Information commons and global democratic capabilities

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.

[1] 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.

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5 Responses

  1. The role of an internet-based and high-technology information and knowledge commons in the Arab world in particular and the Middle East generally is analogous to the historical role of coffeehouses, salons, reading societies, the republic of letters, scientific academies and other modes of association in the formation of the Enlightenment’s “bourgeois public sphere” (Habermas) that was, in principle, and in spite of its class-based genesis, “inclusive:” in both cases we discern an incontrovertible contribution to the genesis of an institutionalized public sphere which “problem[tizes]…areas that…[heretofore] had not be questioned.” Once again, we witness the “structural transformation of the public sphere.”

  2. erratum: problema[tizes]…

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    It would be interesting to hear something about the thesis of your book – you are perhaps being too modest to speak only about its diffusion. Also, is A2K the only school in Europe of heterodox thought about intellectual property? Could you please give us a brief panoramic view of the Continental intellectual terrain when it comes to dissenters from the Anglo-Saxon/WIPO/TRIPS vision?

  4. To A.J. Sutter: Access to Knowledge is not an endogeneous European name for federating the movements for IP reform and promotion of knowledge sharing. The appellation was proposed within the coalitions of NGOs and think-tanks federated around the Geneva Declaration for the Future of WIPO (2004). The former Consumer Project on Technology (now Knowledge Ecology International) played an important role. It was gladly accepted by European participants, though everyone was conscious that it did not represent some of the ambitions of our global movements. Testimony was the difficulty to translate “access to knowledge” in Latin languages for instance. In Europe, it is fair to say that “information and knowledge commons” and “information, culture, and knowledge sharing” are at least equally important federating terms. They carry a potential for federating schools of thought and movements beyond IP reform, with a more visible focus on alternatives, and a “beyond access” emphasis. They also create explicit link with environment and social justice, or capability building. None of this is in contradiction with the intentions of the promoters of A2K (quite the contrary). It is just different words for different arenas. In parallel, movements emphasizing freedom (or copy, use and reuse) are strong in Europe and maybe more structured towards activism and advocacy: free software, free culture, Internet freedoms (Chaos Computer Club,European Digital Rights,La Quadrature du Net).

    As for the book referred to in my post, you will find some information in English about its content at However, the reference to it was mostly to illustrate how open access opens new paths in the exchange of ideas.

  5. Philippe,

    I’ve passed your name on to a law professor here in the U.S. who is also a publisher, so perhaps we can get this book published in English.