The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
The triumph of peer production? image

Announcing the creation of the digital commons policy council

Once regarded as marginal curiosities, commons-based peer production projects such as free and open source software and Wikipedia now define industrial innovation and hold the key to societal cohesion. 

‘Digital infrastructure’ (also known as free and open source software) constitutes the ‘roads and bridges’ of the digital economy. After IBM’s initial adoption in 2002 and Google’s launch of Android in 2008, Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub for $7.5 billion in 2018 epitomised the shift from an ‘informational capitalism’ organised around the protection of IP to a nimbler ‘digital capitalism’ which integrates the digital commons into its ecosystem. 

As for Wikipedia, long derided as ‘untrustworthy,’ it now represents the only realistic response to societal maladies such as misinformation and the distrust of scientific knowledge: made-up conspiracies based on ‘doing your own research’ are systematically weeded out on Wikipedia (provided the article has a reasonable number of contributors). Everyone can see how the epistemic sausage is made; everyone is treated the same. This explains why right-wing conspiracy theorists now claim Wikipedia has a ‘left-wing’ bias: because their lies are not tolerated.

We are not suggesting that free and open source software and Wikipedia are perfect – issues such as sexism, inequality and (on Wikipedia) regulatory inertia are well documented – but all the same, their benefits are near-immeasurable.

In short, peer production is now triumphant. It propels technological innovation, it defeats misinformation! But it also faces a severe lack of recognition. Wikipedia and free and open source software’s radically collaborative mode of production and significant contributions to society and industry are not well understood in the broader community. 

Further, the integration of free and open source software into dominant for-profit ecosystems constitutes a potentially deadly peril, as the advent of cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) negate the reciprocal capacities of popular copyleft licenses. [1]

recognition for volunteer work and the commons sector

We believe an academic journal does not represent the most effective means to promote the societal recognition of the digital commons, or to oppose the threats they face. It is time to develop new tools. The work of the P2P Foundation, Commons Transition, Communia and Commons Network shows the way, but more organisations and initiatives that can facilitate connections between peer production and traditional institutions are necessary. In the context of widespread automation leading to increasing rates of unemployment in many sectors, there is a need to develop the means to gain more space and recognition for volunteer work and the commons sector from states and firms. Too often, unpaid digital labour producing digital commons is captured by ‘free riding’ entities who benefit without contributing to their sustainability in return.

To this end, in 2021 members of the Journal of Peer Production community began working on a new ‘think tank’: the Digital Commons Policy Council. The Digital Commons Policy Council (DCPC) documents initiatives seeking to expand the digital commons and to use the digital commons to transition to a more ecologically sustainable and fair society. It also seeks to increase the recognition of the social benefits of the digital commons and of the volunteer labour which produces these common resources. It does so by producing evidence-based public reports and how-to guides, and by making submissions to government.

The DCPC’s website is We present below existing and planned DCPC reports.

For the DCPC: Kit Braybrooke, Angela Daly, Mathieu O’Neil, Stefano Zacchiroli

[1] In a ‘traditional’ mode, a software program is downloaded and executed by customers on their own hardware. In a SaaS mode, the program is never transferred onto the customers’ machines, but is executed remotely on the provider’s hardware, and used online (e.g. within a Web browser). With SaaS, service prevails over use: a subscription to a service is bought, rather than a user licensing agreement being accepted for software copied onto the user’s computer. This creates a SaaS ‘loophole’ in the FOSS principle as implemented by most FOSS licenses, as the service provider is no longer obliged to offer access to the code: as SaaS software is not ‘distributed,’ it fails to trigger the reciprocal character of licenses such as the GPL (to be sure, a significant amount of FOSS is not distributed under a copyleft license, but under more permissive licenses such as MIT or BSD which are chosen by firms precisely because they do not contain the reciprocal characteristics of the GPL).

Title The coproduction of open source software by volunteers and big tech firms

Authors O’Neil, Cai, Muselli, Pailler, Zacchiroli

Released 9 JUN. 2021

This report maps how firms are collaborating with communities of unpaid volunteers to produce open source code, used in the ‘digital infrastructure’ which powers the contemporary networked economy. The IT news media, big tech firms and commercial foundations define firms and projects as a unified ‘community.’ Yet big tech firms such as Amazon are using cloud computing and Software as a Service to transform open source software, which is intended to be shared and modified, into closed assets. The report outlines strategic responses to big tech appropriation and reviews current debates about the recognition of volunteer work, money in FOSS, software licenses and universal basic incomes. The report also features invited comments exploring alternative perspectives by French open source specialists from the fields of academia, industry and activism, such as Framasoft.

Title 2016 Debian Project survey: Work and volunteers

Authors O’Neil, Zacchiroli, de Blanc

Released 16 DEC. 2021

Debian is a free software distribution (a distribution is a software suite comprising an operating system and applications). Established following a community model in 1993, Debian aims to be a ‘universal’ system both in the sense of operating on as many architectures as possible and of featuring as many application packages as possible. Its robustness and strict adherence to the principles of free software have made it legendary. Debian is used by organisations, governments, and individuals all over the world, including much of the critical digital infrastructure that runs daily life. This survey, held in 2016, inaugurated our inquiry into the relationship between volunteer work in free and open source software and broader dimensions of work and employment. There was great interest for this survey within the Debian community, and 1,479 people responded.

Title Report on the production of digital commons and on the conditions of the organisation and action of the Digital Commons Policy Council

Authors DCPC

Released forthcoming 2022