Open revolution, open government
I recently came across the book, The Open Revolution by Rufus Pollock. I loved this book…not only does it reflect my way of thinking, it expanded my focus from open technology (open source content management systems, open platform, open data and open design) to an open model that could be applied to other situations such as medical/pharmaceutical research, music and literature. And, importantly, open government.
Do something great. Open it up. Improve upon other’s work. Give it back. Let others make it even greater again. Together we can innovate for social good and push the human race forward.
The Open Revolution
The book starts by looking at the public outcry over Cambridge Analytica and Facebook and more generally how companies like Facebook and Google are making big bucks from people’s data. However, Pollock quickly focuses our attention on the real problem – the monopolies these companies have in the market and their tight hold on intellectual property rights.
He identified three factors that came together to create the perfect storm for this monopoly: platform effects, costless digital copying, and intellectual property rights.
Examples of platforms include Google, Facebook and Amazon, and the platform effect is how it’s often in people’s best interests to have one platform as ‘the’ place to be/go. Pollock gives the example of eBay, and how its monopoly benefits sellers and buyers, because it makes eBay the place to go to buy or sell goods.
Pollock attributes the huge profits for owners of online platforms to our digital age, with “infinite, costless copying.” This means expansion is free and so large tech companies can increase their size quickly and easily, with huge profits.
Intellectual property rights
But while it’s costless copying for these tech giants, they have the exclusive right to ‘make the copies’ because they own the intellectual property to software and code (Pollock uses the examples of Microsoft’s Windows, and Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms). On Microsoft, he says, “So Microsoft effectively charges each of us a fee to use our computers and for entry to the internet.”
Pollock then talks about how using the old rules (of intellectual property and copyright) in the new digital age has led to inequality. Here he provides an alarming statistic from 2016 — that the world’s eight richest people (six of whom were tech billionaires) had the same money as the combined wealth of the bottom 50% of humanity. An alarming and disturbing statistic.
“In this new world, intellectual property is intellectual monopoly,” Pollock says. He calls for new rules that are fairer and that will help innovation thrive. He ends the opening section of the book calling for an open world, where all digitised information is open and free and where innovators are recognised and rewarded.
Pollock looks at how to achieve this by firstly comparing a closed world to what he believes an open world would look like. In an open world people build on existing information, whether it’s statistics or medical formulae or something else. Creators are still remunerated, just using a market-driven model instead of a monopoly model.
The open model would put everything online and free – books, music, medical formulas, etc. “The value generated by our advances would be shared by all humanity, rather than concentrated in the hands of the few…Choosing optimism and Openness is one of the most important policy opportunities of the 21st century.”
This is the open revolution.
As an example of building on what’s been built before, he talks about mobile phones and how the technology is actually built from many components, as evidenced by multiple patents. In fact, in the 3G patent pool there are more than 7,500 active/current patents.
Patents and copyright as ‘intellectual property’
Pollock looks at the differences and similarities between patents and copyright and the unfairness of the system; because many things that are invented are not products — they’re concepts or processes and can’t be patented.
Pollock believes that copyright and patent rules actually limit use and hinder innovation. He says, “…free sharing is the only way for society as a whole to realize its full benefits.”
He’s not saying creativity and innovation shouldn’t be rewarded, rather that there are other ways to do this besides exclusive rights.
Some examples from history
The book has many great examples scattered throughout. Two that really stayed with me are: the internet as an open system, and sharing human genome research.
The internet as an open system
In some ways this is quite an obvious one…the internet as the greatest example of an open system. Pollock tracks the ‘invention’ of the internet, and credits its openness to the involvement of universities early on and the fact that the project was being run within a government body staffed by external experts who had a vision. He also mentions that commercial operators at the time didn’t ‘get it’ and so didn’t want to be involved, with some high-profile names turning down the opportunity! Pollock says one of the reasons it’s the “greatest innovation platform of all time” is because there was/is no monopoly.
Sharing human genome research
The second very interesting example that stayed with me was the mapping of the human genome compared to the sequencing of chromosome 17 (BRCA1) and chromosome 13 (BRCA2), which have both been linked to breast cancer. This story in the book is relatively detailed, but it’s fascinating and well worth the read. The high-level overview though…
The sequencing of chromosome 17 (BRCA1) and chromosome 13 (BRCA2) was a race between a researcher who wanted it to be open, and a company that wanted to patent the sequence. In the end, unfortunately the company won the race (by one day!) and so it became a ‘closed’ discovery, with patients being charged $2500 to be tested for the chromosome mutation.
However, in the case of the human genome the publicly funded and government-funded researchers ‘won’ and so the human genome is open – freely available, for free. And because it’s open, it’s already saved lives and generated “billions of dollars’ worth of social and private value.”
These two examples show how the open ethos is essential in medical research.
The remuneration rights model
Pollock proposes a remuneration rights model, where a central fund disperses money to creators (musicians, scientists, record companies, pharmaceutical companies, etc.). This money could be collected through taxes or another form of payment. Then creators get ‘remuneration rights’ based on “the value that the information generates – for example, how much impact a specific medicine has on improving health or how many times a song is played.”
Model in action – music
Pollock takes a chapter to examine music, with Spotify as his starting point. Spotify started with a blanket license from a collecting society (like how radio stations ‘license’ songs to play). Once they were more established they negotiated with music labels and artists for licences.
However, this system could be replaced through a public contribution via a tax or an additional charge on a related bill. It would be a small fee because everyone would do it. And you could also enact it in a particular country and create a ‘wall’ so that people from other countries can’t listen. Pollock applies the model to the Netherlands and takes the reader through that hypothetical case study. He concludes by saying: “So, you could have an Open music system in the Netherlands and pay artists more than they receive now, for less than the cost of a bus ride each month…”
Looking at the US, he says you could fund an open music model via citizen taxes (in the US this would be less than $1/month) or via a levy on devices that store/play music (that was estimated at $0.62/month looking at 2015 data). Obviously for citizens this is much cheaper than the current Spotify monthly subscription fee of $9.99.
Model in action — pharmaceuticals
Pollock also provides an example of how the remuneration rights model would work for pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceuticals would apply for payments from a central fund, based on how innovative the drug is (doesn’t matter who actually manufactures them, just who discovers/invents them). Pollock takes the reader through a well thought-out model that accounts for how to work out how much someone would get, and how to set it up so countries weren’t ‘free-riding’.
He also shows how this would lead to a better distribution of projects. Pollock talks about the fact that more money is spent each year on finding anti-ageing drugs than on fighting malaria because big pharmas direct research into areas that rich countries are interested in, rather than diseases that are killing people in poorer countries.
Making the open revolution work
Pollock mentions many advantages of the open model, specifically:
“Universal access to information
Increasing innovation and creativity
Maximizing positive use of the capacities of information technology
Ending of global monopolies over various forms of information
Reducing inequalities of opportunities and outcomes
Increased global wealth”
The open model proposes replacing the current model of patents and copyrights with remuneration rights; but Pollock acknowledges that a process of research, discussion and planning would need to take place.
Remuneration rights could be used for software, statistics, design, news, maps, medicines, and a myriad of other kinds of information. Existing structures could be re-used for remuneration rights, such as ways to measure value, to define ownership, and how to treat innovation that builds upon existing innovation.
The quickest way to move to the open model would be straight switch: as he says, “a global “big bang”, with all existing monopoly rights being abolished overnight, replaced with remuneration rights.”
Remuneration rights need to be set up so the money is comparable (or better) for companies currently benefiting from the monopoly models. But Pollock describes it as a win-win because companies will get similar remuneration (or better) but costs to the public will go down significantly and innovation has a better chance to thrive.
We need political pressure to fund the open model, but we also need public re-education and buy-in (so information sharing becomes valued). Pollock would like to see a world in which individuals and organisations are lobbying for the open model, for an open revolution. It needs to be a big movement, like the environment movement.
The open revolution for open government
While government won’t necessarily be the gatekeepers under Pollock’s model, their influence and input is essential for the open model, essential for the open revolution. Policy and legislation will need to be in place to change from the current system to the new, open model, but government will also play a much bigger role.
Government is a great sector to show the open revolution in action, and the power it has to contribute to open government. Australia is already very much part of the open government movement, releasing its first Open Government National Action Plan in December 2016. This is part of Australia’s participation in the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative set up in 2011 (we joined in 2013). Australia’s involvement is run by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Open Government National Action Plan covers 15 commitments, with four of these related to how government can become more open through technological innovation, specifically open data and the use of central portals and digital platforms. See the Open Government Partnership Australia website for more information.
Many other government agencies and levels of government (state and federal) are contributing to the open source and open government movement here in Australia, already living and breathing the open revolution.
For example, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) contributes to the open source and open government movement largely through policy and digital service standards. The DTA also recently released its Digital Transformation Strategy.
Also at the federal level, the Department of Finance’s Open Source Policy urges agencies to consider open source solutions first, and Finance’s GovCMS program provides a whole-of-government digital platform that agencies across Australia can use to build their websites. In addition, this platform now uses a fully open source stack. (Yes, we’re a bit biased here because this is a Salsa and amazee.io project, but it also demonstrates Salsa’s commitment to the open revolution for open government.)
At the state level, the Victoria Government’s Single Digital Presence (SDP) is another example of open source for open government (and it’s another Salsa Digital project!). This project sits on a fully open source stack, using amazee.io’s Lagoon hosting platform to deliver a 100% open source solution. In a great example of government working together and the open source ethos, SDP invested in an open source platform, Finance built further upon it and gave it back for the benefit of the global community.
Open data also plays a key role in the open revolution, and open government, with more and more government departments around the world opening up their non-sensitive data (Salsa has covered open data extensively, such as our blog on The power of open data and more recent blogs on open data in Queensland and open data in Victoria). Open data is definitely already heading in the right direction for the open revolution.
Salsa and the open revolution
Salsa advocates the open revolution through of our commitment to open source technologies, focusing on open source content management systems (CMSs), open data, open platform and open design. Recently we’ve been working on large government projects that lead the way with the use of a fully open source technology stack. Victoria’s Single Digital Presence, led by the Dept of Premier and Cabinet, is a great example. We could have built that platform from scratch, but instead we used open source platform Lagoon, open source by amazee.io, building on it and contributing back to the open source community. We’ve then built upon this further with the Department of Finance to roll out the second generation GovCMS platform, that also sits on the Salsa/amazee.io platform.
My hope is that governments will continue to respond to the power of the open model, perhaps through open evangelists lobbying for change, much like environmental groups did, and continue to do. Salsa will certainly continue its commitment to all things open and I, for one, hope to play a large role in the open movement here in Australia.
The Open Revolution has inspired me even more to continue my advocacy for open source and open government. The book is truly amazing and I suggest you read it.