The Growing Politicization of Open Source

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Tim O'Reilly
Aug. 15, 2002 10:55 PM

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Note added on October 2: In various articles and web sites, the article below has been used to suggest (incorrectly) that I am a supporter of the Initiative for Software Choice. See Software Choice vs. Sincere Choice for the full story.

I just received some thought-provoking mail in response to the recent news about the proposed Digital Software Security Act, which would require open source software to be used in California state agencies. According to, " If enacted as written, state agencies would be able to buy software only from companies that do not place restrictions on use or access to source code."

This mail comes from someone I've worked with for the past several years in promoting open source in corporate America. He's a thoughtful advocate for the benefits of open source, but he's disturbed (as am I) by the growing politicization of open source. He asked me to keep his mail anonymous, because he doesn't have permission to speak for his employer (and it's not Microsoft!). He wrote:

    Is it just me, or does it seem that a vocal portion of the Open Source community is starting to get radicalized and politicized?

    I'd be all in favor of legislation that mandates Open Standards where applicable, and requires government bodies to seriously consider Open Source alternatives. But what we're getting is attempts to *require* use of Open Source software - effectively criminalizing an official' s decision to buy commercial software to meet their needs. First in Peru, and now here. And at LinuxWorld it is apparently being preached and accepted as part of the "party doctrine."

    Whether you want to argue on moral grounds of personal freedom, or the practical grounds of generating a backlash, this seems like an extremely counter-productive strategy for Open Source advocates to be pursuing. Sincere and understandable, but horribly misguided. By asking for government mandates on software purchasing, they're practically inviting the commercial software developers to lobby for legislation forbidding Open Source, in response to 'our' efforts to require it.

    From my perspective, I would think the Open Source community would be much better served if it took the moral high ground and called for Openness in Software Procurement. If you feel you have to coerce people, it would be better to force them to increase their disclosure. Require officials to document their acquisition critieria, require companies to publish their licensing policies, insist on use of open file formats for publicly accessible documents. That is, increase the flow of information and the range of choices, rather than trying to decrease them. That's what Open Source is supposed to be about - increasing choices, right? And wouldn't that put the commercial companies on the defensive, rather than letting -them- wrap themselves in the flag of freedom of choice?

    Does this make any sense? Wouldn't a legislative agenda of increasing openness, rather than mandating choices, be more in keeping with the philosophy and culture of Open Source? Shouldn't someone with credibility be advocating such a balanced approach, rather than letting the radicals drive the public agenda?

    Does it bother you, too, or am I just being oversensitive?

Yes, it does bother me. When I first heard of the proposed legislation in Peru, I thought it was great theater, and that the open source advocates in Peru clearly made some telling points about its benefits. But the more I think about it, the more you I realize that having governments specify software licensing policies is a bad idea. My correspondent crystallized my feelings on the matter, and made me realize that support for such legislation was a violation of what I have previously called "my version of Freedom zero". I think he's right. This is a slippery slope, and a really dangerous idea, which thoughtful free software and open source advocates ought to reject.

As T.S. Eliot said in Murder in the Cathedral: "This last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." No one should be forced to choose open source, any more than they should be forced to choose proprietary software. And any victory for open source achieved through deprivation of the user's right to choose would indeed be a betrayal of the principles that free software and open source have stood for.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.