Managing a web of commons
These technologies put Ostrom’s theory into practice, using peer-to-peer protocols paired with a ‘web of trust’. In practice, this often looks like a trusted group of devices, uniquely identified and verified by public key cryptography. These devices can be included or excluded from editing and adding to the common dataset. The web of trust was originally coined the ‘web of confidence’ by Phil Zimmermann in 1992:
everyone will gradually accumulate and distribute [...] a collection of certifying signatures from other people, with the expectation that anyone receiving it will trust at least one or two of the signatures. This will cause the emergence of a decentralised fault-tolerant web of confidence for all public keys.
This pattern is distinct from both the centralised platform model as well as the blockchain consensus model. Data ownership and decision-making is based on networks of trust, with clearly defined boundaries and an organised governance structure that manages those boundaries.
When discussing the concept of decentralised governance, blockchain is often proposed as a solution. It has proved to be a clever mechanism that facilitates transactions, like money, designed for a scenario where participants are all potentially malicious. These ‘trustless’ transactions are the key assumption baked within blockchains that distinguish them from digital knowledge commons.
In contrast, commons assume the resource is managed – and some of that data may never be publicly accessible. This is a closed group, where data creators are also data stewards, managing the information in the commons. There are self-governing procedures for making rules, ways of monitoring of users and resources, and graduated sanctions for rule breakers. This does not require using a machine-facilitated consensus model. It does depend, however, on an human-centred governance model to manage what data, devices and users are part of the network.