From Creative Commons to Civilized Commons

Social scientists often think in opposing dualities—voters versus non-voters, communists versus capitalists, citizens versus elites, war versus peace. We present a worldview in this way in order to stimulate debate, although within various epistemic communities the more useful debates often deal with the shades of gray. For example, it is not as if there are vast crowds of citizens wandering about under the whip hand of a circle of elite leaders (although Left publications might put forth this case). Rather, as members of a society, there are times when we contribute and times when we simply consume, not really fulfilling the Leninist idea of 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs' but rather in the less economical and less elegant way of taking on shifting roles of responsibilities and benefits. Thus, change is better understood as evolution rather than revolution. However, there has been a lot of talk about internet 'revolutions', whether it is the 'Twitter Revolution' in Iran in 2009 or the 'Facebook Revolution' in Egypt in 2011. While many of the manifestoes discussed above (especially Barlow's) describe the internet in revolutionary terms vis-à-vis power redistribution from existing elites to the masses, the twin forces of national power and commercial online dominance make that unlikely.

Yet, there are enough elements of the initial forces that shaped the internet to make it a social tool that is unlike anything that has come before. An overlooked element of the internet is speed. Its ability to communicate instantly among many without national or corporate frames is indeed revolutionary. In this particular way, the internet rebalances power between elites and masses. So far, this dynamic has been more about challenging political elites than replacing them, as the experience in Egypt suggests. While states are learning to harvest the online world to better understand and/or control their citizens, traditional political institutions are not well designed to take full advantage of the social capital offered by the online sphere. Rather, it may ultimately emerge that distributed power networks become more authoritative—and hopefully more effective—at spreading democracy than established power institutions. The articulation of the rights (and responsibilities) of online citizens is a first step in preserving the potential of the online sphere to improve the condition of Man.

There is an element to the Onlife Manifesto that is revolutionary and this is implicit in both the manifesto itself and the recent reflection from Charles Ess for the Onlife initiative: Governments cannot be passive in the face of evolving technology. Ess, in his chapter, usefully points to the historical evidence that businesses do not automatically safeguard consumers when they introduce new technology (his example of the exploding steam engines was particularly evocative). While this is regrettable, it is also understandable under the logic of the market. No single company could simultaneously bear the cost of innovation and public safety, particularly with the introduction of new technology. The problem is that the internet was supposed to be different; it was supposed to be a post-modern collaborative effort that was above the demands of both sovereignty and capitalism. That may have been true in the initial stages, but for the past decade there has been ample evidence that the internet is the prime locus for business (Google, Facebook, etc.) and national controls (as evidenced by Syria switching off the internet in late 2012 or the broader issue of how security services in nations around the globe mine the internet to monitor citizens). The notion that the internet does not have profound economic and political power in the traditional sense is absurd, yet the clear vision of this is blurred by a hazy memory of 'cyber-utopia' as embraced by Tim Berners-Lee et al[1].

The problem is that the debate about the benefits and drawbacks (a crude duality) of the online sphere has not followed lessons of history, perhaps because there has been too much comparison of the internet to the traditional mass media. While the internet shares many of the same issues as the traditional media (such as journalistic ethics, news values, serving as propaganda in times of war and the problem of 'dumbing down' the news), the online sphere offers many additional, distinctive opportunities and threats to society. These are articulated in the Onlife Manifesto, but the next step is to express more forcefully what we mean in all of this: The state needs to play a role. What role, given that we have established that this is not about relatively straightforward issues such as access or protecting children (although those are specific concerns within a much broader discussion)? The Onlife Manifesto shows that there is a need for the choices and tradeoffs in the online sphere to be made more evident. That is to say, people need not just connection to the internet or even engagement in the online sphere; they need informed engagement on a relatively level playing field that has been engineered to prioritize the rights of citizens over the needs of elites.

On the one hand, this means a focus on more nuanced and useful information for people of all generations and all socio-economic categories in Europe about both the benefits and trade-offs in engaging in the online sphere. Language about risks is not useful, particularly when there is no way for individuals to really understand, much less negotiate, risks such as loss of privacy and identity. At the same time, governments need to establish guidelines for internet-service providers such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. so that people who chose to use these services are aware of data-mining the surrendering of ownership of their images and words. Overall, the risks and responsibilities need to be redistributed from lying primarily with the citizen-user and to be much more substantially shared by internet-service providers. For this exercise, we are discussing the European Union, but in many ways this is the role of national governments as well. So out of all this comes again this idea of the pairing of rights and responsibilities, with perhaps a parallel to motoring privileges. Just as citizens are responsible for safe driving, governments are responsible for eliminating hazards from the motorways. Citizens have the right to participate in the online sphere, but they have the responsibility to learn how to navigate it to protect themselves (and others). At the same time, governments have the responsibility to protect citizens against dangerous technology, such as that which allows excessive data mining and loss of privacy rights. If governments can foster the creative spark and the potential that brought the internet so far into our daily lives at such a rapid pace, then it can help preserve (rather than destroy) the most promising way to unlock human potential on our planet. Manifestoes, ranging from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of the Independence to the Communist Manifesto, delineate fundamental shifts in the relationship between elites and rulers. We are at a crossroads in terms of the power balance between citizens and elites/ powerless and powerful in the digital world; the Onlife Initiative seeks to make visible these issues and forces.

  • [1] Ironically, the development of key points of the internet—such as packet-switching, TCP/IP, the concept of Email, the World Wide Web and web browsers—would never have been developed without the early, open and collaborative nature of the internet that paralleled the heavy involvement of academics and did not follow the laws of market capitalism. However, commerce and nation-states have long since expropriated this free-ware capital, a move that is perhaps so painful to early web developers that it seems under acknowledged. Certainly, there are elements of the online sphere that both spread and foster values of disinterested participation, but they are now the exception rather than the rule.
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