Are the Digital Commons condemned to become “Capital Commons”?

Last week, Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, published a rather surprising article on the Wired site entitled: “Facebook and Google must do more to support Wikipedia”. The starting point of her reasoning was to point out that Wikipedia content is increasingly being used by digital giants, such as Facebook or Google:


For a project like Wikipedia, things would probably be different if firms like Google or Facebook answered the call launched by Katherine Maher. The Wikipedia community has strict rules in place regarding paid contributions, which means that you would probably never see 90% of the content produced by employees. Company contributions would likely be in the form of cash payments to the Wikimedia Foundation. However, economic dependence would be no less strong; until now, Wikipedia has ensured its independence basically by relying on individual donations to cover the costs associated with maintaining the project’s infrastructure. This economic dependence would no doubt quickly become a political dependence – which, by the way, the Wikimedia Foundation has already been criticised for, regarding a large number of personalities with direct or indirect links with Google included on its board, to the point of generating strong tensions with the community. The Mozilla Foundation, behind the Firefox browser, has sometimes received similar criticism. Their dependence on Google funding may have attracted rather virulent reproach and doubts about some of its strategic choices.

In the end, this question of the digital Commons’ state of economic dependence is relatively widespread. There are, in reality, very few free projects having reached a significant scale that have not become more or less “Capital Commons”. This progressive satellite-isation is likely to be further exacerbated by the fact that free software communities have placed themselves in a fragile situation by coordinating with infrastructures that can easily be captured by Capital. This is precisely what just happened with Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub. Some may have welcomed the fact that this acquisition reflected a real evolution of Microsoft’s strategy towards Open Source, even that it could be a sign that “free software has won”, as we sometimes hear.

But, we can seriously doubt it. Although free software has acquired an infrastructural dimension today – to the point that even a landmark player in proprietary software like Microsoft can no longer ignore it – the developer communities still lack the means of their independence, whether individually (developers employed by large companies are in the majority) or collectively (a lot of free software depends on centralized platforms like GitHub for development). Paradoxically, Microsoft has taken seriously Platform Cooperativism’s watchwords, which emphasize the importance of becoming the owner of the means of production in the digital environment in order to be able to create real alternatives. Over time, Microsoft has become one of the main users of GitHub for developing its own code; logically, it bought the platform to become its master. Meanwhile – and this is something of a grating irony – Trebor Scholz – one of the initiators, along with Nathan Schneider, of the Platform Cooperativism movement – has accepted one million dollars in funding from Google to develop his projects. This amounts to immediately making oneself dependent on one of the main actors of surveillance capitalism, seriously compromising any hope of building real alternatives.

Read the rest at Guerrilla Translation


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