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Essay of the Day: Centralized cloud environments vs. Decentralized alternatives for peer-production

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th October 2012


* Article: The Commodification of Information Commons. By Primavera De Filippi and Miguel Said Vieira.

Today, a follow-up of yesterday’s first excerpt on enclosures through the cloud. What can we do against it?

GOVERNANCE AND ARCHITECTURE DESIGN, By Primavera De Filippi and Miguel Said Vieira:

a. Decentralized peer-production

“As mentioned in previous sections, most (successful) models of commons production are geared towards the satisfaction of a community’s needs. As a result, the output of production cannot be regarded as a commodity (in Polanyi’s terms). Even if certain communities do actually sell some of their common resources, generally speaking, this form of commercialization is not directly aimed towards the accumulation of surplus, but rather towards guaranteeing the sustained existence of the common resources, or, eventually, towards financing the production of additional resources to fulfil new and more community’s needs.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that many commons display a significant level of selforganization and democratic community participation. This was one of the findings of Elinor Ostrom’s research, defining self-organization and democratic participation as two of the fundamental “design principles” of the most successful, enduring commons.

Highly centralized, hierarchical models of production are often unwelcoming to input from the members of the community, so that the needs of many users could simply be ignored and go unattended. In those models, the risk of the community breaking down is therefore considerable, unless there is a strong leader or a significant level of cohesion.

While Ostrom’s research focused material commons, those traits can easily be observed in the context of intellectual commons. Wikipedia and the Debian project are good examples of this.

Even though they do implement some limited form of hierarchy, their structure and organization is ultimately based on democratic principles that dictate most of the wide ranging decisionmaking processes.

These projects are also permeable to new members and their contributions:

anyone can edit Wikipedia (in most articles, even without being a registered member) or contribute to Debian, and can do so voluntarily, self-selecting their preferred tasks—as is typical of peer production initiatives. In the case of the Debian project, even if some of the most substantive ways to contribute (package maintenance, for instance) require specialized technical knowledge, many others do not (translations, legal issues, communications, advocacy etc.); and since 2010, non-technical contributors can also attain the official status of Debian Developers, and thus vote in the most important decisions concerning the project (Debian Project 2010).

b. Centralized cloud environment

Commodities, according to Polanyi’s definition, are mainly produced to satisfy market needs and considerations. Oftentimes, commodities are directly pushed into the market, and profit is taken as an indirect measure of people’s needs. Rather than being determined by those communities’ needs, production is gauged according to the overall profits: if one commodity sells well, more of it will be produced, until market demand is satisfied—that is, not because they reflect effective societal needs, but merely because some can buy it at a profitable price for the producer. Matters are further complicated through advanced and ubiquitous advertising and branding practices, which have the effect of blurring people’s effective needs.

In the context of cloud computing, where most online operators are profit oriented, information commons are not produced by the community for the community; they are produced—by the community—to ultimately satisfy the interests of cloud operators. While this usually involves furthering the interests of the community—a precondition to maintain a satisfied, productive user-base—answering to the community is only a means to reach another end, which is mostly oriented towards the maximization of profits.

To do so, the majority of cloud computing platforms rely on centralized architectures combined with a hierarchical system of governance. Given that all hardware and software is controlled by the cloud operators, users can only interact with the platform according to the rules established by the service provider. Risks of cooptation increase, as service providers are likely to encourage the production of information commons according to the amount of profits that they might derive from it, rather than according to the actual interests of the community itself.

Besides, unless data portability or interoperability has been provided by the cloud operator, users willing to leave one platform might only do so at the costs of losing all data stored in the cloud. Insofar as users are locked into the platform (i.e. the costs of switching to another platform are higher than the benefits they might derive from it), the correlation between users’ needs and cloud operators’ interests is weakened, as profits are not necessarily linked to the satisfaction of actual users’ needs (De Filippi and Belli 2012).

c. Decentralized alternatives for peer-production

Previous sections have illustrated the existence of a clear and serious mismatch between information commons produced according to a community-centred and democratic approach, and those produced in the context of cloud providers’ market-driven, centralized and asymmetrical approach. This mismatch is one of the main culprits for the various possibilities of commodification that we have described so far. However, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of cloud computing are equally inadequate to the production or the dissemination of intellectual commons; it is in fact theoretically possible to design a series of decentralized cloud computing platforms based on a peer-to-peer architecture.

Such platforms might allow communities to escape from the centralized control of large service providers, thereby increasing their autonomy as regards their own data, and reducing the risks of commodification.

Implementing decentralized infrastructures for cloud computing is not necessarily a trivial task (on the contrary), nor necessarily the most efficient option: centralized, large-scale providers often benefit from economies of scale in terms of costs, performance and maintenance. However, the intensive use of file-sharing peer-to-peer technologies as an alternative to centralized fileserving suggests that the peer-to-peer approach to cloud computing is not only feasible, but also promising. Apart from a clearly more adequate fit with the commons’ model of governance, another reason for this is that personal computers connected to the Internet are often below their maximum usage capacity (in terms of processor cycles, memory usage and bandwidth). Peer-topeer approaches to cloud computing allow communities to tap and pool these “spare resources” (which would otherwise go unused) instead of purchasing them from cloud providers. Exclusive reliance on user’s personal computers might introduce a series of concerns in terms of infrastructure reliability and resources’ availability (personal computers are more likely to fail, or to be turned off, than cloud providers’ servers located on dedicated data centres); but most of these drawbacks can be lessened by means of planned redundancy, for instance.

There are already many initiatives experimenting with a communitarian approach to cloudrelated services. One interesting example tackling the issue of online storage is Tahoe-LAFS, a distributed, secure, fault-tolerant FLOSS file system, which can be used for the storage of personal files (tahoe-lafs.org). Data is stored across a variety of nodes in a redundant way (where the level of redundancy is configurable), so that even if some nodes are not online (or even if they have been completely lost due to hardware failure), files can still accessed.

All data stored on Tahoe-LAFS is encrypted, so that—unlike what happens by default in most commercial cloud computing platforms—no one but the file owner can access its contents (not even those who actually control the nodes where that file sits). In practice, this means that a small group of individuals with only moderate technical knowledge and standard personal computers can provide each other, for free, online backup services that can be more secure (in terms of privacy, at least) than those offered by commercial providers. Another example with a wide range of applications is FreedomBox: a community project to develop, design and promote personal servers running free software for distributed social networking, email and audio/video communications. The project was initiated by Eben Moglen on February 2010 and is now being carried out by the FreedomBox Foundation. Intended to assemble a “collection of social communication tools, distributed services, and intelligent routing in a package anyone can use” (FreedomBox Foundation), the basic idea is to allow anyone to easily set-up their own personal servers, using FLOSS software to replace many provider-based web services. The list of applications a FreedomBox should be able to run include feed aggregators, photo sharing, webmail, blog (and microblog) publishing, link shortening / sharing, text chat, calendar and time-management systems, telephony systems, activity stream (as in current social networks), and online backup (“Leaving the (proprietary) cloud” 2012). While much of the software already exists, it is being packaged and adapted in a way that it can run from cheap, low-power devices (from older personal computers to modern “plug-sized” computers), and take advantage from cryptography and peer-to-peer technologies (such as mesh networking) to guarantee privacy, avoid censorship and overcome localized connectivity problems. Those are just a few of the various initiatives that have been taken so far, yet, it is important to note that those efforts, albeit extremely valuable, are not sufficient (as such) to counteract the trend towards the commodification of information commons. Issues related to Internet governance and access to technology, which can undermine these efforts, must also be worked on. For these alternatives to actually have an impact upon society, they also must be widely available and easy to use, and —most importantly—the dangers of commodification must be clearly communicated to the public. Awareness of the risks resulting from the growing centralization of cloud computing platforms is the first step towards the provision of decentralized alternatives which are likely to be adopted by a sufficiently large number of users.

Only then will it be possible to offer a community-oriented service capable of being an alternative to the services provided by commercial cloud operators.”

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