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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.