netCommons: Network Infrastructure as Commons (2016-2018)
- The University of Westminster: Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies (WIAS), Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI)
- Università degli Studi di Trento, Italy
- Centre national de la recherche scientifique, France
- Nethood, Switzerland
- Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Spain
- Athens University of Economics and Business Research Center, Greece
netCommons is an EU Horizon 2020 project that studies, supports and further promotes an emerging trend: community-based networking and communication services that can complement, or even act as a sustainable alternative, to the global Internet’s current dominant model.
WIAS Director Professor Christian Fuchs leads University of Westminster’s involvement in the project. The task of the Westminster team, consisting of Fuchs, Dr Maria Michalis and Dr Dimitris Boucas, is to study the political economy of the Internet and alternative Internet organisation models, especially in respect to sustainability, policy-making, and information ethics.
Communications and information distribution are key components of a modern society, and the control of these is key to societal development. The advent of the Internet has been often invoked as a remedy for their democratisation and the diffusion of fundamental human rights. The light of truth today reveals a different picture: the digital divide is widening the gap between those who can access and take advantage of the new systems, and those who remain “disconnected” (with respect to physical access to technology, economic advantages, cultural uses and skills, and democratic impacts). Problems are emerging around the Internet’s sustainability – both socio-economic (with large Internet corporations eluding taxes and aggressively commercialising most services) and political-democratic (with global Internet surveillance and the lack of transparency). This, coupled with the complexity of the Internet’s organisation and a diffused lack of awareness about its actual implementation makes users easy targets of manipulation, and unaware of the possibility to have a bottom-up, democratic, communal organisation of “the Internet”.
Community networks not only provide citizens access to a neutral, bottom-up network infrastructure, which naturally increases the transparency of data flow, but they also represent an archetype of networked collective cooperation and action, mixing common or communal ownership and management of an infrastructure with a balanced set of services supported by local stakeholders. Community networks, however, are complex systems that require multiple skills to thrive: technical, legal, socio-economic, and political. They face many challenges and they also need abstractions, models and practical tools to grow and produce a higher beneficial impact on our society.
netCommons follows a dual approach to achieve the maximum possible impact. On the one hand, the project works at the local level, mingling with the communities that implement and manage community networks to gather relevant information, elaborate upon it, and then return advanced conceptual and technical tools to communities, helping them to grow and thrive. On the other hand, starting from such hands-on experience and work, netCommons contributes to Internet Science by abstracting concepts and opening the perspective to the world of global communications. It studies solutions and interpretations of how to build global awareness about the importance of sustainability, participation, co-operation, online information, freedom, democracy, peer production, the public and common good, and the role of community networks. Consequently, netCommons will foster the implementation of the proper actions (local to communities and global on the regulatory level) that can guarantee that information creation and diffusion remains free, neutral, fair, and respectful of individual rights.
netCommons seeks to create a major impact on EU society in two different ways. First, by providing people and organisations with new conceptual, technical, and political means of collaborative action to influence one of the most critical facets of modern society: the generation, distribution and fruition of information and knowledge. Second, by offering to governments, regulatory bodies, and decision makers novel interpretative tools and guidelines to legislate and implement measures that nurture these cooperative efforts, and, at the same time, protecting the development of community networks – generating novel socio-economic opportunities based on this paradigm of Internet Science.