Why Do Open Source Advocates Attack Each Other?

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Maybe it's a trend, or maybe I just noticed because I was looking, but following my article last week about the strange parallels between Life of Brian and the critics of the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, there have been a number of similar articles.

Former OpenSUSE community manager Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier wrote about the Party of Gno, criticising the negativity of campaigns that are about stopping people doing something:

In general, the programs are all about “no.” Or rather, “gno.” We all know how well anti-campaigns work. Any day now, “just say no” will have wiped out drug use for all time, right? And PETA will have convinced everyone to go totally vegan, too. Yes, negative campaigns can be effective. However, they require the audience to be receptive to the overall message. Predictably, the backlash he faced from daring to be directly critical was substantial, not least from the denizens of microblogging service Identi.ca.

It was the same chorus on Identi.ca that provoked Ubuntu advocate Stuart Langridge to write On Annoyance And Free Software. His crime: being employed by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

That doesn't sound an especially heinous anti-FOSS crime, but Canonical's flirtation with closed software at the periphery of their activities led to a virtual lynching:

I'm pretty sad about this. I'd consider myself a supporter of free software. I evangelise Ubuntu, my chosen GNU/Linux distribution, to as wide an audience as I can manage; I help to build a software service which is composed of free software except for a couple of parts; I'm half of a podcast which talks about Linux software twice a week. And yet I am vilified for being insufficiently dedicated to freedom.

One interesting explanation offered when I asked on Twitter came from Ars Technica's Ryan Paul - himself a key Free software developer as author of the great micro-blogging client Gwibber.

He suggests the situation is precipitated by the influx of new technology strategies such as Software as a Service, mobile, tablet, virtualisation and web services. Since the applicability of software freedom philosophies to these technologies is often unclear, there's no positive rallying-point for activists and the only remaining alternative is to demonise anyone engaging with them. That happens even if the engagement is aimed at subverting or liberating them.

The articulation of software freedom arose before today's massively-connected society, and today requires thinking and experimentation to make it fit the new reality - hence my work at OSI.

Attacking advocates for daring to engage the new reality is not just unpleasant; it is also counter-productive. As GNOME veteran "Lefty" Schlesinger put it recently on a mailing list,

people (generally) don't choose software for its "freedom" any more than people choose chisels based on the dietary habits of the people who made them.That's sadly true. While most of the values IT managers look for in open source software actually flow from software freedom, software is still selected on the basis of its value to the business and not of the liberty it protects. Businesses, after all, aren't capable of ethical choices - only people are. Enlightened CIOs mandate open source because it is the "genetic marker" of key business values. To be successful advocates, we need to successfully deliver value.

That's not to say that all such activity is welcome. Like others, I am especially critical of "open core" approaches if they create an open source base technology that's of minimal use to actual users and offer closed-source add-ons that make it fit for use.

The point of software freedom is that, as a software user, you are able to be in control of your own software if you choose to do so. "Open core" approaches ensure you are not - ending your subscription for the closed components ends your ability to use the software productively.

There's clearly a spectrum of activity to which judgment needs to be applied wisely. But attacking the people trying to honestly fit software freedom to the new reality is not the answer. I'll discuss this more in my talk at the Transfer Summit in Oxford - join me there!

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