Global Knowledge Sharing: Justice as Fairness

What rules would you design for global knowledge sharing, if you didn’t know whether you will be born as a German with a university degree and high-speed internet or as a rural Indian without access to books?


Philosopher John Rawls posed such queries in his book “Justice as Fairness”. His question is: What do we mean by “justice”, if – as a thought experiment - “parties … know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him/her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions and resources in their society" (Source: Wikipedia-Article).


If we transfer this thought experiment to a global level, Rawls principles clearly leads towards an ethics of equal access and open sharing of knowledge: Unsurprisingly, corresponding claims are growing in international development cooperation. The latest communique of the “Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness”, an international policy forum of OECD, features repeated calls for “knowledge sharing” “peer learning”, “knowledge co-creation”, and “peer-peer support” (OECD 2012) for the very first time. This policy shift was likely triggered by a range of motives, including the pragmatic search for more appropriate peer learning between countries sharing similar challenges; however, it also contains the idea of a more equal, and thereby more just, exchange and co-creation of knowledge.


Such a notion echoes some of the analytical groundwork done by UNESCO, and other UN agencies, at the two information society world summits of 2003 and 2005. Reports, such as UNESCO’s “Towards knowledge societies”, made the case for the moral requirement of moving “from the knowledge divide to know-ledge sharing” on a global level (see also Seibold 2009: 262ff).


Previously, however, the antagonism between a model of private information ownership in the form of patents and copyright and the need to advance “global public goods” could not be solved by policy makers. In the binary world view of the 20th century, knowledge (and related learning) was either a proprietary good, or was considered a public good, as exhibited by the development thinker Inge Kaul, among others. Education and learning, in turn, was either seen as a private enterprise of learners and educational institutions, or as a human right as in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNESCO’s “Education for All” reports.


Interestingly, commons-based peer learning and production now have the potential to reconcile some of the most acute clashes in the recent past, stemming from various ethos of ethical sharing. The “knowledge commons” can be considered a new middle ground. It offers solutions that respect global moral imperatives of fair distribution of relevant knowledge, skills and the freedom to learn, while maintaining some property-based principles such as business models, distribution models, appropriation models and sustainability models.


Recent efforts to formulate a global set of rights around open education echo such a blend of principles, be it the community-built “Cape Town Open Education Declaration” of 2007 or the “Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age” of 2013.


Yochai Benkler has done a thorough job in analyzing all liberal theories of justice and applying them to “commons-based strategies for human welfare and development”. His credo clearly points us towards the need to move towards global knowledge sharing as part of efforts to make the world a place that is fairer and more just.


“Equality of opportunity to act in the face of unequal endowment is central to all liberal theories of justice …Commons-based and peer production efforts may not be a cure-all. However … these strategies can make a big contribution to quite fundamental aspects of human welfare and development. And this is where freedom and justice coincide”, Benkler wrote in his 2006 book (p. 355).



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