Does the “openness” that made the internet so successful also inevitably lead to harms online? Is an open internet inherently a haven for illegal speech, for eroding privacy and security, or for inequitable access? Is “open” still a useful concept as we chart a future path for the internet?
A new paper from Mozilla seeks to answer these questions. Reimagine Open: Building Better Internet Experiences explores the evolution of the open internet and the challenges it faces today. The report catalogs findings from a year-long project of outreach led by Mozilla’s Chairwoman and CEO, Mitchell Baker. Its conclusion: We need not break faith with the values embedded in the open internet. But we do need to return to the original conceptions of openness, now eroded online. And we do need to reimagine the open internet, to address today’s need for accountability and online health.
As the paper outlines, the internet’s success is often attributed to a set of technical design choices commonly labelled as “the open internet.” These features – such as decentralized architectures, end-to-end networks, open standards, and open source software – powered the internet’s growth. They also supported values of access, opportunity, and empowerment for the network’s users. And they were aided by accountability mechanisms that checked bad behavior online.
Today’s internet has moved away from these values. The term “open” itself has been watered down, with open standards and open source software now supplanted by closed platforms and proprietary systems. Companies pursuing centralization and walled gardens claim to support “openness.” And tools for online accountability have failed to scale with the incredible diversity of online life. The result is an internet that we know can be better.
Reimagine Open concludes with a set of ideas about how society can take on the challenges of today’s internet, while retaining the best of openness. These include new technical designs and a recommitment to open standards and open software; stronger user demand for healthier open products online; tougher, smarter government regulation; and better online governance mechanisms. Short case studies demonstrate how reimagine open can offer practical insights into tough policy problems.
Our hope is that Reimagine Open is a jumping-off point for the continuing conversation about the internet’s future. Open values still offer powerful insights to address policy challenges, like platform accountability, or digital identity. Openness can be an essential tool in building a new conception of local, open innovation to better serve the Global South. For a deeper look at these ideas and more, please visit the Reimagine Open Project Wiki, and send us your thoughts. Together we can build a reimagined open internet that will act as a powerful force for human progress online.