"be open. be free. be Berlin."

Openwashing: to spin a product or company as open, although it is not. Derived from “greenwashing

There’s a troubling trend surfacing in the marketing world, one that’s riffing off a now-familiar strategy, “greenwashing”. We’ve all seen products coated in greensheen, the misleading marketing ploy that spins a product as environmentally-friendly in order to woo eco-cozy customers.

Now, there’s a whole new buzzword bingo game in town, and it’s all about transparency, access, and believe it or not, “openness”.That’s right. Companies are courting openness like it’s the new green.

Take, for example, the above (badly-photographed – sorry!) advertisement from the Berlin Partner GmbH, a promotional arm of Germany’s capital.

Their new slogan, “be open. be free. be Berlin,” is designed to evoke coolness and inspire acceptance with the young and wired generation. I think it’s pretty illustrative of what I’m calling openwashing. Reading through the campaign’s Terms of Use, for example, I’ve come across these gems:


The user is not permitted to download content of any kind from the website and/or to copy and/or otherwise reproduce it, unless this is explicitly permitted on the website and/or made possible (e.g. the ability to send a link to a success story by means of a function provided for this purpose on the Website).


Changes or modifications to the website or parts of the website are not permitted.

So, let me get this straight. Users can send in lots of stuff and build the value of the campaign with their content, but they can’t use any of it once it’s uploaded? At least the Berlin Partner don’t claim exclusive usage rights for users’ own submissions, but they do restrict those users, and everybody else, from being able to do much of anything with it. Plus, Berlin Partner retains all the user content, even if you send them a termination of contract.

I don’t really want to bash Berlin Partner too badly, because I think the campaign’s concept is kinda neat. But I just think they should be consistent with their messaging.

But this is not the only example of openwashing, and in fact, there are instances that make a better case for illustrating what I’m talking about. Take a look at The Guardian’s “Open Platform”…and Dave Winer’s rebuttal of the misnomer.

On a meta-level, openwashing probably isn’t a bad thing. Openwashing is a side effect of customers’ growing desire to have transparency and access in their services. It’s signaling that openness is an important feature for today’s end-users. And just as environmental awareness carved a niche for green products, perhaps a similar thing will happen for openness.

So, on the one hand, I’m finding these slogans disheartening and disingenuous. It’s frustrating to see merchants of cool co-opting “openness” for closed products. But on the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing for the Free Culture movement at large. The more frequently companies resort to openwashing, the greater the weight they’re indirectly giving these issues. It might be opportunistic, but the more companies perceive openness as sexy, the more, I hope, these principles will actually be implemented.

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