"Open" and Authoritarianism

As I wrote about recently, the "open" mantra has become conflated with "free," which may be leading to a world of haves and have-nots as well as a tendency toward patronage rather than a vibrant commercial economy that provides livelihoods more generally and allows creativity and talent to emerge in more places.

The recent Proposition S from Europe seeks to prohibit researchers from publishing in journals that require subscriptions -- that is, that charge users a fee to use the content. While only a plan, the willingness to articulate ideas like this represents a shift toward authoritarianism via patronage, where academic freedom of a large number of people in a thriving information economy is constrained by a handful of patrons using their funding powers to dictate behavior.

Subscription and reader-pays models align the incentives of information providers and information recipients. Removing the aligned incentives of producing content useful to readers and earning money accordingly reduces their commercial viability severely, and creates large focal points of commerce that can be wielded for authoritarian purposes. It's a slightly scattered version of state-run media in effect, and very anti-democratic. A democratic information economy would allow citizens via their payments to choose what to read, support, and access.

Technology plays a big role in this, and misunderstandings of technology are part of this. There is still a belief that technology is somehow low-cost, even free, which given the conflation of "open" and "free" might lead a simpleton to believe that anything digital can be free to use. Of course, this is anything but the case. Technology is very expensive, especially active technology solutions built to support information exchange. But technology also has a tendency to consolidate, leading to single-point solutions like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, where there really is no peer.

Some may argue that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have democratized information access, but the technologist, futurist, and skeptic Jaron Lanier would disagree. These entities actually have hints of authoritarianism themselves, and have displayed powers we normally only associate with world governments -- the ability to monitor and affect elections, to manipulate society, to enforce speech limits -- yet they are more secretive and less accountable than most governments, and certainly less than a democratic government accountable to the people.

One problem with "open" approaches is that "open" by definition gives free information to these companies, which then determine how to use it, for purposes that may or may not comport with social values. The authoritarianism of the major social media companies is something to contemplate -- they have the power to censor and inhibit speech in ways we can barely appreciate or understand. Recently, a government in the US that is itself tending toward authoritarianism started seeking to regulate these companies, a power play that suggests "like seeing like," an authoritarian viewing another authoritarian and wanting to control it. 

Even liberals have fallen into this trap, and many actually expect these companies to act as information authorities, as Lanier writes in his new book, "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now":

We ask remote, giant tech companies to govern hate speech, malicious falsified news, bullying, racism, harassment, identity deception, and other nasty things. Well-intentioned activists demand that corporations govern behavior more and more. . . . The bad actors who wish to discredit democracy . . . win even when losing ground to well-meaning activists.

As Lanier adds when talking about how these companies control what happens on their platforms and how:

You can’t really do that globally or it turns into authoritarianism.

How is this edging toward authoritarianism? When the heads of Facebook and Twitter are called before the Senate, you have government interfering in information flows visually, if not actually. Imagine if the editors of the major national or city newspapers were called before Congress to testify that they were not biased or showing favoritism. That would not happen, because it would clearly be an authoritarian shift.

The lack of editorial consciousness at the technology companies is a component of the problem. If leadership at Facebook or Twitter had an iota of steely-eyed and steel spine editorial experience, they would be in a different situation, asserting they are editorial companies protected by First Amendment and unwilling to testify before Congress. However, as "neutral" platforms with policies, they are just another breed of bureaucrat, so Congress feels comfortable pushing them around.

One way to rectify the situation would be to make these large technology companies accountable to more entities, by putting them under commercial contracts that would limit their ability to do certain things with the information they access.

The attitudes in scientific and scholarly publishing that content should be free and "open" feeds a machine that is tilting toward centralization, which is a step toward authoritarianism. As I wrote about recently, the reliance of "open" on patronage -- narrow, focused, directed financing from rich donors and foundations -- hints at a future where the goals of the rich might become even more dominant than they are now. The coordination of 10 foundations to come up with a demand that strips academic freedom from European researchers is another step down the road of patronage. If realized, the plan would also make vast new swaths of free information available to the major technology and information monoliths.

If Facebook, Google, and Twitter had to pay for information, license it, and negotiate for it like Netflix or other digital companies do, they would be smaller, more well-monitored by commercial counterparties, and less able to misbehave due to contracts and other limitations imposed by those licensing content to them. They would also, by default, have to become editorial in nature, carefully selecting information and agreeing to terms that would shape or reflect their philosophies about information. Contracting for content can be a clarifying exercise, and these companies need some clarity.

However, "open" obviates these possibilities, weakens offsets against authoritarianism, and depletes commercial power from information providers, making the move to centralized information authority not only easier, but perhaps inevitable.

When President Trump recently went after Google, saying they needed to be regulated, we see the weakness of the model where large information companies are the main information companies. Trump is a proto-authoritarian, either by design or by disposition. He wants to be king. Controlling information has long been his and his party's goal, with Fox News becoming essentially state television for half of every weekday in the US. These things have actually made Republicans more vulnerable to other authoritarians, with the fact that conservatives use far fewer news outlets than liberals giving the Russian misinformation campaign instituted by Vladimir Putin the ability to more easily target these voters, and with greater success. (Remember, Russia tried to tilt both Democratic and Republican voters, and pursued Republican voters more aggressively because they were easier to spot, more primed for divisive messaging, and so forth.)

The large tech companies themselves are not up to the task of defending information independence as things stand now. Mark Zuckerberg is running a system that has broadcast live murders, helped to derail elections in multiple countries, allowed nefarious people to pry into the private lives of citizens around the world, and more. He's ignored warnings from smarter and more experienced people multiple times about the potential for these things to happen, and proceeded anyway. And he does this all based on free information given willingly to a behavior manipulation system, a 24/7 Skinner box online.

In a more vibrant information system, with hundreds of viable outlets, each with its own source of revenues and no need to rely on major players like Google and Facebook, targeting American democratic information sources and the free press would be much harder. The same goes for scholarly and scientific publishing. Predatory publishers have become an earned source of shame for our industry, and "open" unleashed that, because the game of "open" is to publish and feed the search and social engines.

"Open" assumes a secondary distribution point, and these points have become singular, subject to authoritarian targeting, and authoritarian in their own right. They have even cultivated an expectation of authoritarianism (Google's search algorithm, Facebook's policies, etc.).

By association and design, and in an information landscape with fewer contractual guardrails and commercial incentives, "open" opens the door to authoritarianism. From Putin to Assad to Trump, authoritarians and their minions have been exploring the potential for a few years already. We might want to change course.