The Known Unknowns
What We Know That We Don’t Know About Openness and Its Potential Harms


Pranesh Prakash

Policy Director

Centre for Internet and Society



CC-BY-SA 4.0
(copy, share, adapt: sharing is caring)

no proprietary software or standards were used in the making of this slide deck


"Openness" / "Open X" / "Free X"


First Level

Software         Standards         Data         Content       


Second / Third Level

Open Access to Scholarly Literature, Open Government Data, Open Biodiversity Data, Open Educational Resources, Open Geo Data, Open Encyclopædia, Free Access to Law, Open Culture, Open Video, Open Environmental Data, Open Weather Data, Open Financial Data

(All this is tentative, and open to violent disagreement)

"Openness" / "Open X" / "Free X"






Openness as default.

Often seeking to arrest the slide into non-openness becoming the predominant model.



Each movement has a different sets of motivations.

People within movements don't necessarily agree on motivations.

Conditions of "Openness"


Free Software

No permission to use
Non-discrimination (usage for any purpose)
No permission to study and learn from the software
No permission to copy and redistribute
No permission to modify and distribute



Permissions + Discrimination

Conditions of "Openness"


Open Standards

Availability to study
No payment or little payment to study
 No payment to use
Neutrality/Interoperability of technology as far as possible
Independent/Participatory/Collaborative/transparent process for creation
Malleable for localization
Non-commercial organization maintains



Availability + Payment + Permissions + Neutrality + Participatory + Malleability

Conditions of "Openness"


Open Data


No payment for study and use

No permission to reuse and redistribute

{Open standards}




Availability + Payment + Permissions + Technical openness

Conditions of "Openness"


Open Content


No payment

No permission

{Open standards}





Availability + Payment + Permissions + Technical openness

Conditions of "Openness"


Free/ Open Access to Law (FALM / The Hague GP)

Availability on Internet
No payment for law
No permission to republish
No payment for scholarship
Anonymous access
No technical barrier to download
Neutrality/Interoperability of citations
Open standards



Anonymity + Discoverability + Availability + Payment + Permissions + Technical openness + Neutrality

Conditions of "Openness"


Open Video

{Open Content}
{Open Format}


We added:

No payment for creation

No payment for access

Openness as lack of censorship
Openness as collaboration and participation
Openness as visibility / discoverability

Conditions of "Openness"

Meanings of "Openness"



No payment

No permissions


No discrimination

No technical restrictions

No censorship




As we go further down, the more specific the conditions of "openness" get.

... But Openness Doesn't Cover


Other Layers of "Access"

(Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities)


Knowledge Differentials



Power Differentials

(Ability to collect data, ability to use data)


Examples of Complications





Revenue models are complicated

(Privatization of government)


Examples of Complications





Redistribution of power is complicated

(Sometimes small fry are helped, sometimes they're harmed)

(Land surveys, non-remunerated labour)


Examples of Complications





Domains are complicated




Examples of Complications





Human beings and their needs are complicated

(Transparency vs. Privacy)

(Transparency vs. Security)


Some Questions

Who "creates"/contributes to it?

Who uploads it, who distributes it, who downloads it?

What guidelines exist to aid those who do that?

Who actually has the means to use it?

Who actually uses it?

What uses are imagined and what is it used for?

Is "openness" conceived of as a binary?

Who all have been involved in thinking through these questions.



We should not only advocate for, but also interrogate "openness".

The Known Unknowns: What We Don’t Know About Mitigating the Harms of Openness

By Pranesh Prakash

The Known Unknowns: What We Don’t Know About Mitigating the Harms of Openness

  • 1,592