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Interview with Yochai Benkler

Maggio 6, 2007

Can you please explain the concept of commons-based peer production and how it transforms the way we look at the economy?

The concept is made up of two distinct elements: commons, and peers. “Commons” refers to a way of organizing a resource. Roads, sidewalks, or piazzas are commons. It means that anyone can use the commons under some set of rules, or none, without asking anyone’s permission. Commons-based production can be commercial of non-commercial. For example, someone who performs in the piazza for money is pursuing a commercial commons-based model: they are using a commons as their space, unlike a performer in a
theatre.

“Peer-production” refers to a phenomenon of large-scale cooperation among people on a given project or problem. What typifies “peer production” is that it represents an alternative model of organizing people, alternative to firms and markets. Rather than responding to managerial commands, or to prices, peer producers use social motivation and communications to organize their efforts.

The rise of commons-based production generally, and peer production in particular, creates a new sector in the information and knowledge economy. It creates new sources of competition to established businesses, but also new opportunities for businesses that are quick enough to adapt. They provide old desires, like the need for encyclopdias, in new ways, and completely new things that we did’t have before–in particular new ways for people to express themselves in words, sounds, and images.

How are freedom of speech and political liberty enhanced by open-access, many-to-many digital media?

What we know, how we know it, what we think about the world and how we can imagine it becoming are central to individual liberty and political participation. The fact that so many people can now speak, and that they are clustering in networks of mutual pointing, such as in the blogosphere, makes it much more feasible for any given individual to have their views voiced, and have them become the subject of serious public conversation.

At the same time, there is a lot of nonesense on the Net. The practice of encountering nonesense is very good for us. It teaches us to be skeptical, to inquire, cross-reference, and genrally find out for ourselves. Seeking diverse sources is a fundamentally more engaged and self-governing act than seeking authority. As we go through the world now, then, we adopt two stances that are more attractive politically. The first is that we see things with the eyes of someone who can say something meaningful about it on a political platform that matters. The second is that we see things with the eyes of seasoned critics, rather than believers.

What political forces in Europe and America are in your view currently supporting social production and digital freedom, and a curtailment of the monopolistic protection afforded by patents and copyright?

I think we are seeing the emergence of a global access to knoweldge movement that is a response to the successful drive, in the 1980s and 1990s, to extend patents and copyrights into every corner of innovation and creativity, and to integrate them into the global trade system through the TRIPS agreement in the WTO. This movement includes some surprising alliances. One element are traditional bodies of civil society: consumer organizations, civil rights groups, that see the importance to individuals of being able to participate in making our own information environment. Another element are computer programmers, as individuals.

The emergence of the free software movement and open source software development has brought over a million programmers, primarily in Europe and the U.S., into the circle of people who are touched by copyrights and patents, and has politicized them in ways that are extremely atypical of engineers in the past. The battles over music and video, coupled with the widescale availability of attractive tools that make every teenager a potential creator, and a potential felon, have been driving the free culture student movement, and the creative commons or icommons movement. At the same time, major information technology companies are understanding that the legal ecosystem in which they operate is placing high costs on them without giving them any real advantages. Many IT companies
find themselves spending millions on patents they only get for defensive purposes, and find themselves worried that standards will be hijacked by a patent owner, or that a copyright owner will sue them for astronomic numbers because of a technology they developed.

Some of the developing countriees as well, most prominently Brazil, have begun to make common cause with this far-flung coalition, under the banner of “A2K” or Access to Knowledge. It is very similar to the movement we saw in the U.S., when around 1999-2001, civil society organizatoins and technoloy companies began to form a blocking lobby that has prevented any laws or regulations that further the interests of the industrial information economy incumbents for almost a decade now. It is similar to the movement in Europe to block spftware patents. And it is now happening on a global scale.

For many, 2006 was the year of Web 2.0 and social networking. Do you think social networking will got the way of the dot-com bubble, or is there really pots of money to be made, like Google and Murdoch seem inclined to believe?

First of all, one should not confuse the deflation of the insane stock market with a failure of takeoff for the Internet. Let’s not forget, Google, and Amazon, and eBay, etc., are all companies that emerged before, during, and remained after the bubble exploded. Social and economic practices in the information industries did in fact change, and enormous new value and productivity increases resulted. Let’s not blow off Bubble 1.0 as a period
that’s all hype. It was a period of enormous growth, innovation, and development, that had an overlay of greed and insanity. It is the latter, not the former, that collapsed.

This is, in many senses, my answer to your question. That is to say, what we are seeing with the focus on Web 2.0 and social networking is a combination of fundamentals–those that I spend so much time discussing in the book–with hype and efforts to make a lot of money quickly. At some point, who knows whether in a year or five, some large number of people will get greedy and careless, and lose money. That will not make the fact of innovation, growth, and changing business models today and less real or stable.

So yes, I do think that there is a whole array of business models around the information commons, some companies are already making large amounts of money from it, others are already getting to much easy cash, and there is a lot of uncertainty. But the basic shift toward decentralized physical capital, decentralized human capital, and the need for and opporutnities represented by the integration of these newly-capable human beings into social and economic practices will be there.

Do the tenets of a liberal theory of justice require that public authorities and educational institutions use only open-source/free software in carrying out their functions?

No, I don’t think you derive such specific policy choices from liberal theory. I think public authorities have multiple responsibilities, including in this context to assure excellent software, for example, that is usable by children and later students. If free software does not fulifll these desiderata, then it is legitimate for a government to decide not to use it.

What I think *is* incumbent upon public authorities and educational insitutions is not to bias their practices in favor of proprietary models, just because they are there, and they are being lobbied. They need to see what applications are in fact available. They need to think long term, about computer litercy and the extent to which the differnece between the two can increase kids’ awareness of what they are using and how to use it. I think
if a platform threatens to be monopolized, or if the capabilities of systems are crippled to comply with industry requirements, such as in the case of proposed trusted systems, then yes, there is a deeper value of assuring open systems that is incumbent upon governments, and for which acquisition of free software is a central strategy.

There are other aspects of policy, however, that do support strong adoption of free software. Development policy is strongly supported by free software, because it supports the development of an internal market for free software developers who could then participate in a global software services market more readily than if they only know how to use proprietary systems and depend on licenses to compete. Defense and national security bodies have tended to go with free software, partly for the robustness, but to a great extent because of the independence from any one company and the ability to tweak the software to their own needs.

To sum up: there are many good reasons to adopt free software, for schools and elsewhere. A commitment to an open, core common infrastructure, including a free software layer, is indeed in my view supported by a commitment to both freedom and justice. This commitment should inform public policy decisions, but I am not ready to say that it should overwhelm other considerations across the board of procurement policy.

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