Essay of the Day: The Commodification of the Information Commons through Cloud Computing

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

In summary:

“”Internet and digital technologies allowed for the emergence of new modes of production involving cooperation and collaboration amongst peers (peer-production) and oriented towards the maximization of the common good—as opposed to the maximization of profits. To ensure that content will always remain available to the public, the output of production is often released under a specific regime that prevents anyone from subsequently turning it into a commodity (the regime of information commons).

Although they cannot be commodified, information commons can nonetheless be exploited by the market economy. Indeed, since they have been made available for use by anyone, large Internet service providers can indirectly benefit from the commons by capturing the value derived from it. While this is not a problem as such, problems arise when the exploitation of the commons by one agent is likely to preclude others from doing the same—often as a result of commodification. This is especially true in the context of cloud computing, where the content holder has become as powerful, if not more powerful than the copyright owner. Nowadays, regardless of their legal status, information commons are increasingly controlled by large corporations who can precisely define the manner in which they can be used or accessed. Digital communities need to be aware of these risks. In order to reduce the likelihood of commodification, but still benefit from the advantages offered by cloud computing, digital communities should rely on decentralized platforms based on peer-to-peer architectures— thereby escaping from the centralized control of large service providers while nonetheless preserving the autonomy of the commons they produce.”

Today a first excerpt on Commodification through Cloud Computing


By Primavera De Filippi and Miguel Said Vieira:

a. Definition

Commodification is the process through which something becomes a commodity. Commodity, in turn, is a concept that can be defined in many (often complex) ways. For the purpose of this paper, we have adopted an operational definition of commodity, similar to that of Karl Polanyi (1957 [1944], 72): a private good, produced through a process which is mostly driven by market needs or considerations (as opposed to a process driven by direct needs or considerations of a community).

Before further exploring this definition, let us consider an argument in favour of commodification which is frequently raised in mainstream economics: the market demand for commodities is the most efficient way to gauge the needs of communities. We argue that the problem with this approach is that markets can only offer, at most, an indirect signalling of community’s needs; one which is prone to serious distortions. This distortions can be clearly exemplified by the “neglected diseases” issue, which refers to diseases that receive very little attention from the pharmaceutical industry (in terms of research investments, and sometimes even production and distribution of existing medicines), even though they affect more than a billion people around the world (DNDi 2012).

This same industry, in turn, makes huge investments in research for drugs that cater to the needs of a wealthy minority, often wasting valuable resources in developing similar medicines for already treatable conditions (as in the case of erectile dysfunction drugs), only in order to have a share in the most lucrative markets (Latrive 2005, 27). This illustrates how markets might frequently be better in signalling the profitability of an endeavour than the needs of communities.

Coming back to the definition of commodity, its application to information commons (namely, when information commons are the subjects of a commodification process) involves a peculiarity. To turn a commons into a commodity, it must firstly be turned from a common good (i.e. a good that is owned by a community) into a private good through the process of enclosure.

This is due to two main reasons. First, in order to legitimately offer a commodity in a market, one must be able to exert exclusive rights (such as those connected to private property) over it.

Second, if a commodity can be shared amongst several individuals, it will be less scarce (and thus less valuable as a commodity) than if it was exclusively controlled by one person. To better understand the concept of commodification as applied to information commons, it might be useful to distinguish it from similar but distinct phenomena that can occur within or around the commons. One of these is the process of commercialization, i.e. the act of offering something for sale. While commodification presupposes commercialization, the reverse is not always true. For instance, although FLOSS can sometimes be sold commercially, such a sale does not involves the commodification of the software (which remains shareable and free—in the strong sense of this word—despite the sale), nor does it imply that the production thereof was necessarily driven by market needs. In this example, commercialization occurs inside the commons, to the extent that it is directly affecting its resource pool; however, commercialization can also occur around the commons, by indirectly leveraging the contents of the resource pool. This is the case of many “indirect sale-value” (Raymond 2001, 134–140; Eric Raymond is a leading figure in the open source software movement) and “freemium” (Anderson 2009) business models, in which profit comes not from the sale of the commons resource pool, but rather from the sale of products or services related to it. In the context of FLOSS, this type of commercialization is generally achieved through the sale of proprietary versions with additional features, specialized hardware that is compatible with the software, support or customization services. In the context of literary works, this is achieved through the sale of abridged audio versions, deluxe editions; and so on.

Finally, commercialization around the commons can also be achieved by means of advertising.

Providing information commons for free in order to attract a substantial users base and subsequently selling users’ data for the purpose of behavioural advertising is nowadays a frequent business model which, although definitely involving some degree of commodification, does not necessarily imply commodification of the commons’ resource pool itself.

Many of these cases are based upon the provision of previously unavailable services or products; ones that can satisfy communities’ needs, without posing threats to the commons they’re structured around. Additionally, the benefits derived from advertising and previous examples could potentially be used to provide resources for the development of more information commons.

A second phenomenon that must be distinguished from the commodification of information commons is the one of cooptation: i.e. transforming the structure of an information commons in such a way as to no longer reflect the aims and needs of its community. Cooptation can be a consequence of commercialization happening around the commons (as in the cases outlined above), but it is a more subtle and nuanced phenomenon. Let us consider two possible examples of cooptation.

One is the case of FLOSS becoming the object of interest of a few companies whose businesses are based on providing services or selling hardware somehow related to that FLOSS. Those companies are likely to contribute to the development of that software, mainly to ensure it is being developed in ways which are compatible with the businesses they run around it. In this case, cooptation would take place whenever the influence these companies exert over the development of the software is so large (e.g. because of the amount of community members that the company can employ for paid work, or because of their interference in the governance structure of the commons) that it eventually supersedes the influence of other actors, thus effectively making the needs of those companies a priority over the community’s needs.

Since the commons’ resource pool remains free, it is in theory always possible for the community to fork in order to follow a different direction; yet, apart from the fact that forking is generally rare (it is undertaken only as a last resort, as communities acknowledge that otherwise it wastes too much effort [Weber 2005, 64]), the fact that the company employs many members of the community introduces an additional imbalance favouring the primacy of the company’s interests.

The second example is that of many blogs licensed under free/open content licenses. Most of those blogs resort to advertisements (either in the form of banners and text ads, or through sponsored posts and paid product placement) in order to earn money. In this case, cooptation would occur if the content and general editorial direction of those blogs were transformed in such a way as to make them more attractive to advertisers (for instance, by focusing on content that is seen as more advertising-friendly, that promotes more click-throughs, or that is geared to increasing search engine hits).

As mentioned above, cooptation is ultimately a nuanced process: in both examples, there is a continuum of gray areas (rather than a binary measure) of cooptation. It is—unlike commercialization inside or around the commons, which could potentially help in funding the maintenance of the commons—a process strictly detrimental to commons, although it does not necessarily involve commodification per se.

b. Traditional means of commodification

Commons are generally driven by the needs of their communities; and with information commons, communities can be remarkably large and porous to new members.

Information commons create value for society by allowing anyone to use them, but also to build upon them, to subsequently produce new works that will become themselves part of the commons (either immediately, whenever the derivate works have been released under a free/open license, or at a later time, after the copyright has expired).

All works derived from the information commons will either become immediately available to the public under an identical (in the case of copyleft licenses) or similar regime, or they will be subject to the copyright regime and thus only benefit society at a later time, after the exclusive rights have expired. While any work released under a free/open licence will contribute to increasing the pool of information commons, licenses precluding the making of derived works or imposing restrictions over commercial uses of the commons could reduce potential benefits that can emerge from those works (in particular, the possibility that certain derived works are produced and added to the commons). Those are, however, the most widely used types of licences: according to an estimate by Creative Commons in 2010, almost half the works using their licenses used those with clauses precluding commercial usage—including the making of derived works. 26 This can be detrimental to the extent that using the commons—either commercially or not—is likely to result in previously unavailable products or services that could ultimately benefit society. The use of these licences is therefore discouraged by many online communities concerned with the preservation and the promotion of information commons, on the grounds that information commons cannot be, in themselves, directly harmed by commercial usages, since they will, at least in principle, also remain accessible to others in a non-commercial way. What is true in principle is, however, not necessarily true in practice. Indeed, many mechanisms can be employed to turn information commons into a commodity.

One of such mechanisms—albeit somewhat controversial—is to acquire the copyright in a work and subsequently revoke the licence. This issue was raised in the CyberPatrol case, where the copyright in software released under the GPL licence was transferred to a third party which purported to revoke the licence. Although the judge ultimately did not rule on the issue, the general opinion is that even though the copyright owner may decide that a work be no longer released under a particular license, this decision cannot impinge upon the rights of any previous licensee who has legitimately obtained a license: any formerly issued license will continue to be valid provided that no breach has occurred.

When the law does not allow for the commons to be turned into a commodity, contracts and technology can be used instead, as a mechanism to dictate the extent to which a particular piece of content can be used. This can be done, for instance, by incorporating protected material into an information commons (e.g. adding a preface to a book that has entered the public domain) and subsequently relying on contractual provisions and/or technological measures to introduce an additional layer of protection to the work as a whole. While this practice has been precluded by several free / open licences, it can nonetheless be employed to acquire control over information that is not subject to copyright protection, such as facts, ideas, or any work whose copyright has expired.

Moreover, some people claim that the mere act of digitization gives rise to a new right over the resulting digital copy. Although this claim has thus far not been acknowledged by the jurisprudence, several corporations, such as Google, implement something similar by incorporating contractual provisions into the digitized copies of public domain works in order to prevent users from exploiting them commercially.

Contracts and technology can thus potentially supersede the law, turning public domain information into a commodity whose exploitation can be regulated as if it qualified for copyright protection (for more details on the use of contracts for the commodification of information, see e.g. Radin 2004

c. Commodification through Cloud Computing

Cloud computing provides the underlying infrastructure for the establishment of a whole new layer of commodification, which applies not only to public domain information but also to copyrighted content released under free/open licences.

Given that information stored into the cloud is made available to the public through a specific, provider-controlled user interface (be it a graphical user interface, or an application programming interface), cloud providers can unilaterally determine the extent to which and the manner in which information commons can be accessed, used or reused. If—as clearly expressed by Lawrence Lessig (2006)—code is the law of the internet, in the context of cloud computing the user interface can become de facto law. As the main content holders, cloud providers have become as powerful, and sometimes more powerful than copyright owners. Indeed, the provisions of copyright law have become irrelevant in a context where everything the user can or cannot do is determined by the technical specifications of the cloud computing platform. By exporting content into the cloud, the copyright owner no longer enjoys direct access to such content and is thus left with little practical means of control over it. The cloud provider, on the other hand, has the power to specify the terms and conditions regulating the access to and the usage of any piece of content stored on its servers, potentially ignoring the provisions of the licence under which it has been released (De Filippi and McCarthy 2012).

By limiting the extent to which users control their content, cloud computing itself, as a service sold to communities, is commodified; its characteristics have less to do with communities’ needs than with the provider’s profit motivation. But commodification can also happen here in a second and less obvious direction: when commons are turned into commodities, and are used to “pay” for cloud computing services.

One of techniques used to reach that goal is the practice of crowdsourcing.

Nowadays, the production of content or information frequently is done not by online operators, but rather by a large community of users participating in online platforms. Encouraging digital communities to produce and share information is a means for online service providers to maximize their profits by exploiting the output of peer production as a means to reduce their own costs of production. Online operators can subsequently reap off the benefit thereof by offering a service whose value is for the most part derived from the commercial exploitation of this content.

In the last few years, a large number of such platforms have been deployed to facilitate social interactions through the dissemination of user-generated-content. This is the case of Facebook, whose business model relies—in addition to selling user’s data to advertisers—mainly on the content produced by its user-base; but also Flickr, Twitter or any other company that does not actually produce any content itself, but merely exploits the content generated by others for its own profit.

Most of those platforms are nowadays controlled by large corporations that are able to precisely define the manner in which content can be produced or communicated through them. Although they cannot claim any right over such content, they can nonetheless dictate the way users can access or interact with it. Oftentimes, terms of use also require users to automatically transfer the copyright in any content produced onto the platform, or a minima to grant the service operator a universal, perpetual and unconditional license for exploiting such content.

In spite of its legal status, content can thus be freely exploited by cloud operators.

Conversely, to the extent that they cannot fully control the content they have produced (as it is now hosted in the infrastructure owned by the provider), users cannot freely dispose of it—regardless of whether or not it has been released into the commons.

Finally, this leads to another fundamental concern raised by cloud computing with regards to the freedom to use and reuse information commons. To the extent that content is only available through the interface provided by the cloud provider, users can no longer access the source file of such content. In the case of FLOSS, access to the source code is a prerequisite for users to exercise their freedom to understand, edit and modify the code. Similarly, in the context of information commons, access to the source file is often necessary—or to the least instrumental— to the creation of derivative works. By not providing the means for users to download the source files of content stored into the cloud, cloud providers can negatively affect some of the freedoms granted to users under the licence.”

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