commons, even though this was largely before the expression “knowledge commons” was forged. Even in a country such as Egypt, where the domination of proprietary software is strong, the foundations of the Internet as a common infrastructure apply, and it is only through its remaining scarce resources (DNS, centrally-provided individual connectivity) that it can be shut off, even though not totally. Less known is the fact that personal computers and many specialized ICT applicances run free software in some essential layers or at least are not open to outside control. It is a lesson for each of us to remember. Never let anything like “trusted” (aka treacherous) computing, compulsory trusted identities, fingerprinted IP addresses or the like install a different situation.
Even more important is what information and knowledge commons can do for the future. Democracy is not just about removing dictators or moving out of the totalitarian enforcement of religion or beliefs. It is also about finding out how to build useful things, about finding how to organize our societies for the good of all, about making possible for all to build new capabilities, about enabling new works for our enjoyment to be created, new knowledge about nature to be built, and new ways to coexist with its complexity to be explored. And to do all of this, information and knowledge commons are a necessary condition.
 Such imposition can very well coexist (in daily life and families) with secular authoritarian regimes, as exemplified at various degrees by Algeria and Egypt itself. There is no guarantee that it can not also exist within newly established democratic regimes, but there is hope that the general exchange of ideas lowers its pressure.