Digital Myth: Keep the Internet Open

Digital Myths: #4 Keep the Internet Open. Open technology has nothing to do with open society, in many cases the opposite is true

‘Keep the Internet open’ is the principle that in many cases guides digital policy, for example the EU Digital Single Market. But what does ‘open’ mean? We like to think of an ‘open society’ as connected to values like freedom, democracy and human rights. These are important pillars of our government and legal systems. In an open society, the norm is freedom of movement, of expression, association, contract and many more. Also right to fair trial, equal treatment, the right to possession. These, and others, are not only important to the individual, but cornerstones of modern society. It is a process of civilization over more than 2000 years, and it will of course continue. We are not at the end of history.

‘Open’ in terms of software, on the other hand, means that the code is transparent, that others can develop it further, and that there are no restrictions to moving data. It is a technical term, the opposite is ‘closed’, meaning for example that passwords are necessary to access some data, or that there are restrictions to which users can make changes to the software. For the normal user, such restrictions are visible when the webmail or internet bank requires a username and password, or the security settings that can be adjusted in the web browser.

On closer inspection, the word “keep” is also conspicuous. It suggests that the internet is currently open and would be better off if it stayed that way

Both ‘open society’ and ‘open technology’ are of course viable concepts and certainly constructive in some contexts. The issue arises when the two are confused or mixed up or the idea prevails that one would follow from the other. They are two completely separate concepts. In fact, open technology in many cases can result in the opposite of the open society, at least if we think democracy is part of that definition. The phrase ‘keep the Internet open’ (or variations of it) is often interpreted as ‘unregulated by government’ and used to make cases against government intervention. But that is an odd definition of freedom, as all those rights and freedoms mentioned depend on government institutions to uphold them. There can be no fair trial without courts. Without government institutions and rule of law, the result is not anarchy as one might guess, but rather regulation by technology. Those who make the technology, make the rules. When a few companies control a large proportion of the Internet, they are the de facto regulators. To some of them, openness is a business model.

On the micro level, you can conduct an experiment for yourself: change your security settings on all your services to zero. Then ask yourself if society becomes more open for it.

On closer inspection, the word ‘keep’ is also conspicuous. It suggests that the Internet is currently open and would be better off if it stayed that way. Only, the Internet is in no way open. A lot of the data is locked behind password-protected services, in databases for machine-generated websites, on pages without links to other pages or otherwise out of view for the majority of users (and search engines). This is called ‘Deep Web’ and some estimates say it has more data than the ‘surface web’. The question therefore is not if the Internet should be ‘kept’ open, but perhaps more accurately ‘made’ open, which would be both infeasible, utterly undesirable and would in no way lead to a more open society.

“Keep the Internet Open” – it’s not even a myth, only nonsense.


Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote  where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.


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  1. […] Be Free > #2 You Can’t Stop New Technology > #3 Digitalization is a Force of Nature > #4 Keep the Internet Open > #5 Internet Providers Are Like the Post Office > #6 Automation Kills More Jobs than it […]

  2. By the way Per, I have a comment awaiting moderation (because it contained a hyperlink).

  3. “Martin – not sure if you are intentionally confused or just confused. The Point is that open technology is something completely different from open society, yet the argument is often made that the former is a part of the latter.”

    Well, your straw man is indeed confusing. And, I suppose, since you are a very smart guy, meant to confuse.

    Show me someone who argues that the “open” in “an open Internet” means something other than the “open” in “an open society”!

    “Change all your security settings on all your services to zero.”

    Show me anyone who argues that an “open Internet” means that everyone should have access to your private files or accounts. Jeez…

  4. “Internet surveillance is a consequence of the same no rules/anything goes ideology that creates so many other problems online.”

    Oh, the “it is your own fault you are getting raped”-argument! Nice one!

    Well there is same same mentality in the offline world as well. Most unlicensed private copies of protected materials are made offline, not online. But most people would agree that this is not a good reason to start searching through everyone’s postal mail, tapping everyone’s phones, or having mandatory body searches performed. But somehow the analogous repressive measures are ok, in your view, on the Internet.

    The fact that people break the law (especially in rather insignificant instances like private individual performing making unlicensed copies with no monetary gain) is no excuse for giving up basic civil liberties and human rights! (In fact, not even rape, murder, child porn or terrorism are a reason to give up basic civil liberties and human rights.)

    “And don’t put me in the surveillance proponent camp, thank you very much.”

    Oh, so you are not a proponent of forcing ISP:s to routinely monitor all their customer’s traffic in search for instances of unlicensed copying? Since when did you so completely reverse your position?

    Sounds wonderful, but I have a hard time believing it’s true…

  5. Per Strömbäck

    Martin – not sure if you are intentionally confused or just confused. The Point is that open technology is something completely different from open society, yet the argument is often made that the former is a part of the latter. And don’t put me in the surveillance proponent camp, thank you very much. Internet surveillance is a consequence of the same no rules/anything goes ideology that creates so many other problems online. The way forward is rule of law, just like offline.

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  6. And here is just one of many assaults on the free Internet we are seeing more and more frequently these days (this particular one on the right to anonymity):

    “Every so often, people who don’t really understand the importance of anonymity or how it enables free speech (especially among marginalized people), think they have a brilliant idea: “just end real anonymity online.” They don’t seem to understand just how shortsighted such an idea is. It’s one that stems from the privilege of being in power. And who knows that particular privilege better than members of the House of Lords in the UK — a group that is more or less defined by excess privilege? The Communications Committee of the House of Lords has now issued a report concerning “social media and criminal offenses” in which they basically recommend scrapping anonymity online.”

  7. Instead of “Myths”, you should call these posts “Straw men”, Per.

    An open Internet means exactly the same as an open society. It means safeguarding on the Net the very same human rights and democratic principles as in the rest of society.

    An open Internet means an Internet without censorship och blocking. It means an Internet free from government surveillance. It means an net with the right to privacy and anonymity, just like we have those rights in the rest of society.

    You are a strong propenent of censoring, blocking, and surveillance on the Internet. You call this “government intervention”, but nowhere else in society would such measures be accepted!

    I want an open Internet and an open society. And open to me means exactly the same in both cases.

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