Leery of the corporate control of free software

People use FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) for many reasons. For those of us in the more radical wing of the Free Software movement, FLOSS isn’t just a better development methodology, the best tool for the job, or simply fun to play with. Instead, FLOSS is a social movement to liberate humanity from the centralized control of transnational corporations and implement a decentralized alternative based upon the collective collaboration of volunteers all around the globe. It is an alternative form of globalization, whereby people are free to take advantage of the best being produced globally and help contribute to its advancement; yet also empowered to adapt those global tools to their own local needs and cultural preferences. It is empowering form of what theorists call “glocal” (global+local) or transculturation. When I first heard about the GNU project as a college student, its very idea fired my imagination and its successes made me hope that another world was truly possible (to borrow an apt phrase from the World Social Forums).

Increasingly our economy, our social networks and even our human identities are based upon our access to and our manipulation of information in a multitude of forms. In turn, the digital tools which we employ mediate our ability to access and manipulate that information. Software is increasingly becoming the essential component which determines how we work, communicate, entertain, and participate in our wider society. The kind and quality of art an artist can create today is heavily determined by his/her access to graphics manipulation programs, vector drawing programs, video capture and editing software and 3D modelers. A writer’s productivity is intimately related to use of word processors, spelling and grammar checkers and electronic reference books. Today, a scientist’s ability to cross-reference ongoing research, conduct experiments and analyze data is intimately tied to the software at hand. In many ways our access to software (and the information which it permits us to use) determines what we can do in life and how we do it.

In short, software is more than just a simple tool, it is a fundamental enabler of our abilities, especially our ability to express ourselves as humans and realize our full potential. Many in the Free Software movement have long recognized that they are fighting for far more than a free operating system. The ability to use software freely in any form which we choose is thus about the liberation and empowering of humanity.

For those of us in the radical wing of the Free Software movement, we regard with a wary eye the corporations which have invested in FLOSS and market their “open source” credentials. We question whether the profit motive of these corporations squares with our goal of human liberation. We wonder whether “open source” business, really translates into anything consonant with our values. We secretly long for the good old days, when Free Software was the subversive underground of hackers, uncontaminated by IPOs, corporate buyouts and mergers and other such Philistine interests. Did we really need IBM, SUN, Oracle, Novel and all the other big tech companies to jump into our sand box and start adding towers, motes and crenelations to the point that we no longer recognize that homely little sand castle we were so happily constructing on our own?

When “open source” suddenly became a red hot commodity and the darling of the tech trade press during the heady days of the internet boom, the hackers were justly proud to suddenly have their creation lionized by the world and their best and brightest sought out by corporate head hunters. When the stock of VA Linux skyrocketed 700% during the first day of its Initial Public Offering and Linux Torvald’s bright smile face was splashed on the cover of Time Magazine, the underground hobby of hackers was dramatically transformed into a very laudable (and profitable) endeavor. It was nice to receive so much fame and a tidy paycheck after so many years of furtive lurking in the dark and many in the community were slapping themselves on the back.

Still, there was a certain amount of haughty disdain toward the corporate world back in 1998 when the tech industry came to woo the hackers–a sense that we needed them far more than they needed us. We had created GCC, Apache, Linux, KDE, GNOME and GIMP without their help, so they were beggars at our party, hoping to grab a little of what we had created. There was some muffled grumbling in the corners about how some carpetbaggers were getting stinking rich off the hard work of the community.

A decade later, it is regarded as inconceivable to even question the need for corporate involvement in the development of Free Software. Today, much of the most widely used software such as OpenOffice, MySQL and Mozilla Firefox are largely corporate creations. Almost all the top contributers to star community projects like Linux, Apache and GNOME are on the corporate clock every time they submit another patch. Where once the corps were standing on the sidelines, hoping to get into the game, now they are directing the game. All the corps have taken over the party.

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