Analysis of the report on the Digital Commons

On the occasion of the Digital Assembly co-organised in Toulouse on 21 and 22 June by the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Commission, the report on the Digital Commons was published. This report was initiated by France during the conference ‘Building Europe’s Digital Sovereignty’ organised on 7 and 8 February. 

This report is the result of collective work by a group of 19 European union (EU) Member States, the European Commission.

The aim was to collectively develop a project to promote and accelerate the development of the digital commons.

The digital commons, pillars of European digital sovereignty

According to the definition of Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, a commons is defined as a resource designed and governed by a community, with established rules of access and sharing. A digital commons is therefore a digital resource such as a platform, a website or an application whose particularity is that it belongs to everyone and can be modified by everyone. In other words, the governance of this resource is managed in a democratic and bottom-up manner. 

The basic premise is that a well-maintained digital commons offers ‘a unique opportunity to support European digital sovereignty’.

First, under the right conditions, digital commons contribute to the preservation of control by external powers. Indeed, a digital commons is by definition neither in the hands of a single large company nor in those of a single state. This shared ownership aims to prevent the risk of abuse.

Secondly, the commons contribute to the collective valorisation of a digital resource and to the reuse of the digital data and infrastructure concerning it. The digital commons therefore promote innovation, social value and sustainability. Collective intelligence is indeed increased tenfold by the free access to information and the possibility to enrich the resource.

Finally, the digital commons are a pillar of cybersecurity, provided that they are well maintained. In other words, according to Eric S. Raymond’s adage, ‘if you have enough eyes, all bugs are shallow’ (The Cathedral and the Bazaar, 1999).


A strong need for visibility and acculturation of the digital commons

‘However, without a cultural shift in understanding the added value of the commons, their sustainability is threatened by a lack of use and contribution.’ As this report points out, the digital commons are excellent tools for moving towards European digital sovereignty, provided they are widely used. It is true that without widespread use and contribution, the resource can quickly become inefficient and obsolete. Hence the report’s proposals aimed firstly at giving visibility to the digital commons, and secondly, at gaining the trust of the different actors, in particular those of the digital commons community.

Four proposals to promote and accelerate the development of the digital commons

Proposal 1: Create a European one-stop-shop to guide communities towards adequate funding and public support

The idea is to create a platform to centralise at a European level the process of finding public funding for digital communities by providing guidance, expertise and resources.


Proposal 2: Launch a call for projects for the most strategic commons

The purpose of a call for projects on the digital commons would make it possible to respond to the financial problems encountered by the majority of commons, given their limited resources.

An orientation of funds towards thematic digital commons is recommended. The themes identified as priorities by the working group are research, e-government and strategic elements.


Proposal 3: Create a European Foundation for the Digital Commons

The creation of a European Foundation is the most ambitious proposal. ‘In coordination with the EU’s policy objectives, the structure would aim to foster the development of digital commons ecosystems across Europe, to strengthen existing communities and encourage the re-use of digital resources, while facilitating the spread of the digital commons model by supporting the generation of new digital commons.’

But, it would only become a true catalyst, supporter and promoter of the digital commons ‘if its governance is open and shared with the communities concerned.’ Governance would therefore be shared between the States, the European Commission and the digital commons communities. In addition, a permanent team would be dedicated to supporting this structure.


Proposal 4: Leading by example, the digital commons by default

This proposal aims to ensure that national and European administrations assess as a priority the possibility of a solution using open source code and open data as soon as they are faced with the development of digital resources.

Conclusion: the scope of the report

Welcomed by many in the digital commons community, these proposals are encouraging for the future and fully in line with the EU’s climate and digital objectives.

The next step is suggested by the report. This is a broad consultation on this topic in coordination with the launch of the call for projects. However, caution is called for. Indeed, the Czech Presidency of the European Union – which began on 1 July 2022 – must take over to ensure that all the challenges are met. But the Czech Republic is one Member State absent from the list of Member States that supported the report. The adoption of these recommendations could therefore be slowed down.

Finally, to complete these elements, the actors of the sector, including Wikimedia France, Framasoft, and Mobicoop, have taken up the issue. They have, in turn, drawn up a set of proposals with the same objective in mind.

The digital commons still have a bright future. In this regard, our next study will focus on the new models of citizen and contributory economy in Europe. This study will analyse the practices, partnerships and effects of two digital commons by social economy actors: Open Street Map and Open Food Fact.

About the author

Justine Coopman
Public Affairs and Communication
Lille, France