Openness - the Foundation of the Internet

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The Internet is organized in a decentralised and open way. It was created as a network, and as such, under the premise that each part of the network, author and user, is an equal participant. Looking from this perspective at the platform economy, the impression might be that its proprietary conception competes with this generally non-centralised vision of networks. From this perspective, openness is an important feature for alternative innovation to the growth models of proprietary platforms. Competitors strengthening and reinforcing the idea of openness are also a condition for balancing these two paths of digital transformation.

One striking effect of electronic platforms is that the difference between users and co-creators is blurring. In this sense, we all are producers. If you, as an educational institution, are publishing a Google-map with all locations of your experts network to present regional contact persons, it’s not the educational institution producing the technology behind the map, but Google. Still though, you are going to create a kind of small platform, according to the definition above.

Different Approaches to Collaboration

Described using a metaphor from the animal kingdom - we are symbiotic with the bigger and smaller fishes in the marine world. Still, however, the bigger fish too often controls your contributions. The other approach is to collaborate with many small fishes in a more symmetric way.

Setting Open Standards & Providing Accountable Platforms

OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia are such examples. The OpenStreetMap Foundation provides a map on a central server, the community fills this “aquarium”. The rules for using and sharing are defined in an Open Database License provided by the Open Knowledge Foundation. A similar platform is Wikipedia, controlled by the Wikimedia Foundation. Also the software behind Wikipedia, the MediaWiki, is published under a free license (GNU General Public License). In consequence, many Wiki projects around the world might download the software and benefit from the development of the Wikimedia Foundation and the community around MediaWiki. The CC license logo might be found under many current publications. These explain under what conditions people might use and share creative works. These licenses are published by the international nonprofit organisation Creative Commons. Shared standards for messengers also exist. The XMPP protocol, which is the basis for many interoperable messenger software, is developed by a foundation. And the Open Document Format (.odt), is a format for text files published by the OASIS Open Europe Foundation and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

We might conclude, that platforms and organisations sticking to openness try to self-limit themselves as owners of platforms and standards, for instance by setting up an accountable and non-profit body for overlooking and maintaining the common architecture.

Supporting Free and Open Source

Open Source is software which makes its code base transparent, allowing anyone to check what is programmed and use the software. Their users are encouraged to change and co-create the software within the limitations and opportunities described in the open license models. For instance this text was produced with the help of the open source office program LibreOffice, developed by the non-profit Open Document Foundation. [ Thingiverse, one of different platforms for 3D print templates, is not run by a nonprofit organisation, but from the 3D printer company MakerBot. It also publishes the contributions of the 3D printing community under an open CC Creative Commons license. This example shows that commercial actors may also have an interest in sticking and promoting open standards. In fact, a lot of open software projects are co-financed and otherwise supported by enterprises. In 2018, the five most active contributors to open source software were Microsoft, Google, Red Hat, IBM and Intel (Asay 2018/02/7).

Open Source:

Software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. (

Free Software:

Software which can be used for any purpose and is free of restrictions: Its code can be studied by anyone. It can be shared, copied and modified (Free Software Foundation Europe).

Open Access:

Providing online access to scientific information that is free of charge to the user and that is re-usable. It includes peer-reviewed scientific publications and scientific research data (EU Commision; EUC-RTD, 2017)

Open Data:

Free and accessible sets of (public) data, often provided through a database or a website.

Open Educational Resources:

Learning, teaching and research materials in any format or medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, reuse, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others (UNESCO, 2019).

Implementing Interoperability

Regarding monopolist tendencies through enforced growth or aggressive merges and acquisitions, an effective counter agent is to open interfaces and standards. Imagine,you could choose voluntarily your favourite messenger, independent of the communication partners. You use Signal, your mother uses WhatsApp, and a friend something specific like Conversations. Similar to the early days of telecommunication, only the protocols for data transfer are important, not the design of the device or its software. Some participants use telephones with dial plates, some have replaced them with those with keyboards, and others use smartphones. The open line connects everybody, which is opposite of the current lock-into specific platforms and apps.

Emails are also set up under this premise or even the Web. Its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote already in his initial concept: “Information systems start small and grow. They also start isolated and then merge. A new system must allow existing systems to be linked together without requiring any central control or coordination“ (Berners-Lee, 1989/90). What, if we instead had a Google, Apple, Russian and EU version of the World Wide Web?

Technically this concept of enforcing non-centralisation on the basis of shared standards is called interoperability. It is the easiest way to dissuade hardware and software producers and also platforms to exclude competitors from the game. Also, if nations and platforms try to monopolise or separate “their” internet from the “big” internet, the open standard is a big barrier. It enables citizens to outsmart these gatekeepers, for instance by using a TOR browser (obscuring ones IP address and location to browse anonymously) or a VPN connection (tunnelling the censorship walls between a user and a server in the “free” internet).


Ability of a system to exchange with another system and use data provided by the other system on the basis of a shared standard and in absence of central control.

Interoperability also enables smaller platforms to cooperate and to gain size. The Fediverse network is an alliance of smaller free messengers and protocols aiming to increase interoperability on a free and open basis. However, since these tools are less intuitive than the tools provided by the carefree closed shop platforms, you need additional competence, no matter how easy these offers are to use. First of all, you have to spend more time, realising that in the end this extra effort will be rewarded in the form of more freedom and privacy.

Interoperability is as a part of the “FAIR principles” also strategically relevant for the future of the European Digital Single Market. For instance, it allows improved communication between public administrations (EUC-DIGIT,2017). Also,in numbers-based telecommunication, television and radio, the EU prioritises interoperability (EUDirective2018/1972). However, the EU is still reluctant in regard to a regulation of private markets and aware of limiting the public determination to control: “Standardisation should remain primarily a market-driven process”. In particular, it is carefully trying to exclude “number-independent interpersonal communications services” from the interoperability regulations.


Source: Wilkinson et al. (2016)

The Mozilla Foundation, however, is advocating for more engaged steps in this direction:

Effective Competition and Diversity

“A healthy balance of power in our global internet ecosystem depends on a delicate interplay between governments, companies and civil society. We need effective competition standards and technical interoperability – between the products of different companies – to ensure that the internet grows and evolves in ways that accommodate the diverse needs of people around the world.“

(Mozilla Foundation, 2019, p. 98)

Internet - a Symbiotic Ecosystem

It is a little bit like with football, a game played by many amateurs and professionals, people from all regions of the world. They work together for the sport’s popularity and development. A common standard also exists: “The Laws of the Game are the same for all football throughout the world from the FIFA World Cup final through to a game between young children in a remote village”. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) in Zurich is the custodian of the standard. Surely it might be that some influential platforms like the UEFA, Real Madrid or Manchester City would like to change the rules – a shorter game, bigger goals, smaller field or greener grass.

But the price to leave the community might be high. Their players would be excluded from the international football scene. Maybe one wants to still participate in tournaments, or sell players? It can also be easier to get new players who already learned the rules of the game somewhere else. Real or City are the Googles and Amazons, compared to an amateur club in a Spanish or English village. They are playing the game under very different conditions. But all of them require the common standard or the joint commitment to football.

Therefore, the open source model gains more and more importance for the technology behind the surface, like for databases or operating systems of servers (Apache or nginx). Microsoft also runs its cloud, Azure, with an open operating system on Linux basis, although the Linux operating system on desktops/notebooks (with around 3% market share) is marginal in comparison to Windows (around 87%), or Mac OS (around 9%). The share of Open Source on mobile devices is different: Google’s Open Source software, Android, dominates the market with around 68% (Mac OS has a market share of around 29%; NetMarketShare).

Promoting Openness

Openness in regard to data and systems is also becoming apparent. The concept of the sharing economy, for example, depends heavily on open and accessible data. Although open access and open usage of data is not explicitly part of the earlier mentioned FAIR concept, open data is key for innovation and alternative data-economic models in the EU Single Market, a condition for a rights-sensitive digitalisation of public infrastructure, or for publicly funded research: “FAIR principles should be implemented in combination with a policy requirement that research data should be Open by default” (EUC-RTD 2018, p. 21).

Open Education

Openness is not only a technical and legal concept, it is also an attitude. On the one side it is contributing to a free and open knowledge society, on the other hand accessible and open educational tools and materials, like Creative Commons licensed, are a self-service-shop with knowledge that would otherwise have a marketable price. They are possible through the symbiotic coexistence of organisations/individuals acting as idealists, and also others, contributing to openness because it is the basis for their entrepreneurial model. In this sense, also the educational sector has a crucial role to play in facilitating knowledge about the condition of openness for the knowledge society and also the impact of more open publishing and sharing and also lowering accesss barriers on quality and outreach of education and learning.

The sector has to find a strategy between the proprietary tempting promises and the other needs, among them low access, rights-sensitivity, independence. Furthermore other ways of appreciation and remuneration gain importance if the monetary price is not indicating quality and relevance of a work (for instance of this text - for you 0€).

Open and the Public Sector

Beyond research also the public sector has a crucial role to play, as a provider and producer of many different public data. Access and usage rights for such open data would enable the society, including diverse actors like entrepreneurs, civil society or state bodies, to develop innovative products, to fulfil their role as critical public, or to come up with evidence-based management and policies. The idea of open data is not limited to the central provision of infrastructural, environmental, planning, or public performance data in a public website or database. Open AI would also enable these to make use of algorithms and AI for public, not-for-profit and also for-profit purposes. The question here is, who has access to data, and how might affected persons and groups inform and control the systems and “their” data.

In its report, “Steering AI and Advanced ICTs for Knowledge Societies”, UNESCO advocates decisively for openness and transparent systems: “Openness is an important attribute for publication of research and for ensuring transparency and accountability, as well as fair competition in the development and use of AI.” (Hu et. al., 2019, p. 86). Connected to this, is the necessity of free and open access to research knowledge, computing power and data for “bridging new digital divides that we are witnessing between and within countries” (Hu et al., 2019, p. 106).

Conclusions for Education

Invest in non-centralised, open and fair technology

In 2020, we experienced the power and advantages of global platforms in the educational sector. Although proprietary solutions were often faster to implement in online teaching and worked relatively reliable, the COVID-19 pandemic also showed their disadvantages: opaque user contracts, privacy concerns and data and security breeches. However, decentralised software was not able to compete, sometimes due to lacking availability, technical support or digital competence. The consequence is to learn from the crisis and to invest in decentralised software.

  • Education for Democratic Citizenship/Human Rights Education requires rights-sensitive tools and infrastructures. “We call for the promotion of decentralisation and a broad ecosystem of digital infrastructure operators in order to achieve digital sovereignty and dissolve dependencies on individual providers, through the dismantling of operator monopolies and the consistent use of open standards, free and open source software technologies” (Alliance Learning from the crisis, 2020).
  • Furthermore, the idea of open software and creative commons addresses the proactive aspects of civic education. Sharing and co-creating is an attitude and a skill.
  • When using open educational resources or materials published as creative commons, the motivation is too often their cheap availability. But why do people share? Appreciation starts with using open materials or software, but finds its expression in giving feedback, co-creating and in self-publishing and sharing efforts.
  • Using and providing open data, open access, the UNESCO-promoted Open Educational Resources or content under the aforementioned “Creative Commons License” are well-recognised opportunities. And joining coalitions and networks aiming to promote open (re)sources is a clear signal and a necessary step on their way to greater recognition.
  • Education can also become a role model in the choice of digital methods or smaller tools such as boards, messengers, Etherpads or surveys, bringing learners into contact with non-proprietary and more privacy-aware alternatives. This might be embedded in lectures about the idea of digital openness and a decentralised internet.
  • Last but not least, open science intends “to foster all practices and processes that enable the creation, contribution, discovery and reuse of research knowledge more reliably, effectively and equitably“ (Mendez et al., 2020).

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:


Asay, M. (2018/02/7). Who really contributes to open source? In: InfoWorld.

Berners-Lee, T. (1989/90). Information Management: A Proposal. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

EU Directive 2018/1972 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 establishing the European Electronic Communications Code (Recast)Text with EEA relevance.

European Commission (EUC-RTD 2017). Directorate-General for Research & Innovation. H2020 Programme Guidelines to the Rules on Open Access to Scientific Publications and Open Access to Research Data in Horizon 2020.

European Commission (EUC-RTD 2018). Directorate General for Research and Innovation. Directorate B – Open Innovation and Open Science Unit B2 – Open Science. Turning FAIR into reality (2018). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

EU Commission (EUC-DIGIT (2017). Directorate-General for Informatics (DIGIT).New European interoperability framework - Promoting seamless services and data flows for European public administrations.

Fédération Internationale de Football Association: The Laws of the Game

Hu, X; Neupane, B; Flores Echaiz, L.; Sibal, P.; Rivera Lam, M. (2019). Steering AI and Advanced ICTs for Knowledge Societies. A Rights, Openness, Access, and Multi-stakeholder Perspective. UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom. UNESCO Publications Office, Paris.

Mendez, E; Lawrence, R.; MacCallum, C. J.; Moar, E. et. Al (2020). Progress on Open Science: Towards a Shared Research Knowledge System. Final Report of the Open Science Policy Platform. European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Directorate G — Research & Innovation Outreach.

Mozilla Foundation (2019). Internet Health Report. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld.

NetMarketShare. Operating System Market Share.

UNESCO (2019). Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER).

Wilkinson, M., Dumontier, M., Aalbersberg, I. et al. (2016). The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship. Sci Data 3, 160018 (2016).

The Internet, Big Data & Platforms

DIGIT-AL-The Internet.png

This text was published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL - Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship.

Zimmermann, N.: The Internet, Big Data & Platforms (2020). Part of the reader: Smart City, Smart Teaching: Understanding Digital Transformation in Teaching and Learning. With guest contributions of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Manuela Lenzen, Irights.Lab and José van Dijck and contributions of Elisa Rapetti and Marco Oberosler. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020.