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Freedom in the Cloud

Ethics of Open Source

Watching this FOSDEM talk. It's really a contradiction in terms because the whole point of rebranding Free Software as Open Source in the late 1990s was precisely to ditch - or at least avoid talking about - the ethical dimension of software. In some sense it was a conscious effort to remove a certain sort of politics.

That doesn't mean that the politics ended in 1998 though. It went on. I think this talk has various problems. The hippies of the 1960s were rejecting authoritarianism in the form of being drafted into an unpopular war in which many of their generation were killed. The continuity between that and the rise of Open Source is the rejection of being told what to do by a tiny autocratic minority. Whether that's the US government or the new owners of software (IBM and later Microsoft).

"Is it Open Source?" remains an important question, because if it's not then it's software with owners. People who can push you around and tell you what to do. It's software which denies the potential for solidarity and cooperation. That applies increasingly as software comes to run everything in the economy. In the 1980s and 90s the question of whether software ought to be treated as personal property was one being raised. There are abuses of software going on now, but also there were back then. The industry was smaller in that time frame, but many people who wanted to learn about software were being vigorously gatekept out of having that opportunity.

Denying people the ability to learn and create in their own way is an ethical problem. It's a problem of power dynamics.

So what went wrong with Open Source? I think mostly it happened in the last 15 years.

There were technical license failures. Open core, contributor license agreements and dual licensing which were once thought to be ok or beneficial eventually turned out quite badly. They allowed enclosure of the software commons.

But the biggest factor was the centralization of the cloud from the late 2000s onwards and the effective end of the personal computing era. The software may have been Open Source, but this increasingly no longer mattered because ownership of the infrastructure of software service delivery became the key factor which subverted the safeguards against exclusivity which FOSS licenses were originally intended to mitigate.

How to overcome the problems? Non-profits and worker coops, as described in Deb Nicholson's talk, would certainly help. But we also need legal innovations in software licenses specifically with regard to Software as a Service. Maybe organizations profiting from Open Source SaaS (eg. Google and Amazon) need to have additional legal requirements put upon them once they're serving more than some number of users and that could maybe be encoded into the license somehow.

Also I think we need to have a much clearer narrative around the problems which permissive licenses create, and how they enable the massive centralization which we now have. The reciprocity principle needs to make a comeback.

Tags: opensource, ethics