[Op-ed] The Open Revolution and the Fight against Tech Monopolies
Editor’s note: Rufus Pollock’s new book The Open Revolution: Rewriting the Rules of the Information Age, explores how our “Closed” approach to information is handing control of our digital economy to a few tech monopolists like Google and Facebook – and what we can do about it. We’re pleased to publish this oped by him, adapted from his book. Pollock will be at Civic Hall on next Monday 25th June to share more about his book. Find out more and RSVP here.
Today, in a digital age, who owns information controls the future, and we face a fundamental choice between Open and Closed. In an Open world we would make information shared by all, freely available for everyone to use and build upon. In a Closed world information is exclusively “owned” and controlled, its attendant power and wealth more and more concentrated, with widespread damaging effects on our economies, freedom, culture and even our health.
In an Open world all of us would be enriched by the freedom to use, enjoy and build upon everything from statistics and research to newspaper stories and books, from software and films to music and medical formulae. In an Open world we would pay innovators and creators more and do so more fairly, using market-driven remuneration rights in place of the intellectual property monopoly rights we have today.
However, our present Closed world has extraordinary concentrations of power and wealth. Innovation is stunted and distorted by the dead hand of monopoly; freedom is threatened by manipulation, exclusion and exploitation; and each click you make, every step you take, they’re watching you.
As they have improved, digital technologies have taken on more and more of the tasks humans used to do, from manufacturing cars to scheduling appointments. In the next few decades “AI” (artificial intelligence) may not only driving our cars but drafting legal contracts and performing surgery. On the face of it, we have much to gain if machines can spare us tedious or routine tasks, and perform them with greater accuracy.
The danger, though, is that robots run on information — software, data algorithms — and at present the “ownership” of this sort of information is very unequal. And because it is protected by our Closed system of intellectual property rights, it is becoming ever more so thanks to costless copying and platform effects. With the overwhelming and ever-growing importance of information technology in the modern world, the balance of wealth and power is tipping further and further towards an exclusive club. But by choosing Openness we can make sure the future works for everyone, not just the 1%.
Already, the world’s principal industry is the production and management of information. And control and the wealth of those processes is dangerously concentrated, and is becoming more so. The five richest companies on the globe are all infotech-based, and they exhibit some of the most unequal ownership structures in the world, with tiny groups of founders and investors owning great proportions of their equity.
At its most extreme, the current situation threatens the norms of a free society. Free enterprise and free markets are disintegrating in the face of international monopolies, free choice means little when there is only one choice, and even our political freedom and freedom of thought are threatened by powers that have the capacity to shape how we think and act. We should all be worried about this, and the evidence from recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica show that these concerns are increasingly shared.
Yet if we were to open up to everyone all the information that is being produced — the software that now runs the world, all the riches and the Closed materials, the world’s literature and art and algorithms — then we could democratise the infotech revolution.
The opportunity and the danger are both great. Choosing optimism and Openness is one of the most important policy opportunities of the 21st century. It is a chance to transform our societies, to create a future beyond the politics of capitalism and socialism, combining the enterprise of the former with the latter’s ideal of fairness: a genuine chance to build a better world for everybody. And the entire, unprecedented opportunity is based on one unique characteristic of our extraordinary new digital technology: cost-free copying.
Physical things have an unfortunate limitation: they can be used for only one thing at a time. A bicycle is a bicycle, and if I am riding it to work, you cannot be riding it to the shops at the same time. Physical things, as economists say, are “rival” in use. This fact is so obvious that we barely notice it, but it is of profound importance. It means the world of physical goods is one of scarcity: all too often there is not enough to go round.
Most societies in the world today have systems of private property based upon this physical fact of single-use. We make the *social* control of physical things exclusive because that aligns with the *fact* of exclusive use. If you own a house you decide who lives in it, and the law is built upon the realities of the world’s limited and rival physical resources.
On the whole, this has worked well up to now — usually much better than other systems that have been tried. Because our way of thinking has physical property at its heart, we have sought to include information in the same category, where it doesn’t belong, under the banner of “intellectual property”. In truth, information is fundamentally different. Its unusual and essential characteristic is its boundlessness, its *non-*rivalry, its capacity to replicate. When you share a joke with friends around a dinner-table they each have their own “copy”. As such, information is *not* like and should *not* be treated like tangible property.
Digital technology takes this property of information to another level. Once digitized — whether it is a photograph, an app or a symphony — information can be copied as often as we want and shared with anyone *at practically no cost*. Unlike physical things information can be reproduced miraculously to meet demand, making it different from the entire traditional basis of our economy. In this changed world, we need changed rules. Exclusive property rights made sense for physical property because of their scarce and rival nature: with one user, one owner. But digital information is different and its abundant and *non-*rival nature means it needn’t be exclusive, it can be Open.
Moreover, we already have Open-compatible methods to pay innovators which we can build on. Just look at Spotify. You pay one fixed fee and have the entire library at your disposal. We need to systematize this approach, replacing current intellectual property monopoly rights with Remuneration Rights. Instead of a patent or copyright monopoly, creators would instead obtain a “remuneration right” which would entitle them to payment from a central government fund according to the value of their contribution – based on how much their drugs improved health, for example, or how many times their song was played. Under this model we’d all pay once and in return it would be unlimited access for all. And we can use traditional market mechanisms driven by demand to allocate all or part of the money collected.
Welcome to the Open Revolution.