Podcast Episode: The Revolution Will Be Open Source

Episode 102 of EFF’s How to Fix the Internet

The open source movement focuses on collaboration and empowerment of users. It plays a critical role in building a better digital future, but the movement is changing as more people from around the world join and bring their diverse interests with them. Join EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Danny O’Brien as they talk to EFF board member and Open Tech Strategies partner James Vasile about the challenges that growth is creating and the opportunities it presents to make open source, and the internet, even better.

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To James Vasile, an ideal world is one where all technology is customizable by the people who use it and that people have control over the devices they use. The open source dream is that all software should be licensed to be free, modified, distributed, and copied without penalty.

The open source movement is growing, and that growth is creating pressures. Some stem from too many projects and not enough resources. Others arise because, as more people worldwide join in, they bring different dreams for open source. Balancing initial ideas and new ones can be a real challenge, but it can also be healthy for a growing movement.

All tech should be customizable by the people who use it. Because as soon as things are proprietary, you lose control over the world around you.

 You can also find the MP3 of this episode on the Internet Archive.

In this episode, you’ll learn about

  • Some of the roots and founding principles of the open source and free software communities.
  • How the open source and free software communities are changing and adapting as more people get involved and bring their own ideals with them.
  • How licenses affect the open source community, including how communities are working to bring additional values like protecting labor and protecting against abusive uses to these licenses. Policy changes that could help support the open source community and its developers and how those could ultimately help support transparency and civil liberties.
  • How critical open source is to the decentralization of the web and more.

James Vasile is an EFF board member and a partner at Open Tech Strategies, a company that offers advice and services to organizations that make strategic use of free and open source software. Jame’s work centers on improving access to technology and reducing centralized control over the infrastructure of our daily lives. You can find him on Twitter @jamesvasile.

If you have any feedback on this episode, please email podcast@eff.org.

Below, you’ll find legal resources – including important cases, books, and briefs discussed in the podcast – and a full transcript of the audio.


Transcript of Episode 102: The Revolution Will Be Open Source

James:  I feel like in an ideal world, everything would be customizable in this way, would be stuff that I can take and do new things with. . right? All tech should be customizable by the people who use it. Because as soon as things are proprietary, as soon as you lose the ability to do that, you lose control over the world around you

Cindy: That’s James Vasile. And he’s our guest today on How to Fix the Internet. James:  has been building technology and community for many years. And he’s going to share his insights with us. He’s going to tell us all about how free software and open source is growing, it’s changing and it’s getting better.

Danny: We’re going to unpack how more and more people in the tech space are joining the free software movement, but with bigger crowds do come some growing pains.

Cindy: I am Cindy Cohn, EFF’s Executive Director.

Danny:  And I’m Danny O’Brien and welcome to How to Fix the Internet, a podcast of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Cindy: Today we’re going to talk about open source communities and how they have been changing as more people get involved. We’re going to talk about the roots of the movement, some of the challenges presented by the growth of the community and then we get to my favorite part, how we fix the internet. 

James Vasile is here with us. He’s on our board of directors at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he’s been working in the open source community for decades. James: , you consult through OpenTech strategies as well as the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol. Welcome to How to Fix the Internet.

James: Hi, thanks for having me.

Cindy: So you’re well positioned to know what’s going on in the open source world. Can you give us a sense of the health of the community right now?

James: I mean, in some senses, things are going amazingly well. The way in which free and open source software has become an indispensable part of every project, every stack, every sector. Anything touched by technology depends on open source today. And increasingly, everything in the world is touched by technology, which is to say that open source is everywhere. 

Free software is at the heart of every device that people are buying on a daily basis, using on a daily basis, relying on. Whether they can see it or not, it’s there and our tech lives are just powered by free software collaboration, very broadly speaking. So, that’s pretty cool right? 

And that’s amazing. So from that point of view, we’re doing really well. 

Unfortunately, there are other aspects in which that growth has created some problems. We have lots and lots of free software projects that are under-resourced, that are not receiving the help that they need to succeed and be sustainable. And at the same time, we have a bunch of crucial infrastructure that depends on that software. 

And that becomes a problem How do we sustain free software at this scale? How do we make it reliable as it grows and as the movement changes character? Adding people is such a big deal.

Danny: Yeah. 

When it first started the free and open source movement was powered by idealism and ideology. What are those founding principles that it was built on? And are they still there? Have they been eaten away by the practicalities of supporting the whole of the internet?

James:   Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, free software as it exists based on these initial notions laid down by Richard Stallman, that’s a wing of the community that is very identifiable, but is not growing as fast as the free and open source software movement writ large. And one of the things that happens when you add people to a movement is you don’t always get the same people joining for the same reasons as initially the first people started it.

You add people who are joining in for reasons of practicality, you add people who are joining in just because peer production of software works.

This is a really good way to go about linking arms with other producers and making really cool stuff. So there’s some people who are just here for the cool stuff. And that’s okay too. 

And as we add more and more people, as we convince the next generation of free and open source software developers, I think we’re finding that people are getting further and further away from these initial ideals

Danny: What are those initial ideals? What are the things that if you were going to give an open source  newbie, the potted guide to what open source means, how would you describe those principles?

James: Yeah, I mean, we describe them very broadly as the freedom to run the software, the freedom to modify the software, the freedom to distribute those modifications, the freedom to copy the software, the freedom to learn about the software. And that notion that you can open it up, look inside and learn about it. And that that is a thing you should be able to do by right and that you should be able to then share those things with everyone else in the community. 

And that when you pass on that sharing, you are also passing on those rights is baked into some of the earliest licenses that this community has used. Like the licenses published by the Free Software Foundation, the GNU family of licenses had this ideal, this notion that not only do I have the right to look, the right to copy, the right to modify, the right to distribute, but that when I hand the software to the next person, they should get all of those rights as well. 

So that’s what this community was founded upon. But very early on, from those initial free software ideals, we also had the rise of the open source wing of the movement, which was very much trying to make free software palatable to commercial interests and to expand the pool of contributors to this world. There was a weakening of the ideals where people decided that in order to appeal to new audiences, we needed licenses and we needed projects that use the licenses that we can do the passing on of rights.

So you can hand it to somebody but not give them all of those rights along with it. You could hand somebody a piece of software and while you yourself enjoyed the ability to study it, to copy it, to modify it, maybe you don’t give those rights to the next person that you hand the software to. 

And that was the first big shift.

Danny: Right. Why are those initial rights so important, do you think?

James: I mean, do you remember in the early days of the web when-

Danny:  I do.

James:  … you could view source? You know? And a bunch of people have about this. This isn’t an idea I came up with, but I think Anil Dash talks about this a lot, this notion that we all learned about the internet by going to the top of our browser and clicking view source. And that’s how I learned, that’s how I learned HTML. 

And the notion that you could make the ecosystem legible all the way down to anyone who approaches is extremely powerful for bringing more people the ability to affect their environment. Without that ability to look inside and tinker with it and make it your own, you don’t have a lot of entry points into software if you’re not already a professional developer. And so this really just expands the universe of people and gives them the ability to take control of the software that they are using and make real substantive changes to it.

So those are the original principles. And then have those principles changed again in the modern era? I mean, I think they are slowly changing. I mean, also all of the conversation we have been having so far has been very much localized to the United States and Europe. 

So in the United States, you have a lot of techno libertarianism in the free software world. 

But then if you look in South America, you will find a lot of communities that are much more explicitly political on the left side of the spectrum and building software as a way to empower communities as opposed to a way to empower individuals. That diversity is increasing as free software moves to more places and moves to new places.

And in order to accept those people into the community, you can’t just demand that they shed all of their old identity and values and adopt yours wholesale.

Instead, what happens is as more people join in, they start pulling the community in their direction, which is what every successful movement has ever done. Every time you talk to anyone who has ever been part of a movement that has gained in popularity, you will hear a bunch of people complaining about how their original ideals have been diluted, but it turns out that that shift, that evolution is just part of growth. 

It’s actually a good thing. It’s a sign that things are working. It’s a sign that what you are doing is going to be more acceptable to more people over time. It is how you maintain that growth and sustain it over time. So I’m actually really excited about that diversity.

Cindy: Yeah.

To your point about this growing community, we’ve seen proposals to embed human rights principles into new standard form open source licenses. It’s long been a dream and I think it was some of the original dream to use these licenses as a lever to force a more ethical use of technology. How do you see that working and not working as this movement grows?

James: Yeah. Man, I love all the folks working to try to figure out what is the next step. So there’s a bunch of people who want to address labor issues in these licenses. So there’s a 996 license that is meant to address harsh labor conditions in China. There’s ethical source licenses that are designed to address what we use the software for. 

If you’re going to use this software, make sure that you are not promoting war or oil, that you’re protecting climate change. There’s a variety of licenses for different areas of concern. And that notion that we can stop allowing anyone to use our software for whatever purpose, but instead put some guide rails around it to say, “Okay, we’re going to come together as a community to make software, but we are going to only allow that use to track in certain ways and we’re going to exclude what we consider to be unethical use of software.”

I love the notion that people are thinking about that. And there’s a couple debates going on about that right now. One is, is that stuff open source? And honestly, I don’t care. There are people who care a lot about protecting the term open source as a brand. And I guess, that’s important to some degree, but the question of whether this particular thing is open source or not open source is not actually a thing I lose a lot of sleep over. 

But the real question is, how would you make any of that work? How would that work as a practical matter? 

Could you, as a group of people, get together and decide that you are going to contribute, pool your effort and make something really valuable, but not have it get used by say the Defence Department or get used by pharmaceutical companies or oil companies or whoever it is that you believe is acting unethically and you don’t want to benefit from your labor? 

That starts to get really interesting. That is people getting together to make technology with very particular political aims. And from my point of view, the point of technological collaboration is to uplift communities, to help communities achieve their social goals. It’s not just to make cool tech. And if you believe that this technology is supposed to be enabling and empowering, then folks who are trying to figure out how to do it in ways that drive change towards the good, that makes a lot of sense to me.

I love that experimentation. I don’t know where it comes out practically

Every major company, every enterprise company has taken the position that they will not use these ethical source licenses. 

You can go make them, you can go make the tech, but we just won’t use it. In the absence of that corporate investment, is there a sustainability model? Is there a way to grow that niche, grow that market in the same way that we’ve grown the corporate invested software? And I don’t know the answer to that question. I think it’s probably too early to say.

Cindy: Yeah. I have to say, I mean, I find this stuff really fascinating as well, but as a lawyer who spends a lot of time around licenses and copyrights and trying to make them as small as possible because we create so much space for innovation, the street finds its uses for things if they’re not locked down. There’s a tension at the bottom of this that trying to use licensing and contractual terms to try to limit what you can do with something is a double-edged sword because it can go the other way as well.

And so in general, we try to create as much open space as possible. And this movement towards licenses that are trying to push towards ethical tech is really interesting to me. And it’ll be interesting to see if the copyright licensing framework can really hold that. And I have my doubts, but the whole idea of copyleft to begin with was a bit of a strange thing for people who came up in a traditional copyright background. And it’s succeeded so far. 

So I also don’t like to pre predict, but I think as someone who spends a lot of time trying to think about how end user license agreements could be made smaller so they’re not so limiting and so dumb about people’s privacy and other contractual and licensing places shrinking them. This approach is really a whole different direction. And I admit to a little bit of uneasiness about it because we’re always working on the unintended consequences are often the nasty tail that comes up and slaps you in the face when you’re trying to do something good.

Danny: I think there’s always this challenge where you look at copyright as a tool to achieve a certain aim.

And definitely one of the things we’ve experienced at EFF is that people are always using intellectual property as a way of achieving something in the digital space because it’s so powerful, because it’s been written and armed with so much power. And I think there’s always a risk attached to that, partly because you’re trying to bend intellectual property law to achieve different aims. 

But the other thing is once you start depending on it, you have to make it stronger. If it doesn’t work, you have this instinct to go, “Oh, we just need to enforce this even more drastically on the internet. And I think that’s a really risky temptation to be drawn into.

James:  It is. I tend to think that because of some quirks in our history, we over-indexed on licensing activity. We built this thing and we described it as, “Oh, look, the licenses. They’re doing all this work.” And from my point of view, it turns out really, it was actually just communities doing this work and the licenses were convenient and helpful. And there has been a little bit of enforcement activity, but the amount of enforcement activity relative to the amount of activity to the size of the free and open source software worldwide is tiny. 

The licenses are good for setting expectations. They almost never get enforced. And that’s useful to keep in mind because it turns out that what’s keeping folks inside the tent, what’s keeping folks contributing and working together is not really about the license because they know they’re never going to enforce the license.

Most projects don’t have the resources to do that. Most projects, even if they had the financial resources to do that would not want to spend their time doing that.

Cindy: I think that’s such a great insight that… that the community is so much more important than whatever the legal scheme is that’s around it. It’s such a great insight that I think helps us point to how we continue to make things better.

Danny: “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science, enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. 

We’re seeing people all around the world with very different values coming in and beginning to use open source. How is the movement changing? And then what are some of your insights about sustaining it?

James:  Man, we are at this moment of doing many different experiments to try to figure out what does sustainability look like? 

And into that space has stepped a bunch of efforts.

I guess, the most prominent one, the one that gets the most attention is probably Tidelift. And Tidelift is doing, from my point of view, a great job. They have a program where they say to companies, “Look, you’re using a bunch of open source software. We will help you figure out what you’re using. And then we will give you a number and you will give that to us and we will then support all of these developers who you are relying on, who you don’t know and you don’t even really know you’re relying on these people yet, but you don’t want those people to stop doing their work. You don’t want them to burn out. You need to support them like you would any other vendor that you want to be reliable.”

And that’s been pretty good. They’ve gotten a bunch of companies to agree that yes, the need is there. And Tidelift makes it easy for them to address that need. And a bunch of projects have signed up with Tidelift to be on the receiving end of that. And that’s pretty promising for one sector of the movement. 

 But they’re not the only one. That’s not the only model. There are so many other models. Open Collective is also a really cool model. And that’s just a straight community crowdfunding campaign as far as I can tell. And some projects there are bumping along and some are wildly successful where they’ve got full-time devs who are getting monthly payments and doing real work that the community really needs.

And so from my point of view, there are a million different ways you could do sustainability for a project. And it should run the gamut from individuals on LibraPay, individuals on Kickstarter, groups on Open Collective, corporate funding through Tidelift, individuals on GitHub. They have efforts to try to allow you to pay developers on GitHub directly. The Linux Foundation has a program as well that’s I think like Tidelift. 

 And all these programs together form many different options, many different models that a project could address. And some projects of course are doing multiple ways to address it. And because every project is different and a project’s needs could change over time, we need many different models to address them, but we all also need many different forms of the infrastructure necessary to support all these different models.

And I’m excited to see more of that. I’m excited to see more experiments in more different directions.

Cindy: Let me shift gears a little bit and talk about how we get to our better future. What are some of the policy areas where you could see some support for open source coming through?

James:  Well, I mean, I could give you a really nerdy one. You want a really nerdy one?

Danny: Yes.

Cindy: We are deep nerds here. No problem at all.

James:  I mean, we could decide that contributions to open source projects are tax deductible. That the labor you put into your project gives you some tax deduction, which could instantly provide a financial benefit very broadly across all of that unpaid developer space. And that’s not crazy. You write code, you make a thing. That thing has value. 

 You donate it to a project and you have just transferred value to them instead of keeping it for yourself and selling it or whatever. And that is a policy shift that I have been trying to get people to pay attention to for, I don’t know, 15 years or so. Well, there’s definitely been places where it could plug in. This is a piece with tax rules around making art and then donating that art.

It’s the same idea. You make a thing and you donate it. And your tax deductibility is the paints and the canvas. The basis of that is not the value of the thing you created. And it should be. It should be the value that you create. And so from an extremely nerdy tax perspective, I would love to see just basic government recognition that the work we do, even on an unpaid basis, actually has tremendous value. It should be recognized because it is valuable.

Danny:I’m always surprised by actually how little government support open source and free software projects. And I think it’s maybe because the open source community got there first. That traditionally, people look to governments for the provision of public goods. And here we have a system that’s actually doing a pretty good job separate from that system providing for public goods. But do you think there’s a role for governments not only in financially supporting projects, but maybe also using free software and open source software themselves?

James: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so there’s a couple places where government could plug in. We see uptake of open source software in government at much lower levels than in the mainstream tech industry.

Danny: Interesting.

James: And I’ve done a lot of work with a lot of government agencies trying to help them figure that out and get them over the hump. And there are a lot of institutional barriers, there’s a lot of cultural barriers, but the thing that could move it is leadership from the top, is rules about procurement that require a certain consideration for open source, approaches to open source that are not just about it has to have a license that is open, it has to actually have practices that are open, that actually make a thing susceptible to the dynamics of open source. 

And we don’t have any of that in this country. We don’t have much movement on that. California, I think, is doing better than other states, but there’s not a lot of work in most states. And at the federal level, you have AT&F pushing along this way, but you don’t have any requirements. You don’t have agencies saying, Everything we do is going to be open.” 

And to some degree, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If software is going to be funded by public money, shouldn’t it be a public good? Shouldn’t it be a thing that everyone should have access to, that everyone can use, can share, can learn from, can contribute to the general welfare of anybody in the country? I always-

Cindy: Well, I just love this idea and I love it for some other tactical reasons, which is of course we spend a lot of time trying to get access to the software used to surveil people by the cops. We’ve just seen a tool called ShotSpotter be revealed to be really poorly created to try to do the thing that it does, because when we get a look at the source code in some of these things and how it works, we realize that so many things that the government buys, especially in the context of surveillance are really snake oil. 

 They’re not very good at what they’re trying to do. And it gets even harder when you’re talking about machine learning systems. So to me, a government rule that requires transparency of the code that the government is relying on to do the things they do, now that could work for some proprietary systems, but it’s going to be such a smooth ride for the open source systems because they start that way.

 That could be, I think, a really important step forward around transparency that would have this tremendous benefit to the open source community, but frankly would help us in all other situations in which we find the government is using code and then hiding behind trade secrets or proprietary agreements that they have with vendors to stop the public from having access, even in situations in which somebody’s going to go to jail as a result. 

 So I think this is a tremendous idea. It’s certainly something that we’ve pushed a little bit, but reframing this as a transparency goal to me is one of the things that could be really terrific about our fixed future.

James:  Yeah. You should not have to request that software, it should just be downloadable. It should have been reviewed by the public before it gets put into service. And there’s no actual good reason why we can’t do that.

Danny: So we always try and envisage what this better future should be like on the show. And I mean, I’m guessing, James: , that you are the person who uses a lot of free software. Do you think that’s-

James:  That’s right.

Danny: Is that your vision of the future? Is the vision of future that all software is free software or are you more humble in your dreams?

James:  I mean, I feel like in an ideal world, everything would be susceptible to inspection, would be customizable in this way, would be stuff that I can take and do new things with, that I can drag in new directions maybe that only matter to me. All tech should be customizable by the people who use it.  

People should have control over the tech they use. And so yes, I would like as much of it as possible to be susceptible to those dynamics because as soon as things are proprietary, as soon as you lose the ability to do that, you lose control over the world around you. And so much of our world is mediated by technology.

And as soon as you start removing the ability to look under the hood and the ability to tinker with it, the ability to change it, you just rob everyone of their ability to control the world around them. So as much of it as possible, yes, I would never say that you should never have any proprietary software. I would never say we should have rules that outlaw it. But what I would say is that everywhere we can insert it, everywhere that we can move it, we do a great benefit to all the people who have to interact with that software and have to use it over time.

So one of the things that I think is inherent in this embrace of the open source culture is the way that it will help us facilitate a redistributed internet where we have communities that are writing the tools that they need for themselves. And I think open source is critical to this conversation. And I know you think so too. So I’m hoping you can talk us a little bit more about that. 

James: The ways in which people are trying to re decentralize the web to go back to a world in which we did not all live inside monolithic silos like the Facebook stack, the Google stack, the Yahoo stack for the people who are still living in that world, all of that activity is based on open source and open standards because there is not actually any way to build a worldwide tech ecosystem except to use open source and open standards. 

So all of that future that people are trying to build where you have a little bit more control over the technology around you, where things are a little bit more modular, where you can choose the provider of your various social services and your communication services, all of that is going to depend very heavily on being open source, on being portable, on being interoperable, on adhering to open standards to enable that interoperability. 

 And so yes, I think without open source, we would not get there, but with open source, we actually have a pretty good chance at building vital ecosystems that can accept lots and lots of people from all walks of life from all around the world. So I’m pretty excited about that.

Cindy: James, thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve given us a lot to think about, about how we can work together for a better open source future and frankly, how a better open source future is the key to a better future.

So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

James:  Thanks for having me. This has been a lot of fun.

Danny: That was fascinating and actually changed my mind on a few things. I mean, we always talk a little bit in these bits of the show about Lawrence Lessig’s four levers of change in the technological world, which is… See if I can get them right, is the law, is code, is markets, and cultural norms. And I thought that this was going to be very much a discussion of code and law because obviously open source code and the licenses. The licenses are pivotal in free and open source software. But he really brought it out that it’s more about the culture and the cultural norms.

 Cindy: I really love that insight about how, how communities become successful in the long term with open source.

Danny: Yeah. And talking about how things have changed. He really hit home with that point about how open source is moving to a global community and the something that was, I mean, not only, you know, very American in Europe centric, but actually was rooted in a very specific subculture of MIT. And these hacker cultures is now being used to empower folks in the global south, in different communities and Asia in Africa. And inevitably, because of that change the actual values  of the community as a whole, uh, changing. And I’m, I’m going to be fascinated to see. I have no idea how that’s going to play out, but I’m fascinated to see how it does.

Cindy: I really appreciated his concrete thinking about how we get to a fixed place and specifically the proposals he had for the government. So everything from his tiny little nerdy suggestion that we let open source developers get a tax write off for contributing code to a thing, to something as broad as how the transparency requirement including transparency into the code itself would be a way that the government could support open source being used more by the communities, but also, of course, is I was excited about how that could help things more broadly.

Danny: It’s inevitable that a vibrant open source and free software community is going to help is, this movement that we are all part of, to re-decentralize the internet. And I hadn’t quite taken on board that as James:  says, there’s no other way of doing it. If you are moving away from these centrally controlled platforms, you’ll be moving towards protocols, and protocols have to be open so that everyone can interoperate, but more importantly, that software that implements them has to be free and open source software too. 

Danny: And thank you out there for joining us on How to Fix the Internet. Please visit eff.org/podcasts where you find more episodes, learn about these issues, donate to become a member,and lots more. 

Members are the only reason we can do this work, plus you can get cool stuff like an EFF hat or an EFF hoodie or even an EFF camera cover for your laptop. 

Music for the show is from Nat Keefe and Beat Mower. How to fix the internet is supported by the Alfred P Sloan Foundations program in public understanding of science and technology. 

I’m Danny O’Brien.

Cindy: And I’m Cindy Cohn.



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