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.