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Workshop on Legal Geographies of the Digital Commons

Venue: Birkbeck Main Building, Malet Street

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In 2012 Rameshwari Photocopy Service, a small print shop in Delhi’s North Campus area, was served a notice for copyright infringement by three titans of academic publishing in the UK – Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Taylor and Francis. The shop had come to the presses’ notice because it had consistently facilitated the copying of books produced by these publishers for use in the University of Delhi’s courses. Despite overwhelming criticism, and an initial dismissal, the case continued in the Delhi High Court. The presses eventually withdrew the case after the court’s finding that the photocopy shop did not breach fair use expectations of published academic work. The case drew attention to a set of anxieties about the potentials that digitisation and copying have for undermining the enclosures that define the academic publishing industry’s ability to make profit at the expense of those who produce and consume its materials: the teachers and students at universities.   

Over a decade later, a similar set of debates shape questions about how digital archives and projects of governance territorialise data, are embedded in globally-circulated structures of capital, and engage in practices of accumulation and expropriation that erode any dreams of a digital commons (Fuchs, 2021) as a democratic space.  Despite the promises of the early internet, the proliferation of the digitalisation of archives and of information keeping have further perpetuated colonial and capitalistic logics in varied forms. For example, while Google Books asserts its work to create a digital library is a public service, it has also concomitantly managed to strengthen Google’s foothold as a gatekeeper of information, extract surplus value from this process in the form of data to train its machine learning models, normalise its practice of datafying books without the consent of authors, and deepen the infrastructure of its advertisement tech stack through its provision of this cataloguing service. Conversely, projects that attempt to highlight and interrupt old circuits of power have also emerged—from Librarians and Archivists with Palestine’s efforts to digitally document Israel’s destruction of archives, libraries, museums, in Gaza to highlight how places of record-keeping are sites of struggle, as well as Sci-Hub's mission to create a free shadow library of academic articles in response to the immense paywall publishers impose on their readers.  

These geographically situated legal contestation of digital(ised) commons requires deeper inquiry and this call for papers seeks to bring together the disciplines of Geography and Legal Studies in a workshop on the Legal Geographies of the Digital Commons. Geographers are increasingly exploring the ‘digital turn’ in the discipline and examining the geographies ‘of’ and those ‘produced through’ the digital (Ash et al, 2015). While legal scholars have identified a ‘new constitutional moment’ (Celeste, 2018) galvanised by changes in digital technology and communication that have allowed for exponential growth in the advancement of and threats to fundamental rights and democratic structures. Speaking to these debates, this workshopwill seek to theorise the digital commons through an engagement with (but not limited to) the following questions:  

1. How is ‘public information’ conceptualised, owned, and managed in the context of digitisation?   
2. How do we conceptualise the erosion of the digital commons if such a thing ever existed, in an age of proliferating paywalls?  
3. What ethics do projects of digital archiving owe to concerns about data accumulation as for-profit businesses acquire and enclose historical materials within proliferating regimes of copyright and intellectual property?   
4. What does it mean to responsibly place knowledge in the commons through internet archives at a moment where far-right fascisms are resurgent globally?  
5. To what extent is it possible to conceptualise practices of governance that are shaped by an equitable and accessible digital commons?   
6. How do we theorise the types of power and authority accrued to the digital gatekeepers of information and Internet archivists of today?  

Location Room MAL B30 at Birkbeck, University of London
09:00-09:30 Tea, Coffee, and Registration

09:30-11:00 Panel 1: Art and Digital Commons - Chaired by Dr. Persis Taraporevala
Genevieve Heng - Big Tech, imperfect copyright enforcement, and restrictons on creatvity in the digital age
Manu Luksch - Reading between the lines: exploiting gatekeeper failure.
Dr Shiyu Gao - Challenging Xi Jinping’s Surveillance Culture in Contemporary Chinese Expanded Media Art 
Yadira Sánchez - Reimagining the digital commons: insights from Community Networks, the arts and traditional ecological knowledge 

11:00-12:30 Panel 2: Archives and Digital Commons - Chaired by Prof. Stewart Motha
Prof. Sara Salem & Prof. Mai Taha - Archive Stories
Yung Au and Nancy Salem - Archives of the Future: From Arms Fairs to Museums
Dr. Marya Hannun - Digitising Afghanistan's Archives
Madhavi Shukla - Decolonizing the Archive: Between the Afterlife of an Empire and the Digitized Image

12:30-13:30 Lunch

13:30-14:45 Panel 3 - Politics and Digital Commons - Chaired by Yung Au
Devika Prakash - Providing control or presupposing control? The intertwined dynamics of technical and political control in an Indian smart city control room
Dr. Vignesh Karthik and Vihang Jumle - Twitter and the Projection of Political Personalities in India
Mira Yaseen - Censorship by Proxy: How Digital Platforms Police Speech on States' Behalf, the Case of Palestine

14:45-16:00 Panel 4 - Law and Digital Commons - Prof. Philippa Williams
Ioana Bratu - Digital communal resources management as a consequence of effective structural coupling between systems
Dr. Persis Taraporevala - Who needs privacy? The (un)making of digital personal data protection in India
Divij Joshi - Infrastructuring Digital Sovereignty in India

16:00-16:15 Tea, Coffee, and comfort break

16:15-17:00 Future Steps


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