Drifting & Grifting From Open to Fauxpen

by Chris McGivern, Helen Turvey, Adam Hyde and Peter Murray-Rust, 1 April 2022

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Created by Paul Sableman CC-BY

The Internet is one of the shining examples of openness benefitting the world. Its open infrastructure lit a touchpaper for mass participation, vast knowledge transfer, species-wide behaviour change, and the emergence of a digital economy estimated to be worth well over $10 trillion. All of this happened because the Internet is open at its core.

Yet the open Internet is also an example of how openness is not a permanent state. It is always under attack, regardless of whether we apply its concepts and values to the web, data, software, hardware, science, or publishing. As advocates of an open knowledge society, we should celebrate how far the open movement has come in just over a couple of decades. But equally, we can never take our progress for granted.

Some threats are obvious. Censorship, surveillance, monopolistic practices, and intellectual property zealotry are in clear opposition to our aims and ideals. Their proponents lurk in the shadowy recesses of government lobbies and have ideologically supportive influencers on attractive retainers and speed dial. But at least we have an implicit understanding of their end goals. Other threats are far more opaque and insidious.

When open is fauxpen

Social movements are often watered down and assimilated by the status quo as they grow in popularity. The rules of engagement are no different for open. Open’s advantages are attractive - the speed at which community and collaboration can reap results, for example - and there is a lot of mileage and support to be garnered by presenting yourself as transparent and full of integrity. Which brings us directly to fauxpen.

‘Fauxpen’ means fake + open. It describes being invested in the image of openness but not the spirit or intent. ‘Fauxpeners’ are now rife, attracted to the benefits of community and sharing when it suits them but rather less strident in their support when it doesn’t.

At its core, openness is about sharing knowledge because giving people knowledge gives them power. But if knowledge is power, then control of knowledge is the ultimate power. So when we talk about open, we also mean open in terms of mindset and behaviour. We are open in everything we do not because it feathers our nests but because we believe behaving openly will change the world for the better. We believe open creates the optimal conditions for social change by empowering others and builds the foundations for future innovation.

This makes fauxpen cause for concern. We need to become more adept at seeing it. We need to start calling it out when we do see it. And we need to be better at doing so as a unified movement, not from our individual silos of open science, open source software, open knowledge and so on.

Fauxpen in practice

The Open Definiton in its simplest form is:

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose.”

This definition is useful and covers a lot of ground. It is also focussed on the practical mechanics: the what and how of open. But the problem with mechanics is that they can be tampered with and changed to do something else by the introduction of new behaviours. The biggest distinction between open and fauxpen is the why. And this is where fauxpen has found a foothold.

At best, fauxpen is a submission to the status quo. Some people drift away from radicalism and shift their efforts to appeal to the system rather than changing it. We get it. Life gets in the way. Being open is hard and wearing in a world so structurally closed that arguing the merits of waiving vaccine patents - during a pandemic - marks you as a wide-eyed idealist.

Open has also become confusing, and many examples of fauxpen stem from ignorance rather than duplicity. Open Access is a case in point, with its dizzying colour scheme defining almost every conceivable point between open and closed. And while it is often praised as the next big success story for open, its name - open access - offers a clue to its defaults and intentions. It is not open - as in defaulting to allow reuse, remake, remix - unless very specifically signalled. It’s not much of a surprise that newcomers to open access are often confused by what they find, because it is fuzzy, complex and, quite frankly, a bit of a mess. Many people genuinely and mistakenly believe that CC-BY-NC-ND is open, for example.

Honest mistakes are one thing, but at worst, fauxpen is sleight of hand by the status quo. It’s sheer self-interest, or for the benefit of a select few over everyone else. This is the polar opposite of why we are open in the first place. And we can see this egregious and deceptive practice manifest in many different, quite intentional ways.

  • The high priests - Open is for everyone, not just self-appointed guardians armed with checklists, purity lists, and codes of conduct that demand non-commerciality and 100% academic exclusivity. As SF Fellow Peter Murray-Rust says: “‘Non-commercial’ is especially damaging. There’s nothing holy about not making money.”
  • Colonialism and the white saviour - Curated filters that exclude Global South authors are designed by the West for the benefit of the West, often under the pretence of openness. This is nothing short of colonialism. We don’t need to protect Western authors from plagiarism so they can parachute in and save the Global South. With the right knowledge, shared freely without restriction, the Global South can and will look after itself.
  • Walled gardens - Every business, organisation or institution has the right to impose limits on access, use, and reuse if they choose. But unless they are open, they should not claim to be open. In many cases, walled gardens - which are especially widespread in commercial academic publishing websites - are put in place for highly dubious reasons, which Dr Murray-Rust refers to as ‘snoop and control.’
  • Non-standard licenses - Many standardised, perfectly acceptable open licenses exist already. If you encounter a new one, be wary. There is every chance it hasn’t been road-tested properly and, most likely, hides some sort of intention that is far from open.
  • Administrative injustice - If you have to look hard for something, it isn’t open. This could be governments dumping important information in an obscure, unsearchable pdf file or a corporation forcing you through a specific (often closed) portal to access information. Hiding something in the reeds is administrative injustice, plain and simple; whether it’s your intention or not.
  • Hypocrisy - We are all guilty of do as we say not as we do to some extent - we recently ‘came clean’ ourselves. It is hard to take the more difficult, open approach, but it is also necessary. Open is not just about sharing knowledge, it’s also about sharing our frustrations. This way we get better products, better open ecosystems and better open infrastructure.
  • Marketing speak - Claiming openness but relying on closed infrastructure is - as Shuttleworth Fellow Adam Hyde points out in his Fauxen Publishing Platforms piece - simply a ‘type of branding exercise.’ Infrastructure is absolutely critical when thinking about fauxpen, because you simply cannot be open when the infrastructure is closed.

A Fauxpen Definition

Sincere adherence to openness is for the benefit of as many people as possible; fauxpen is cynical and protects the interests of a select few. Open is a commitment to the notion of a greater good and a good faith intention; fauxpen is empty promises. But because the creep towards fauxpen is born sometimes of ignorance, sometimes a need to survive, and sometimes pure deceit, it can be difficult to clarify or point fingers. Ultimately, we must make judgement calls.

Regulation can help with identifying fauxpeners, but not every field of open is covered. Open source software has the watchful eyes of EFF, FSF and others who actively monitor the field and pronounce upon it. But open access and open science - just two examples - do not enjoy similar oversight. Additionally, while there are legal definitions to protect the integrity of openness, we are dealing with ideals, here. Legal language cannot suitably cover ideals. The motivation behind open is that you want people to re-use and redistribute your work and ideas.

So now we know the behaviours and acknowledge we are talking specifically about behaviours, we propose a Fauxpen Definition. In its simplest form:

“Fauxpen is any behaviour that signals openness while not committing to its ideals.”

Our intention is not to create a witch hunt or a naughty list. We get it - life is hard when you go against the grain and commit to open - but we do expect sincerity and honesty. It matters, because open helps good ideas spread and actively encourages others to experiment. And it allows others to hold us accountable, to develop trust. We want to establish new norms, but already, they are being corrupted.

Our movement is a broad, diverse church but we must come together to challenge fauxpeners if open is to become the default paradigm of the future. Coordination, not fragmentation, will be essential. We should also cast our eyes further afield, to areas where the principles of our open philosophy are also applied, albeit without the term ‘open’ - the commons movement, for example. We are keen - and ready - to take this conversation further. Please feel free to get in touch…

With thanks to Adam Hyde and Peter Murray-Rust for giving up their time and sharing their insight.

Posted in open