Fighting for a more open world: our CEO’s keynote speech at Open Belgium 2019

On Monday 4th March 2019, Catherine Stihler, the new chief executive of Open Knowledge International, will deliver a keynote speech – Fighting for a more open world – at the Open Belgium 2019 conference in Brussels. Read the speech below and visit the Open Belgium website or follow the hashtag to learn more about the event.

Catherine Stihler, CEO of Open Knowledge International

Thanks to Open Knowledge Belgium for inviting me to speak today.

It is great to be you with you all in what is my fourth week in my new role as Chief Executive of Open Knowledge International.

This is the first time I have been in Brussels since serving for 20 years as an MEP for Scotland.

During that time, I worked on copyright reform and around openness with a key focus on intellectual property rights and freedom of expression.

Digital skills and data use have always been a personal passion, and I’m excited to meet so many talented people using those skills to fight for a more open world.

It is a privilege to be part of an organisation and movement that have set the global standard for genuinely free and open sharing of information.

There have been many gains in recent years that have made our society more open, with experts – be they scientists, entrepreneurs or campaigners – using data for the common good.

But I join OKI at a time when openness is at risk.

The acceptance of basic facts is under threat, with many expert views dismissed and a culture of ‘anti-intellectualism’ from those on the extremes of politics.

Facts are simply branded as ‘fake news’.

The rise of the far right and the far left brings with it an authoritarian approach that could return us to a closed society.

The way forward is to resuscitate the three foundations of tolerance, facts and ideas, to prevent the drift to the extremes.

I want to see a fairer and open society where help harness the power of open data and unleash its potential for the public good.

We at Open Knowledge International want to see enlightened societies around the world, where everyone has access to key information and the ability to use it to understand and shape their lives; where powerful institutions are held accountable; and where vital research that can help us tackle challenges – such as inequality, poverty and climate change – is available to all.

To reach these goals, we need to work to raise the profile of open knowledge and instil it as an important value in the organisations and sectors we work in.

In order to achieve this, we will need to change cultures, policies and business models of organisations large and small to make opening up and using information possible and desirable.

This means building the capacity to understand, share, find and use data, across civil society and government.

We need to create and encourage collaborations across government, business and civil society to use data to rebalance power and tackle major challenges.

We need tools – technical, legal and educational – to make working with data easier and more effective.

Yet, in many countries, societies are shifting in the other direction making it harder and harder to foster collaboration, discover compromises and make breakthroughs.

Freedom House has recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018.

Last year, CIVICUS found that nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

And, despite some governments releasing more data than before,  our most recent Global Open Data Index found that only 11% of the data published in 2017 was truly open, down from 16% of the data surveyed in 2013.

Our fear is that these trends towards closed societies will exacerbate inequality in many countries as declining civic rights, the digital divide, ‘dirty data and restrictions on the free and open exchange of information combine in new and troubling ways.

Opaque technological approaches – informed by both public and, more often, private data – are increasingly being suggested as solutions to some of the world’s toughest issues from crime prevention to healthcare provision and from managing welfare or food aid projects to policing border security, most recently evidenced in the debate around the Northern Irish border and Brexit.

Yet if citizens cannot understand, trust or challenge data-driven decisions taken by governments and private organisations due to a lack of transparency or the challenge of a right of redress to the data held on individuals or businesses, then racist, sexist and xenophobic biases risk being baked into public systems – and the right to privacy will be eroded.

We need to act now and ensure that legislation emphasising open values keeps pace with technological advances so that they can be harnessed in ways which protect – rather than erode – citizens’ rights.

And we need people in future to be able to have an open and honest exchange of information with details, context and metadata helping to make any potential biases more transparent and rectifiable.

As Wafa Ben Hassine, policy counsel for Access Now, said recently, “we need to make sure humans are kept in the loop … [to make sure] that there is oversight and accountability” of any systems using data to make decisions for public bodies.

Moving on to another pressing issue, I am very concerned about the EU’s deal on copyright reform – which is due to go before the European Parliament for a vote this month – and the effects that this will have on society.

The agreement will require platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Google to take down user-generated content that could breach intellectual property and install filters to prevent people from uploading copyrighted material.

That means memes, GIFs and music remixes may be taken down because the copyright does not belong to the uploader. It could also restrict the sharing of vital research and facts, allowing ‘fake news’ to spread.

This is an attack on openness and will lead to a chilling effect on freedom of speech across the EU.

It does not enhance citizens’ rights and could lead to Europe becoming a more closed society – restricting how we share research that could lead to medical breakthroughs or how we share facts.

I know that there is a detailed session focused on copyright reform at 12:30pm in this room so please join that if you want to learn more.

So what can we do about these issues?

First, we are calling on all candidates in May’s European Parliament elections to go to pledge2019.eu to make a public pledge that they will oppose Article 13 of the EU’s chilling copyright reforms. This is an issue that is not going to go away, regardless of the plenary vote this spring. When the new Parliament sits, in July, the MEPs representing voters for the next five years will have an opportunity to take action.

Second, in coordination with our colleagues at Mozilla and other organisations, we want tech companies like Facebook to introduce a number of improved transparency measures to safeguard against interference in the coming European elections, and I have written to Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and my former MEP colleague Sir Nick Clegg to request more openness from the social media platform.

Facebook have responded but you can add your voice to Mozilla’s ongoing campaign to keep up the pressure and make sure change happens.

Third, we encourage you to visit responsibledata.io to join the Responsible Data community which works to respond to the ethical, legal, social and privacy-related challenges that come from using data in new and different ways.

This community was first convened by our friends at the Engine Room – who have done great work on this issue – alongside our School of Data who were one of the founding partners.

Fourth,  get everyone to use established, recognised open licences when releasing data or content.

This should be a simple ask for governments and organisations across the world but our research has found that legally cumbersome custom licenses strangle innovation and the reuse of data.

Fifth, when you are choosing MEP candidates to vote for in May, ask yourself: what have they done to push for openness in our country? Have they signed up to key transparency legislation? Voiced support for access to information and freedom of expression? If you’re not sure, email and ask them.

We need a strong cohort of open advocates at the European Parliament to address the coming issues around privacy, transparency and data protection.

At Open Knowledge International, we will help fight the good fight by continuing our work to bring together communities around the world to celebrate and prove the value of being open in the face of prevailing winds.

Two days ago, with support from OKI, Open Data Day took place with hundreds of events taking place all over the world.

From open mapping in South America to open science and research in Francophone Africa, grassroot organisations came out in growing numbers to share their belief in the value of open data.

Our next big event is the fourth iteration of csv,conf, a community conference for data makers featuring stories about data sharing and data analysis from science, journalism, government, and open source. By popular demand, this year will see the return of the infamous comma llama.

We are also very proud of the fantastic work by the Open Knowledge network teams around the globe to nurture open communities from Open Knowledge Finland’s creation of the MyData conference and movement to the investigations by journalists and developers enabled by Open Knowledge Germany and OpenCorporates’ recent release of data on 5.1 million German companies.

And here in Belgium, it’s fantastic to hear about the hundreds of students who participated in Open Knowledge Belgium’s Open Summer of Code last year to create innovative open source projects as well as to be inspired by the team’s work on HackYourFuture Belgium, a coding school for refugees.

To finish my speech, I want to echo Claire Melamed of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data: “People’s voices turned into numbers have power … and data has a power to reveal the truth about people’s lives even when words and pictures have failed.”

So whether you’re interested in open government, open education or any of the other fascinating topics being explored today, I hope that you connect with people who will help you fight for openness, fight for the truth and fight for the rights of people in this country and beyond.