In a time where it seems impossible for Netflix to make an original series that isn’t politically charged, where tech startup CEOs criticize Trump freely, and cryptocurrencies threaten to render the finance industry obsolete, software news has taken a step back from the dry figures of the latest Oracle merger and brought issues like power, accessibility, and discrimination to the forefront.
In this series, I’m going to explore the increasingly politicized nature of software. Here, I’m starting with one of the oldest and most contentious issues: open source licensing and distribution.
Before looking into it properly a few years ago, the phrase “open source software” conjured up images of gray, ugly, bug-ridden software that forever languished in the shadow of paid alternatives. Not only is this unfair, it’s completely untrue. I won’t go into the hidden reach of open source software just yet, but know that Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Windows, and, of course, the official government operating system in North Korea all rely on open source libraries in part or in full.
The Politics of Open Source Software
Open source software, which includes three of the key technologies Secret Cave is built on (Apache HTTP server, MySQL database, and WordPress CMS), is able to be inspected, extended, and modified by anyone. Its corporate counterpart is proprietary software. This includes Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, and anything that requires you to sign licensing terms which prohibit modification of the code.
When technology is open source, the inner workings are revealed publicly and shared with developers outside of the organization that originally developed it. A culture of learning, inclusion, innovation and collaboration unites the open source movement. As does a spirit of anti-authoritarianism. A 1997 essay by Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, argues also that open source software is developed more thoroughly because of the sheer amount of scrutiny it undergoes during collaboration.
“Who would have thought even five years ago (1991) that a world-class operating system [Linux] could coalesce as if by magic out of part-time hacking by several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of the Internet?” — Eric S. Raymond
At the time of publication, the essay was eye-opening to the development community: In a 2006 interview with New Yorker, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said that The Cathedral and the Bazaar made him aware of the power of collaboration in tech. Similarly, the essay persuaded developers to release Netscape source code (now Firefox) and spawn the Mozilla Foundation (one of the most powerful internet and open source activist groups).
It wasn’t until the 1970s that software companies stopped providing source code to its users. Part of the push to lock down software licensing and make tech corporations richer came from an open letter written in 1975 by Bill Gates:
In the wake of the controversial letter came criticism for Gates’ mean-spirited attitude and even accusations that he’s overstating the real cost these hobbyists are incurring on his company.
Over the past two decades, we’ve had no shortage of academic technobabble in the open source arena. It’s sometimes dismissed as the work of fringe anarchists and internet utopians. Perhaps it could even be dismissed as a nice idea in the early 90s, but now no one can deny the power of open source. Even Microsoft, the biggest proprietary software company in the world, has shown surprising support with an announcement that it has joined the Open Source Initiative.
In 2001, Microsoft’s then-CEO (and figure of fun) Steve Ballmer called Linux “a cancer”. Ballmer mistakenly claimed that open source libraries used in proprietary software made it so companies had to release the entire program for free — an error that any tech CEO should be incapable of making.
For a while after Ballmer’s Linux tirade, memes about the communist sensibilities of Linux and the open source movement in general were commonplace on techy BBS message boards and IRC channels. While these claims were light-hearted, the roots of the free software movement do sympathize with the idea of software as an accessible, sharable, unmoderated and public affair. Richard Stallman, the developer who’s free GNU software initiative joined forces with Linux a few years after founding, wrote an actual manifesto on the state of software and the visions of GNU:
“Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will. So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away.”
Proprietary software is written to be a black box. You run the executable, something mysterious happens, and the program appears on your screen. Exactly how it works is deliberately obfuscated, and it isn’t built to be extended by the general public. Word, for example, is developed as quickly as Microsoft chooses, and in the direction they believe is best. There is no opportunity for a user to build extra features, share them with others, and create a richer software ecosystem for everyone. The reason companies choose to hide the source code of their software is obviously rooted in capitalism — there’s something to be said for that competitive, free market environment in which software is developed at crisis-like speeds — but does it do as much as it could to further our technological growth? Certainly not. It’s hard to predict what a world without open source would look like, but without it we could still be playing online videos with the hideously outdated Shockwave player and running expensive web servers, and a big chunk of SaaS wouldn’t even exist.
Seemingly, like everything that makes our world a better place, open source software is being slowly and begrudgingly accepted by reluctant old incumbents. Microsoft’s support for Linux and open source is a surprising chain of events on the surface, but when you look at the fact that the Linux-reliant Microsoft Azure (its cloud server product) is growing faster than the leading Amazon alternative, what choice do they have but to accept that the days of locking source code in the company vault are over? Open source has embedded itself so deeply into the technological world we live in, corporations either come out in public support or find themselves woefully obsolete.