We assembled data from a global network of automated lake observatories to test hypotheses regarding the drivers of ecosystem metabolism. We estimated daily rates of respiration and gross primary production (GPP) for up to a full year in each lake, via maximum likelihood fits of a free‐water metabolism model to continuous high‐frequency measurements of dissolved oxygen concentrations. Uncertainties were determined by a bootstrap analysis, allowing lake‐days with poorly constrained rate estimates to be down‐weighted in subsequent analyses. GPP and respiration varied considerably among lakes and at seasonal and daily timescales. Mean annual GPP and respiration ranged from 0.1 to 5.0 mg O2 L−1 d−1 and were positively related to total phosphorus but not dissolved organic carbon concentration. Within lakes, significant day‐to‐day differences in respiration were common despite large uncertainties in estimated rates on some lake‐days. Daily variation in GPP explained 5% to 85% of the daily variation in respiration after temperature correction. Respiration was tightly coupled to GPP at a daily scale in oligotrophic and dystrophic lakes, and more weakly coupled in mesotrophic and eutrophic lakes. Background respiration ranged from 0.017 to 2.1 mg O2 L−1 d−1 and was positively related to indicators of recalcitrant allochthonous and autochthonous organic matter loads, but was not clearly related to an indicator of the quality of allochthonous organic matter inputs.