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This take down of Tim O'Reilly and his "meme-generation" by Evgeny Morozov is fascinating, and I would recommend reading the entire thing.  There are a couple of points, though, that very much stood out to me and are worth discussing below the orange squiggle.

First is the overdue highlighting of the fact that open source and free software are not morally the same thing.  The former allows you to do what you want with other's works, including shutting them out of any changes you made to their software and forcing users of your changed software to lose control over how they are allowed to use the software and what data they enter into the software.  Morozov quotes O'Reilly as claiming that open source software is:

The most important freedom, as O’Reilly put it in a 2001 exchange with Stallman, is that which protects “my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a ‘user’ of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift.”


during a heated 2002 debate on whether governments should be required to ditch Microsoft and switch to open source software. O’Reilly expressed his vehement opposition to such calls. “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,”

That attitude is a far cry from the original free -- free as in speech -- software movement.  As Morozov points out, the original free software was a moral position designed to make software engineers think about the ethical dilemmas inherent in the creation and distribution of software:
In one corner stood a group of passionate and principled geeks, led by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, preoccupied with ensuring that users had rights with respect to their computer programs. Those rights weren’t many—users should be able to run the program for any purpose, to study how it works, to redistribute copies of it, and to release their improved version (if there was one) to the public—but even this seemed revolutionary compared to what one could do with most proprietary software sold at the time.
It is not at all clear that open source is morally superior to free software.  As governments rely more and more on private sector software for predictive crime purposes, for example, open source's morality allows those private companies to keep those algorithms  away from the prying eyes of the public being tracked and target by them and even by the government agencies who depend on them.  Free software requires that users be able to examine how the software works.  In our world, where open source has supplanted free software, the right of the owners of the code (who are not, by and large, its creators, mind you) supersedes the rights of the public to know how the software they are being subjected to works.  This is not, in my opinion, a morally superior outcome.

It is easy to imagine a world in which free software overcame open source software and it is not taken for granted that the software that runs critical pieces of our infrastructure, or tracks us, or counts our votes, or tests our children is not hidden behind a veil of corporate secrecy.  In such a world, the people are given an opportunity to correct problems, or to object to methodologies  in any software they are made subject to or depend upon.

There is also the issue of the morality of taking the work of others, freely given, and then locking improvements away from the original creators and all others who might benefit from those improvements. Someone could take a piece of open source software -- created and made useful by someone else -- improve it and keep those improvements secret.  In the world of open source, that is acceptable, and even praised.  Those people are innovators.  In the morality of free software, those people are,at best, parasites, breaking the chain of reciprocity that defines the ethically acceptable practice of free software.

This emphasis on individual innovation at the expense of community understanding and learning is just as evident in O'Reilly's "government as a platform" paradigm.  I will take up that subject in the next post.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tipped to Encourage Exploration of the Topic (1+ / 0-)
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    However, I would also encourage you to note the potential/probable benefit only available to the creators of particularly great open-source software, namely a nice high-paying job.

    Sadly, for example, the corporate world does not hire many staff lyricists these days. So perhaps differentiating between programming and almost every other sort of creative endeavor would clarify things a bit. Hopefully before the 'all music should be free/let 'em sell T-shirts' crowd chimes in.



    Strange that a harp of thousand strings should keep in tune so long

    by jabney on Sun May 05, 2013 at 09:10:00 PM PDT

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