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The Paradox of Open

In today’s digital environment, openness serves as both a challenge to concentrations of power and its enabler. Solving this paradox is at the heart of our work, which focuses on three objectives.

Published onMar 05, 2021
The Paradox of Open

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the internet gave birth to the open movement. Numerous organisations and initiatives have been launched with a belief in openness and free knowledge. Their proponents placed their bets on the combined power of networked information services and new governance models for the production and sharing of content and data.

We – as members of this broad movement – were among those who believed it possible to leverage this combination of power and opportunity to build a more democratic society, unleashing the power of the internet to create universal access to knowledge and culture. For us, such openness meant not only freedom, but also presented a path to justice and equality.

This opportunity was aptly theorised in 2006 by Yochai Benkler whose work “The wealth of networks” explained the value of commons-based peer production. It was a clear model for collective action to create digital commons.

We learned that open approaches flourish under two types of conditions:

  1. Projects where many people contribute to the creation of a common resource – this is the story of Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap,, and the countless free software projects that provide much of the internet’s infrastructure.

  2. Circumstances where opening up is the result of external incentives or requirements, rather than voluntary actions – this is the story of publicly-funded knowledge production like Open Access academic publications, cultural heritage collections in the Public Domain, Open Educational Resources (OER), and Open Government data.

At the same time, we also started to notice that the online environment began to change...

The open revolution that we imagined did not, however, happen. At least not on the scale that we and many other proponents of free culture expected.

Nevertheless, the growing Open movement demonstrated the viability of our ideas. As proof we have Wikipedia, Open Government data initiatives, the ascent of Open Access publishing, the role of free software in powering the infrastructure of the internet and the gradual opening of the collections of many cultural heritage institutions.

Over time, we have observed the significant evolution of our movement’s normative basis – away from a justification based on the voluntary exercise of rights by individual creators and towards a justification based on the production of social goods.

Sharing platforms conquer the open web

Over the last decade, we have witnessed a wholesale transformation of the networked information ecosystem. The web moved away from the ideals and the open design of the early internet and turned into an environment that is dominated by a small number of platforms.

The concentration of digital power in the hands of a few platform intermediaries has fundamentally altered the way in which this ecosystem operates. With this change, the context for open production and sharing has changed as well.

In parallel, we have seen the emergence of a robust networked information economy that has resulted in ever more information resources becoming available online. While the Open movement initially constituted itself in response to a perceived lack of availability of information and content, it is now operating within the context of an abundance of the same resources.

Platforms develop closed models of sharing

While Open movement organisations have been promoting an approach to sharing that is platform-agnostic and based on standardized public licensing, sharing economy platforms have managed to build closed systems. These facilitate sharing within their boundaries based on standardized terms and conditions. This approach has allowed platforms to minimize the friction of sharing.

Social media creates ecosystems where sharing is encouraged, but everything is meant to take place only within the space of a given service. The boundaries of these spaces are strongly guarded, as demonstrated by Instagram’s curbing of hyperlinks or Facebook’s warnings displayed upon leaving its webpage. Within these boundaries, platforms support high levels of creativity while at the same time have total rule over their content ecosystems.

As a result, most of today’s sharing of cultural expression takes place on commercial platforms. This development has gone hand in hand with the increased importance of mobile internet use, which has shifted user interaction away from the “open internet” towards largely self-contained apps.

In these ecosystems, free licensing – the principal tool of the Open movement – is largely useless and at best serves to signal an ideological position without practical effects. Coded functionalities provide greater gains for creators and users than legal tools do, while the right to remix has been secured by means other than flexible licensing – for better or worse. In this sense, Lessig’s mantra "code, not law" has been his best prediction about the future of the internet.

Pockets of platform-free space

There is still significant value in Open, but only in those content ecosystems that have not yet been dominated by online platforms in the way the mainstream cultural and information landscape has been. These are largely professional and institutional environments.

In these “traditional” ecosystems, copying content is still a viable option; educational publishers copy content from OER repositories, open access models enable the flow of content between different academic publishing and library systems, and text- and data-mining practices treat the copying of data as a crucial functionality. In these contexts, legal solutions are needed to mediate content usage rules among different proprietary platforms and environments.

We should expect these ecosystems to soon fall within the domain of platform logic. It is slowly becoming time to admit that a multitude of small victories is not enough in the face of the monopolistic power wielded by today’s platforms. The only sensible action is to invest in alternatives to these platforms – ones that respect openness and other democratic values.

Open and (platform) power

The concentration of power in the hands of a small number of information intermediaries negates one of the core assumptions of the Open movement.

Opening up informational resources means exposing them to the power structures governing the networked information ecosystem. As that ecosystem has become dominated by monopolistic intermediaries, it is necessary to re-examine the assumption that opening up resources predominantly results in emancipatory and empowering consequences.

Open does not account for structures of power

Put differently, under the conditions created by an information ecosystem dominated by a small number of platforms, open resources are most likely to contribute to the power of those with the best means to make use of them.

In almost all fields of application, Open has been used to challenge the power of publishers and entertainment industry gatekeepers. At the point where the power of these old information intermediaries is supplanted by a new generation of platform-based information intermediaries, the value of the Open approach reaches its limits.

As long as Open is being defined mainly as a response to the former, exclusivity-based strategies for managing access to information, Open does not account for the power structures that have emerged in the massively intermediated information economy. In practical terms opening up information through the instruments developed and refined by Open movement organisations (such as open licenses and open standards) removes friction from the networked information ecosystem, making information resources easier to exploit by anyone for any purpose.

As advocates of openness, we have largely failed to take into account the negative externalities related to the permissive sharing of all kinds of information. Today, this situation contributes to the power imbalances that we observe.

While the Open movement pioneered the use of the networked information environment for the sharing of informational resources, it has not (yet) managed to impress its normative ideals about sharing on the sharing platforms that currently dominate the networked information economy.

The zeitgeist is bleak, and does not believe in openness

Today, the copyright wars are almost over. Conflicts about access to and control over informational resources have been superseded by conflicts about privacy, economic value extraction, the emergence of artificial intelligence, and the destabilising effects of dominant platforms on (democratic) societies. Instead of access to information, the control of personal data has emerged in the age of platforms as the critical contention.

Roughly two decades after the emergence of the Open movement, its core issues and the aims that it strives to attain are no longer the focus of digital policy debates. Attention has shifted to other focus points, together with the struggles for control over the networked information ecosystem.

Even worse, in the dominant discourse about technology – with its attention to privacy and data protection – Open is increasingly seen as a negative property of information ecosystems.

All of this points to the current limits of Open as a normative basis for a movement that seeks to achieve social progress.

While Open works as a strategic (and narrative) approach in specific fields of application, it no longer provides a more general vision of a more just and egalitarian digital society.

At the same time, the intellectual property-based strategies employed by platforms mirror the strategies employed by the previous generation of information intermediaries – in reaction to which the Open movement emerged.

The Paradox of Open

Today, Open is both a challenge to and an enabler of concentrations of power. The ideas of open access and free reuse of information goods continue to be some of the most powerful challenges to the exclusive control by corporations and states over information goods.

Yet making such resources open also exposes them to the imbalances of power that shape these societies – and in the worst cases serves to strengthen these imbalances.

Open, on its own, provides little in terms of protection from potential abuses of such power. The models and tools focused on generating added value fail to address any potential losses and harm that derive from such use.

Stuck in old ways of thinking about open

The deeply ingrained focus on combating existing practices of exclusive control of information resources has made us blind to the emergence of platform intermediaries and to the risks that they pose for the networked information ecosystem.

These new platform intermediaries have mainly been seen as allies in the fight against the earlier, closed information intermediaries. We need to acknowledge that the landscape is far more complicated today.

The fact that perceived allies build their platforms without embracing the Open movement’s rules and principles (while skilfully adopting the movement’s language of sharing) has never created enough friction to make the Open movement reconsider its theory of action. As a result, the logic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has largely prevailed.

A generation of activists for whom the defining moment of their careers was the opposition of traditional information intermediaries to the emergent reality of the networked information economy of the early 2000s has not managed to break with this increasingly outdated, antagonistic view and instead embraces a more systemic perspective.

Open is not obsolete

Still, the Open movement is one of the very few organized movements with a capacity and philosophy to act in policy discussions about public access to and availability of informational resources. As such, it represents a strategic challenge to concentrations of (digital) power by information intermediaries, making this type of advocacy as relevant as ever.

Ideas about openness and digital commons also provide positive visions for the future development of technologies. These visions are much needed, and often missing from advocacy that focuses solely on reducing technological harm.

Towards a new understanding of Open

In order to preserve Open as a strategic concept that contributes to building a more just and egalitarian digital society, the Open movement will need to think about how it can harden its core concepts against abuse and unintended externalities.

In addition, it will also need to look beyond the core concern of opening up informational resources and develop a better understanding of how open interfaces with other concerns like data protection and distributive justice.

The paradox of open can be solved here, in Europe

This is our core belief at Open Future: Europe has a unique opportunity to restore part of the original promise of the internet. It is here that policymakers and key stakeholders have the ambition to build an internet for the people – one that can provide the basis for a more just and democratic society.

There is much debate today – in Europe and beyond – about building shared digital public spaces that can compete with the dominant, corporate walled gardens that harm the internet and its users.

A European, values-based vision of technological development, a commitment to supporting public institutions and the public sphere, and novel ideas about data and content governance will help to solve the paradox of Open.

Where we will go from here:

  1. Understanding the New Open: It is time to define once again what Open means. What is the normative vision behind sharing and its promised value? Open should not just mean releasing resources into a digital void; the term should stand for managing the use of resources in a way that maximizes public benefit while avoiding harm, a balance between openness of resources and preservation of privacy (and other fundamental rights). We will contribute to this new vision of Open through sensemaking work and creating new narratives.

  2. Creating a sum of our movements’ parts: We are just one among many organisations that identify with the vision of digital commons, openness, and access to knowledge. We also feel we are part of a new cohort of digital organisations that have launched in recent years under a very different zeitgeist than that of twenty years ago. We have launched at a time when resilience and sustainability are crucial, and there’s a sense that the broad digital movement needs to function cooperatively. We are looking for partners who want to think together in terms of collective impact and systemic change.

  3. Building a Shared Digital Europe: Digital policies cannot be limited to controlling the dominant platforms and fighting unfair power distribution. A European vision for the digital space needs to include a commitment to creating public alternatives. Ultimately, we need a shared mission to create digital public spaces. Our vision of a Shared Digital Europe defines principles for successfully launching such a mission.

We believe that policymaking is also worldbuilding. We are therefore targeting our advocacy on European policymakers. We are not only looking at the digital agenda of the current Commission, but also seeking to contribute to the digital agenda of the next European Commission.

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