The Dangers of Being Open

Amira Dhalla
May 7, 2018 · 7 min read

Last month I attended the Creative Commons Summit and listened to a keynote called “Open as in Dangerous” by someone I personally admire, Chris Bourg. You can read her talk here or watch it here. I was also excited to join Chris on the panel after her talk to dig into the issues further (you can watch the panel in the video link). I would definitely recommend watching/ reading the keynote as it goes into the issues I describe below with a more scholarly viewpoint. Also, I’m a huge fan of how Chris acknowledges her perspective in a given conversation, uses her platform to bring other voices to the forefront and properly attributes the work of others. If you ever need an example of how to appropriately do these so often forgotten pieces than look no further than her keynote.

Post-Keynote Discussion at the Creative Commons Summit. Photo by @ryanmerkley

As someone who has worked in the open for many years now and collaborated with a diverse spectrum of individuals in the movement, I have witnessed and am aware of the stories of how open is perceived as dangerous by particular individuals around the world. In my role at Mozilla I’ve been working under the open framework, trying to encourage openness among individuals and organizations for year so I’d be amiss if I didn’t explicitly say that I think there are a large number of positives when being open and we can all benefit from understanding how to bring more openness into our lives. I know there are many barriers when being open and it isn’t always achievable or realistic for many, but understanding the general premise of living, working and collaborating in more open ways can reap benefits in a persons personal and professional life. The potential opportunity of what we as individuals, as a society and a world can achieve if we live and work more openly is what drove me to the movement and has kept me in an ongoing state of building better open practices.

And while I live and practice the ethos of open, continuously striving to become better, I am aware of the dangerous of being open. In fact, there are two areas in particular that I want to raise as we move forward with creating an open and distributed world. Areas that create large tension between two big issues in our digital world, digital inclusion and privacy/security.

Threat #1: Open is not inclusive

Historically, the open movement has been shepherded by the idea that if we all collaborated and shared knowledge together we would be able to go further together. Those who volunteered to contribute to this mission or have leveraged open resources for their benefit have been apart of the movement. The movement can be said to be a global one as there are contributors from all around the world.

But what happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it. In parts of the world being open can mean people will steal your ideas which could negatively impact your livelihood. In other parts, being open means that you are a target for harassment or violence which could result in physical and emotional abuse. From my experience, it has become more apparent over the years that being open is actually not obtainable to the masses. That being open is something of a privilege. That being open is actually elite.

When you put movements in the hands of the elite, scary things can happen. You can further the socioeconomic classes of people and give more power to those already in power. And those with power now have the opportunity to do things that they would not otherwise have been able to do, and I don’t need to go into the examples of why in the wrong hands, power + access to info/data = danger.

As I’ve grappled with the idea that I am apart of what could be considered an elite movement, I have taken time to look around and consider who is around me. The movement is not in fact led by demographics I care about such as people of colour, lower-income individuals or those in the global south. There are exceptions, sure, but it’s most likely that the open movement is pushed forward by those who tend to look and feel like they have power in our world.

So what happens when we realize open is only understood or used by certain people? We see all the people who aren’t included. These people who might benefit most from what the movement has to offer but can’t see themselves part of the movement or don’t understand how to join or even worse, don’t see the value in joining. To help these people we need to start meeting them where they are and allowing opportunities for a greater diversity of people to join the movement. We need leaders of diverse backgrounds. We need champions who can represent or work with the voices missing and actively work on solutions to bringing more people into the mission.

Threat #2: Open threatens privacy and security

We are constantly sharing data and information about ourselves, whether we intend to or not. While most of us intend to share our data in discrete ways, often times we are agreeing, handing over or even oblivious to the fact that others are taking that data and using it for personal gain. The amount of data we share is only increasing and we are willingly letting organizations track our steps, locations, habits, relationships, conversations, voices and more. When doing this, it’s important to consider how to do so without harming your personal security.

As we deal with corporations and people who have access to large amounts of data and information and share it openly, I fear for those who are in danger because of it. And I pain for those who are forced into the open against their choice. As the elite gets more open and finds ways to leverage their power, they are in turn preying upon the most marginalized. The people who didn’t know open was an option and were forced into it so they could get access to things that help them to survive in our modern world.

This article in the new inquiry “Privacy for Whom” articulates my feelings well and has been something I’ve shared with anyone who will talk to me recently (also one should read Virginia Eubanks book “Automating Inequality”). The article says, “for the poor and marginal, invasions of privacy are often lethal matters. A stop-and-frisk can easily end in a police shooting. Data shared from a registry can lead to arrests or deportation. Scrutiny from a caseworker can tear a family apart.” The risks to privacy for the marginalized are clear.

Privacy and security have become something you can only obtain if you have enough money and/or privilege. Therefore, this important right of privacy and security — this thing that everyone should be entitled to — is no longer sacred or even an option for those most vulnerable and will only further harm an already disabled part of our society. Furthering the gaps of inequality, preying upon vulnerable people and putting numerous amounts of people at risk, this isn’t the open movement I signed up for. And this isn’t what the open movement was about but for those in power, this is what open has led to.

To address this, we need more organizations standing up for better open principles and protecting the privacy of everyone. We need a new standard for what obtaining, securing and using data looks like and we need organizations to champion these standards. We need protection for the most vulnerable; we need to give them skills and knowledge to understand how to have greater control over the services they are using.

And so…….

It’s important to be aware of these issues and understand their impact as it relates to the broader movement. As we move forward with ideologies that promise to contribute positively to the world it is increasingly important that we hold ourselves to higher standards of who and how individuals are included. As people and organizations in the movement we are accountable to ensure this promising ethos protects and provides for everyone. I hold my colleagues, my organization and myself accountable. Our success will be dependent on how we critically examine ourselves and the movement, while pushing our collaborators to lead by example.

So here’s your td:lr. Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do. Until then open will be something that in unattainable by the masses and only open or abused by those in power.

Ps. UnCommon Women launched their colouring book highlighting women leaders working in open around the world. It’s a fun, engaging and inspiring initiative that lets individuals of all ages, especially young girls, see women as leaders in the open movement. I am honored to be featured in the book among so many incredible women. Read more about the project here and purchase your own book to support the project and UnCommon Women here.

The Amira Dhalla comic, designed by the talented Rori Comics

Amira Dhalla

Written by

A teacher, learner and sharer of all things gender, tech, privacy, and equity. Currently studying human rights and technology.