Building a Network of Solidarity | kulturpunkt

English Essay


Building a Network of Solidarity

The follow-up to the feature about the commons looks at Internet spaces that provide the technical framework for the exchange of goods beyond market logic, and often beyond the law.

by: Luka Ostojić

PHOTO: Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons

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In the first text, we addressed the theoretical and practical possibilities of the idea of commons which originated in economics and spread into critical social theory and various activist movements across the globe. We looked at whether the commons are the future of social organizing, but didn’t take into account that they might already be the present. That may sound bombastic, but it needn’t be – the commons are a form of collective resource management, independent of the state or the market, so there is no reason for them not to coexist alongside the state and the market. They are often about practices that slide into areas which the state and the market don’t even deal with, as seen in examples on which economist Elinor Ostrom built her theory of the commons. But when people want to self-organize and manage resources without external control, it is rather likely that an external authority – say, a centralized state – will, to put it mildly, disagree with the idea.

It may therefore seem that the right to such freedom can only be won by small groups in exceptional situations, which would entail that the commons can only be found in smaller, exotic, perhaps theoretically interesting, but on a larger scale irrelevant cases. Yet in today’s virtual age, the commons have significantly greater power and reach. Not only has the software and Internet space largely been built by developers who worked on the principles of commons, but the Internet has provided the technical framework for the exchange of goods beyond any market logic, and often beyond the law. Through some examples of such practices we will look at how the commons are not a theoretical alternative to the current system, but a real phenomenon that takes the initiative without question or excuse in situations where neither political nor economic regimes meet the public need.

Open access to a "new continent"

As is the case with many other innovations, computer technology emerged as a result of the great freedom, enthusiasm and open collaboration of the scientists who worked on it. The initial development of computers and the Internet owes much to American public funding (during the Cold War when technological supremacy over the Soviet Union was a political priority), as well as to broad university cooperation. The Agency for Advanced Research (ARPA) was established as part of the US Department of Defense in 1958. ARPA was formally supposed to develop military technology, but the Ministry of Defense entrusted the agency with great autonomy in technological research in various fields. With great resources and project freedom, ARPA has made a number of technological advances, including the ARPANET computer network from which the Internet later emerged. University professors and doctoral students worked on ARPA's projects, and they all had open access to each other’s research results so they could build on these and develop technology together. Such a way of collaborating led to significant technological breakthroughs, while at the same time it forged communities of programmers who would later go on to work together developing software, regardless of their day jobs and professional affiliations.

As the technology was evolving and spreading (first with the advent of affordable PCs in the mid-1970s and later through the rise of the Internet), access was opening up to a "new continent", a vast virtual space with all its potential resources. Soon, two opposing views crystallized on how these goods should be managed. On the one hand, a significant number of developers tried to keep the space fully open to allow for further collaboration and development of technology, and on the other hand, the corporate lobby tried to occupy, parcel out and privatize resources so they could charge for their use. Both sides, despite their indirect conflict, managed to achieve their intentions. Corporations lobbied for neoliberal changes to US laws in the 1980s and 1990s, enabling the patenting and commercialization of software (which spread around the world with the help of the World Trade Organization). Many developers found work in the very same corporations, but those programming communities also managed to survive and continued to work on software outside of the market. They went on to create quality software autonomously, and by establishing copyleft licenses, they legally ensured that their programs remained non-commercial and freely available. So everyone took their portion of the territory, but with ongoing tensions and conflicts: "free" developers still felt that software commercialization undermined the quality and advance of technology, and the for-profit sector didn’t want low-cost or free competition in the market. In addition to the two entrenched camps, which functioned within the law, there are also “pirate” developers who, thanks to the media, could ignore copyright altogether and distribute protected materials illegally, at the risk of draconian legal penalties, to be sure.

Reformist efforts and their limitations

In terms of creating an open and legal alternative to commercial content, the programming communities created a movement that may not be particularly innovative in a broader sense, but has strongly influenced both the software field and other initiatives to combat the commercialization of access to culture. We are talking about the Free Software Movement (later also known as Open Software) which was launched in 1985 by Richard Stallman, an American hacker who was frustrated by the fact that commercial programs became trade secrets. Aiming to re-encourage open work on software that would be available to all, Stallman’s initiative soon brought together a great number of developers who began volunteering to create quality programs that could compete with professional software. Freeware was the foundation of the Internet infrastructure in the 1990s (which may partly explain why the Internet allows for such openness and ease of sharing), and the movement exists to this day, gathering over 12,000 communities working on a particular software (the best-known one is the Linux operating system). In addition to the movement, Stallman also created GNU – General Public License – a legal copyleft license that obliges program creators to share their projects. In addition, programs based on GNU GPL licensed software must in turn have the same open license.

This is how foundations were laid for developing programs that couldn’t be placed under copyright. Stallman’s projects inspired many other initiatives, including GNU GPL which was a model for the Creative Commons license, and the entire Free/Open Software movement was inspired by the academic publishing project Open Access. By a similar logic, Open Access aims to provide general access to academic content to allow further academic development so that all researchers have the same opportunities. It stands against treating research publications as "intellectual property", a practice which has given rise to a troubling oligopoly in the academic field: while a small number of publishing houses make billions of dollars selling subscriptions to academic publications, many researchers and research institutions around the world cannot afford access to this knowledge. Open Access resists this practice through legal channels: it licenses and collects open research publications and lobbies for laws to be changed so as to make publicly funded academic research publicly available. Similar to Free/Open Software, this initiative has managed to create an oasis of publicly available quality content, but has failed at allowing free access to all other publications or at removing market logic from the academic distribution of knowledge. It also comes across some predictable problems: rich publishers have far more resources and invest these to preserve the status quo. They offer researchers much better conditions for publishing their content and they invest more in legal lobbying, thus keeping systematic progress at a slow pace. 

Organizing against the established forms of power

As a consequence, a more significant impact comes from those initiatives that are modelled on pirate practices, operating in the grey zone or completely at odds with the law. This type of "rebellion" is characteristic of the hacker community. Ethnologist Gabriella Coleman (a very reliable researcher of hacker cultures) argues that hackers form strong and tight-knit communities but are rebellious towards outside authority and sceptical of formal institutions and other established forms of power. Because their "home turf", the Internet, allows them considerable technical freedom and relative safety, hacker communities tend to break the rules as a sign of civil disobedience or simply in order to circumvent unwanted restrictions. 

Piracy has affected cultural distribution by the sheer power of numbers – mass and uncontrolled online content sharing has shaken all established forms of distribution – but it also left its mark on activists in other fields, who took on both the method and the political audacity of their hacker colleagues. In their essay Against Innovation, activists and researchers Tomislav Medak and Marcell Mars state that having had the experience with reformist initiatives they came to the conclusion that piracy is much more effective: "In a day and age when market forces rule uncontested and everything can be enclosed and commodified, piracy has demonstrated that politicization can happen not by alternative approaches to creating the new, but rather by organizing straightforward ways of breaking the old".

In the field of culture, in 2011 the duo launched the Memory of the World, a "shadow library" where a digital catalogue of various non-copyrighted publications is available free of charge. This is in line with the logic of shadow libraries which, according to Medak, are "disobedient toward copyright restrictions, helping readers in an extremely unevenly developed world of education and academic research to gain equal access".

Similar general libraries and Library Genesis, as well as art archives UbuWeb and Monoskop operate on much the same principle. They all deliberately circumvent copyright to allow easy access to publications that are otherwise restricted. In this way, they manage to pluck cultural content away from the market and encourage distributors to adapt, but because of that, all these projects and their operators regularly face legal charges and logistical problems.

In the case of major shadow libraries, we can indeed speak of a substantial impact on the publishing field. Sci-Hub is a science shadow library created out of the same motives as Open Access – with the aim of allowing everyone equal access to academic knowledge. However, it functions not within the system, but rather publishes illegally all scientific articles it can get hold of. Sci-Hub currently provides open access to over 80 million scientific papers from around the world. Yet it is a very small organization which started in a simple way: the library is run by Aleksandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, who launched the database in 2011 as a 23-year-old student. Sci-Hub owes its survival to legal discrepancies on the global scale; more precisely, to the fact that Elbakyan lives in Russia and that access to the library can be gained through domains from countries with more lenient legal regulations. So even though a US court ruled that Elbakyan must pay the publishers Elsevier and ACS a total of 19.8 million dollars, the fine is ineffective as Russia will not extradite the activist to the US. Nevertheless, her status and the work of Sci-Hub depend on political circumstances and laws in Russia and elsewhere, as evidenced by a recent decision by Twitter to block Sci-Hub’s account (about which Lujo Parežanin wrote here in more detail). 

While Sci-Hub’s has no qualms about violating laws on intellectual property, what surprises is the widespread academic support for the work of the library, which has to do with the displeasure about the publishing oligopoly. Annual subscriptions to academic journals can mount up to 2 million dollars, leading even Harvard to announce back in 2012 that it couldn’t afford a further rise in expenses. Subscription fees have continued to rise over the past eight years despite numerous reactions from American and European universities. Sci-Hub thus reflects the academic community’s outrage, but also, it often serves simply as the one free source of relevant literature. A last year’s survey indicated that most Sci-Hub users do indeed come from poorer countries such as Iran, India, Russia or Tunisia. Argentine historian Paula Seiguer’s comment is compelling: "(…) in Argentina (…) where our public universities and libraries don’t usually have the resources to pay the phenomenally expensive rates that major publishers would like to extort from them, my colleagues and I have long developed a lively pirate approach. No one pays for an article. We aren’t paid enough to justify the expense. If it can’t be hacked, we ask colleagues doing a residency in some first world university to get it for us. If that can’t be done, we simply ignore the article. (…) My country’s budget has paid for my education, my salary and my research projects, while ineffectually attempting to take care of the 30 percent of its population which falls under the poverty line. In those circumstances, privatising the results should be considered criminal".

From the "grey zone" to practices of solidarity

While reformist initiatives are relatively unsuccessful in trying to implement a long-term solution, pirate practices are relatively efficient in introducing short-term solutions. In the long run these could affect a change of consciousness and mount pressure to change the system (which we saw happen to some extent in the music industry), but their long-term perspective is certainly questionable for practical reasons. Aside from the academic question of whether such practices are acceptable in principle, the pressing matter is the survival of each of these sites, as well as the fate of their operators who face draconian penalties. Elbakyan is safe (for now), but many other hackers have ended up in prison. The most tragic case is that of Aaron Swartz, the American hacker who, faced with a maximum 35-year prison sentence for the massive download of academic articles from JSTOR, committed suicide just before the trial began.

Yet pirate practices do manage to raise the question of attitudes toward the distribution of culture, as the more powerful political and economic regimes have to adapt to their practice (rather than the other way around). In addition, they function just like the commons from which we sprang: they find a public function that the state and the market fail to fulfil and they perform it directly, quickly, at their own initiative and in a self-organized manner. So it’s hardly surprising that "piracy" has moved from the virtual sphere to the physical space where there is need for the same type of organizing. Last year, Medak and Mars, together with researcher Valeria Graziano, launched Pirate Care, a transnational research project and network for practices from the "grey zone" that encourage solidarity and common care. In the context of dominant neoliberal policy which has dismantled public forms of common care (healthcare, education, housing, asylum, social aid etc.), Pirate Care brings together informal practices that carry out these functions. The network connects people who offer or organize such care, and through #syllabuses and other educational materials offers various examples and models for similar practices.

Therefore, the ideas of open access and self-regulation, which came to the digital world from earlier academic principles of work, are now returning from the virtual to the physical part of social activism. Most recently, as it became apparent that dominant political and economic institutions are failing to give appropriate responses to the consequences of the pandemic on the healthcare and economic systems, "pirate care" has come into focus, primarily in situations where vulnerable individuals or groups that depend on the care of others need immediate and direct assistance. We don’t know whether Pirate Care offers a long-term, systematic and "revolutionary" answer to issues of the political system, but perhaps it is through acts of momentary and informal solidarity in our everyday life that the foundations of connected and functional communities are being laid, such which liberal political programs have long sought to dismantle.


The article was published as part of the project MediActivism – Courageous young citizens test new ways to reclaim their cities, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union.


Objavio/la ivana [at] 06.03.2021