Working Toward an "Open Knowledge" Future, with Catherine Stihler

Jul 30, 2019

Catherine Stihler, CEO of Open Knowledge Foundation, talks about how she is working toward an "open world where all non-personal information is free for everyone to use, build on, and share." As a former member of European Parliament, she also details the role that governments can play. What would a "fair, free, and open future" look like? What effect is today's divisive political atmosphere having on this goal?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I’m Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Catherine Stihler, CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Catherine is relatively new to this role. Previously, from 1999 to 2019, she was a member of the European Parliament, representing Scotland.

Catherine and I spoke about the concepts of open knowledge and open data, her foundation’s work, and what the European Parliament should be doing to help this cause.

We also talked about how the conversations about Internet regulation and data are different in the United States and how the turbulent political climate in the UK is affecting these debates. Catherine lives in Scotland, but called in from California so these were timely and relevant topics for her.

For now, calling in from Monterey, California, here’s my talk with Catherine Stihler.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, what does "open data" mean? What does "open knowledge" mean, and what's the connection between these two concepts?

CATHERINE STIHLER: When Open Knowledge was formed in 2004, open data was really a new idea, a new concept. But really, it's all about knowledge. It's all about how we open knowledge up and ensure people have access.

What we're about in Open Knowledge is about a fair, free, and open future, an open world where all non-personal information is open, free for everyone to use, build on, and share, and also, we want to see that creators and innovators are recognized and rewarded. Data is part of that picture, but knowledge is so much bigger, and that's something that we're coming back to our roots about to think about how we open knowledge so that people can now have a fair, free, and open future.

ALEX WOODSON: What does Open Knowledge Foundation do to advance this cause?

CATHERINE STIHLER: What we are banking on is our new strategy. We've done a lot of work on open data world, but what we want to get back to is ensuring that we support people and organizations to create a fair, free, and open world. We want to ensure that we work in areas which are more relatable and mainstream in health, education, and work. We want to ensure that we internally also have that support with our policies and what we do, and we want to build partnerships with other organizations who want to see this open vision.

Previously, we defined what open was, so this issue about being open, free for everyone to use, build on, share, and create was really defined by the founder of Open Knowledge, Dr. Rufus Pollock. We formed a platform to allow open data to be better used, and that was called the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN), and that's now with a company called Datopian that we have a stake in.

At the moment, we are doing work in frictionless data, which I'm told is what shipping containers were to the shipping industry, frictionless data is to the data world, really technical stuff, but actually where we want to go is go back to our roots about knowledge and how we can do that to allow people to come on the journey about an open future. Because at the moment what we're facing is really the fight between an open future and a closed future, and my fearfulness is that we're going down this closed-future route where only those with money will be able to have access to knowledge, and that is in no one's interest. If we want to keep knowledge open and accessible, we need to fight for that fair, free, and open future, and you see that—I was involved in many of the copyright debates that were going on in the European Union when I was formerly a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and that's what got me into this open world.

I think that when you look at that and you see the interest, you see the kind of fight for this open future that we all want, which leads to a fairer and more equal society. It is something that we've got to fight for because at the moment we're seeing a more unequal society, and we're seeing the consequences of that. I think we see that in our politics as well.

Never before has it been so important to have that concept of an open, fair, and free future. How we go about and gain that is something that Open Knowledge wants to work upon as we move forward in our five-year strategy.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned that you were a Member of the European Parliament.


ALEX WOODSON: What exactly would you like to see the European Parliament do to advance open knowledge? What are some of the initiatives that you're trying to push forward for the organization?

CATHERINE STIHLER: There are some basic things that, to be fair to the European Union, they are already doing. If you look at research, they're making sure that there are open science and open access to the research that's European-funded. We look at what they were doing with the public sector information work that was happening to allow data to be more open and accessible, but now that that's being implemented you have to watch that space because what is decided upon and what's implemented in Member States can be two different things.

Then there's the copyright debate, which sadly the side of the argument that wanted to see most things open wasn't so successful. But now that it's being implemented at Member State level you've got to keep an eye on what will be happening at Member State level over the next two years. So that's something of interest to Open Knowledge, to make sure knowledge is still open and accessible to all.

Then you've got other things that are coming up which I think are quite interesting. You've got looking at platform liability, which was a big issue in copyright, which is coming back into the policy framework, and you're looking also at a proposal coming forward from the European Union on artificial intelligence (AI) as well, and these are all going to be developed. If we're looking at that future, we want to see they're being open and also, I guess accountable. These policy areas being developed at the European level are really important to influence and debate about and also be involved with.

ALEX WOODSON: How have you seen these debates evolve in Europe over the last few years? As you said, you were very involved as a Member of Parliament, and now you're not really on the other side, but you're doing something a little different.

CATHERINE STIHLER: I firmly believe that one of the key learning points in the copyright debate is that all of us who are involved in wanting to see this fair, free, and open future need to work more closely together to be able to realize that vision. I say this because when I look at what happened in the copyright debate—about how big organizations with huge commercial interests worked together to influence that piece of law, whereas it felt like those from civil society, from other perspectives, didn't often seem to have a look-in—then there's a real need to work together.

I think there's a real need to have a common narrative about what open means today, not what open was when, say, Open Knowledge was founded in 2004. That for me is a big, big part of what I am thinking as I move Open Knowledge forward but also about how we can be more impactful in the debates that really matter to seeing that open future.

In California this week it has been interesting talking to people from Wikimedia, and from TechSoup and from GitHub and others. You see the need when you're working, but it's open source, open data, open access, to have a common narrative around what we mean today.

I think there's a great potential to do things together and work differently than what we've had before. Because I think this issue about being relatable and being more mainstream and bringing people who have no idea what this "open access"—open source, open data, whatever you want to define what open is at the moment—have not really been engaged with this debate. But actually, it's important that we engage with people maybe whom we've never engaged before. I keep thinking that this continuum of people who on one level have no idea about what, say, open knowledge is or open access or open data or open source is, right down to those who are evangelical about these issues. But we need to work together to be able to make sure that we are more mainstream, that we're more relatable, and that we have this common narrative moving forward.

ALEX WOODSON: As you mentioned, you're in California for the moment.


ALEX WOODSON: And you've been speaking with people in the tech industry there. What kind of conversations are you having in the United States? How is the debate a little different in Europe as opposed to the United States?

CATHERINE STIHLER: I found it really interesting. I think there's more acceptance here that there's a need to have this common narrative.

When I've been talking to people in Europe, I think it's more about what's happening with copyright, what's happening about, say, the National Data Strategy, but actually I have a real feeling about this common narrative coming together about how we can make that happen.

Maybe it's just an attitudinal thing here, but I do sense that there are more possibilities to come together with a common narrative, and possibly because the key people are located here. When you're talking in Brussels or talking in London, there's always that impossibility of bringing people together, so I think there is an issue about convening, bringing those people together who can form that common narrative and get that across. Because the opposition to the open future that we want to see are getting together, are forming common narratives, and are being pretty successful at doing that. If we want to be successful to realize our open future which is in all of our interests we need to come together and we need to have a common narrative to do that.

ALEX WOODSON: A lot of these issues in the United States I've found—and we've done a lot of events about this here at Carnegie Council; we've done podcasts and things like that—come back to the First Amendment, which is really a very foundational part of the United States. In Europe and the United Kingdom, it's a little different.

You wrote an article for The Scotsman I think back in February talking about the United States, and it sounds like you're a real advocate for the First Amendment in some ways. I'm just wondering how you view something like freedom of speech, freedom of expression, which is such a big part of the United States, but it's not the same in Europe, not the same in the United Kingdom.

CATHERINE STIHLER: Clearly I think freedom of expression is pivotal to our democracy and how we operate, and I think maybe more than ever before we see when democracy is under pressure—as we see across the European Union and as we see currently in the United Kingdom—that freedom of expression and freedom of speech is really absolutely pivotal, and if people aren't able to do that, then there are real challenges to our democracy.

I've experienced a number of referendums now—especially the independence referendum in Scotland and then the Brexit referendum in 2016—and you saw in both cases of those where your ability to express your viewpoint came under huge criticism. But also, the whole issue of social media was in that space of being able to freely express yourself and be able to say things that you believed in. You can have the banter about people having different opinions, but the way it is conducted just now is not a way which is respectful or allowing for difference.

We're in a different world just now where it seems to be that things are in extremes. If you have a perspective, it's how do we ensure that we can have debates and political discussion and be able to do that in a functioning democracy and do that well. These are key challenges.

This is before addressing that we would be in a world where we're talking about the basic fundamentals for democracy coming under huge threats. Some people do say that referendums shouldn't be really used in parliamentary democracy to make decisions, but then again, they have been, and the results are such. So, we have to make sure that the structures that make up our democracy are as strong as possible—and currently I think both in the United States and in the United Kingdom they're being severely tested.

ALEX WOODSON: Another big aspect of this that relates to America and where you are in California is the private sector and these huge companies. I think you mentioned Wikimedia, and there's obviously Google, Facebook, Twitter, all these giant social media companies. What is their role in pushing forward your cause of open knowledge and open data?

CATHERINE STIHLER: There's an element of there's a lot that some of these companies have done to make things open. But equally there's an issue about people's privacy, about how data is used. What you've seen so far, certainly witnessed at the European level, where measures have been voluntary, they haven't been working in the way that's in the interest of the public or the consumer, however you want to describe individuals who use services.

So, I think certainly there's a difference of opinion I would say between the United States and the European Union currently about how we I suppose regulate monopolies or how do we ensure there is competition, and we see this with the rulings that are being looked at by the European Competition Commissioner. We see this in the debate around digital taxation. I think the issue in France just now that there have been some comments about—fundamentally there are issues about the power that some big companies have and the influence that they have, and that is being played out with our democracy as well.

So, how are we going to get those rules right when people at the moment don't know what the next challenges of technology will be? Or how, as I mentioned the AI work that is being done by the European Commission at the moment and a proposal will come forward, how are we going to get that regulation right in order that we get the interests of innovation and creation but also make sure that privacy and public confidence in our democracy are protected?

That's a huge challenge. This concept that people keep talking about, open by default or privacy by design and how do we get that right are key questions as we move forward in this space and in the world that we want to see. We can go back to that we want to see a fair, free, and open future with an open world, and we want to see that because we think that's in all of our interests to be there. But at the moment that's under threat and hugely pressurized. If we want to see that world, we need to campaign for it and give options and solutions for how we can achieve that, and I think Open Knowledge is quite well-placed to do that, working with others.

But how the private sector works in that space, the regulatory environment really should be at a global level rather than at an EU or a U.S. level, but seeing that happening I think is far from the picture of where we're at at the moment.

ALEX WOODSON: Looking forward optimistically—

CATHERINE STIHLER: I like to be optimistic. I'm a born optimist.

ALEX WOODSON: The United States and United Kingdom are going through their issues at this time, so it's hard to be optimistic at some points, but if we could just look forward optimistically to a future where there is open knowledge, what does that look like? How does that make the world different than how it is today?

CATHERINE STIHLER: I think in terms of, say, just research, people being able to share information, to be able to come up with a cure for cancer, to be able to make better decisions at a local level, to improve their quality of life. For example, at the moment a friend of mine who's actually doing this voluntarily in Brussels to promote the air quality through public libraries and getting people involved in data and understanding what's happening around them in a way that's useful to them. So, I think there's so many possibilities to make knowledge more open and accessible to people, but at the moment we've got to kind of make that happen.

The future I would like to see is everybody fulfilling their potential, knowledge is accessible, people can make better decisions for their lives, and also people are held to greater account by the knowledge that we have when people who are in power are making decisions on our behalf. There are so many aspects of this that I think it's hugely exciting. It's a place that we really want to be, and it gives us a vision of hope for our future at a time when sometimes it's quite hard to be hopeful, but we can be to go into a fair, free, and open future.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. Just to go back a little bit, I'm just curious to know when this—you were a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to—

CATHERINE STIHLER: I was a Member for 20 years, so 1999 to 2019.

ALEX WOODSON: The world changed a lot in those 20 years. When did this become your issue? When did you know that this was such an important thing to focus on?

CATHERINE STIHLER: Do you know, it was when I started to get involved in copyright reform. I had been involved in the digital debates from about 2009 onward.

Before that, I'd been involved in public health and getting graphic pictures on cigarette packets and pharmaceutical packaging and all of these kinds of things, but when it came to thinking about digital and thinking about the future, then getting involved in copyright—where I formed all-party library groups so libraries could have a say in some of this space—it was then I started to see how big, powerful groupings—whether it was in publishing or music—had so much power and yet civil society and the public voice didn't seem to be that particularly strong.

So, when the job came around with Open Knowledge and having the privilege to work with such a great organization, it just seemed the right fit for me. Not coming from a technical data world, coming from a practical political world, that's where the realization came about, that fighting for an open future is really where we need to be. And at a time where politics is so polarized bringing people together in this kind of campaign seemed just relevant.

ALEX WOODSON: As you mentioned, as we've kind of danced around a little bit here, the political situation in both of our countries is not what I would like it to be. We'll put it that way.

CATHERINE STIHLER: I'll just say I'm really glad I'm in California. I have not been in Britain with what has been going on, but that is just my personal opinion. I can't comment for everybody at Open Knowledge at all.

ALEX WOODSON: But just to look ahead, you have a new prime minister in Boris Johnson. We have a huge election coming up in 2020 in the United States. What are some of the things that we should look toward in the future? What are some moments or some ideas that you're going to be thinking about over the next year or two, specifically relating to this divisive political time that we're in?

CATHERINE STIHLER: I think frankly at the moment in the United Kingdom, where I live, I live in Scotland, because of the whole issue around Brexit—it will come as no surprise to you that I'm completely against Brexit. I want us to remain part of the European Union.

But put my personal opinion to one side. We really should be having a far more nuanced and thoughtful debate about where technology is going. Why is it that when situations where people feel things are out of control—there's what is being done in the National Data Strategy, there's what's being done on Online Harms as well—but where is that going to when all political direction is being taken up with the issue of Brexit?

I happened to be in London a few weeks ago with my board meeting and I was walking between meetings and I came across the Extinction Rebellion, which is happening in London. One young activist came to me and handed me a leaflet, and I took it. First thing, he was so grateful and very polite, one of the most polite activists I've met in a long time, and I took his leaflet and I read it. What they were demanding was a citizens' assembly on the issue of climate change or climate crisis, however you want to describe it. I thought, This is a very simple ask, something very simple, and the atmosphere around when I was walking through this was so positive and engaging. I thought to myself, You know, this is fascinating because this is a very simple ask of something that is so serious and so important.

The point I'm trying to make about where I think things should be going is I think because Brexit is consuming so much political time we're not addressing serious issues around the technological revolution that we're living through, the climate crisis that we're facing—and we're seeing that with the hottest days in the United Kingdom ever, ever recorded. So, I would like to see more focus on how having more knowledge around some of these issues will help us make better decisions, and I think that's not a very big ask. It's a very easy ask to make, but one which needs political will to be delivered upon.

Until that time, at the moment, Scotland, my country, has become so divided and the politics so broken that we're in a hugely challenging situation where even the existence of the United Kingdom is now being questioned. I would like us to get back to addressing the key issues of our time, which is how are we going to ensure we still have a fair, free, and open future for generations to come, and how we do that is by not being divisive and partisan but working together globally to ensure that.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, is there anything that we should look for specifically from the Open Knowledge Foundation in the coming months?

CATHERINE STIHLER: Well, we've now got our new strategy. I've only been in the job for five months, so I'm really proud of it. I think we're trying to define that narrative that brings us together and look at us getting into areas that we've never been involved with—in the areas of work, health, and education—to be able to realize that fair, free, and open future.

ALEX WOODSON: This has been great. Thank you very much for your time.

CATHERINE STIHLER: Thank you. Great to speak to you. Have a great day.

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