Sharing economies

The new information and communication technologies facilitate a sharing of knowledge that was not possible before. Both the speed of access and the amount of stored data make vast amounts of knowledge and other data available to anyone who has access to the Internet. In social network technologies people can copy, download and redistribute as they please. In previous times humankind invented 'copyright', to protect authors of text, images and other items from political and commercial misuse of their work. Increasingly it is companies, like Disney, who own copyrights and defend them vehemently against any citizen who may want to use an image. The political battle concerning the defence of copyright is driven by financial interests. Napster, one of the first Internet applications, which has facilitated the sharing of music since 1999, was prosecuted by the music industry and lost its case.note 29 Since then such file sharing utilities on the Internet have introduced registration for their customers so that copyrights are paid. But new niches for shared knowledge, music and other items continue to multiply.

An amazing example of success in the sharing of knowledge for free is Wikipedia.note 30 Thousands of people contribute to Wikipedia in over 50 languages. It is characterized by an elaborate social editing system through which people, anyone who wishes to share knowledge, can edit and add information to previously published material 24 hours a day. The quality of Wikipedia is ameliorating by the week. Because it is multilingual and because of its social editing process, which continues unabated, it is now challenging the Encyclopaedia Britannica for its position as the leading Encyclopaedia, according to the scientific magazine Nature.note 31 Nature compared 42 scientific articles from The Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia, had them peer reviewed and found that the Britannica contained three inaccuracies and Wikipidia contained four: "considering how Wikipedia articles are written, this result might seem surprising. A solar physicist could, for example, work on the entry for the Sun, but would have the same status as a contributor without an academic background. Disputes about content are usually resolved by discussion among users." (Giles 2005, 438). Also Nature surveyed more than 1000 Nature authors and found that "although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it." (Giles 2005, 438). Of course, Britannica has attacked the quality of the study and the argument between Britannica and Nature goes on as I write these words. For this study, I want to establish the fact that Wikipedia has shown, as many other Internet initiatives have, that people like to share knowledge and when many 'lay-people' do so, quality is achieved. It changes the position of the expert as it changes the value of copyright. Open editorial structures like Wikipedia though have to deal with completely different problems, which arise from structural abuse of the open space on offer by certain individuals.

Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, makes the distinction between commercial economies and sharing economies.note 32 People like sharing economies, which are much larger than commercial economies, because they express elements of human life that people endorse. Wikipedia would never have been as big and elaborate if it had paid its contributors, Lessig argues. Copyright law is getting in the way of sharing economies and therefore Lessig and his colleagues have developed Creative Commons. On the homepage they write: 'Creative Commons' licenses provide a flexible range of protections and freedoms for authors, artists, and educators. We have built upon the 'all rights reserved' concept of traditional copyright to offer a voluntary 'some rights reserved' approach.note 33 Authors can choose to attach a creative commons licence to their work, which regulates how other authors may or may not use their work. Creative Commons licences are free and specifically adapted to the copyright law of each country that participates. Where media technology facilitated a Read Only culture in the first instance, in which the content owner controls how culture is consumed, the technologies of Internet have revitalized the Read and Write culture that has been such a characteristic of human development, and something that people appreciate highly. In the light of the UDHR it does not make sense if each and every piece of information becomes an economic asset. It would exclude all children from even learning a simple song at school. Also, a total absence of copyright protection does not make sense since authors need to be able to protect their work. Creative Commons, which aims to solve these issues in a pragmatic way, is based in over 30 countries now and Lessig claims that over 137 million Creative Commons licences are in use.

Creative Commons is just one of the solutions that people have created to sustain the sharing economy. Movements like Free Softwarenote 34 and Open Sourcenote 35 promote open editorial structures for the software code that makes applications run. Open Source in particular has become a policy issue for Non Governmental Organizations, city councils and even some parliaments. More and more people realize that the dependency on certain software companies like Microsoft is counterproductive for the sustaining of sharing economies and the public domain. The Open Source Initiative states on its site: "When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing. We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits." (Open Source Initiative, 2006). In keeping with these ideas terms like Open Content and Open Standards are frequently used. How to sustain sharing economies is relevant both in economic and in political terms.

I will not be discussing the part that encryption and closed networks already play in the development of social interactions in organizations. However, it is worthwhile realizing that for reasons of non-interference by any outsider, the development of these strategies is being increasingly improved, which will undoubtedly have an effect on the development of other information and communication technologies and also on the social structures they generate.

Presence technologies are appreciated by people because they facilitate the transcending of boundaries of time and place as was never possible before. People love to connect and love to share. But because the digital communication and information structures are new, the way human dignity is protected in these structures is unclear. Basic concepts that underlie the UDHR like autonomy, integrity and safety, are challenged by the new presence technologies. We can conclude that the new presence technologies affect social structures between people and therefore that ethics have to be applied to the design of the information and communication technologies as well.