Thoughts on open source and politics 2.0

Today and tomorrow I’ll be at the Personal Democracy Forum 2008 conference, of which the Mozilla Foundation is a sponsor. PdF 2008 deals with what has been variously known as open source politics or politics 2.0 — essentially the application of web 2.0 concepts to the area of political campaigning and (to a lesser extent) governance. Brian Behlendorf, one of the members of the Mozilla Foundation board of directors, will be speaking at the conference (as part of a session on redefining leadership in a networked age).

In preparing to go to the conference I was moved to write up some of my thoughts about the general intersection of open source and free software and the political arena. From my point of view there are at least two questions of interest:

First, why should the attendees of the PdF 2008 conference (and activists involved in politics 2.0-type activities in general) care about free and open source software (FOSS) in its various aspects (development method, licensing ideology, body of working code, etc.)? What (if anything) does it have to teach them? How does it benefit them? And so on?

Second, why should FOSS projects and the overall FOSS community care about politics 2.0 and the sorts of things discussed at the PdF conference? More specifically, why should the Mozilla Foundation sponsor something like this?

Regarding the first question, I think there are (at least) three possible answers, having to do with economic, technological, and social factors respectively.

First, economic: Open source software is a key driver in the ongoing reduction of costs for individuals and organizations to establish an online presence, including development, deployment, and use of advanced web applications. Open source provides a readily available low-cost (free as in beer) and customizable and redistributable (free as in speech) set of code that can be easily leveraged for various purposes.

Open source software in combination with other factors (e.g., business models based on online advertising) also helps lowers the cost of commercially provided web services, making useful applications (e.g., Gmail/Google Apps) available on a low cost/no cost basis to both individuals and organizations. As has been the case for Internet startups, these factors lower the barrier to entry for individual activists or small activist groups to be able to deploy Internet-based activities, and enables better-funded groups (e.g., national political campaigns) to greatly expand the scope of what they’ve previously been able to do.

These economic factors then combine with ongoing decreases in Internet access pricing and increases in bandwidth and client capability (faster PCs, better browsers, etc.) to allow more people to participate in significant online activities, whether it be in the political/activist sphere, FOSS sphere, or whatever. It’s a virtuous circle: an increased online population means more potential activists, more potential FOSS developers and other contributors, more opportunities for cross-fertilization through FOSS-based online politics 2.0 applications, and more things to do online attracting yet more online users.

In the (ideal) end state time becomes (almost) the only scarce resource, and (almost) anything is possible given sufficient time/attention. The problem then becomes one of atttracting people’s attention and motivating them to take action — which is exactly what activists do.

Key challenges to getting to this ideal state include (in developed countries) resolving a whole range of issues around broadband access, the digital divide, network and application provider consolidation (with potential effects on user choice), patents as a potential barrier to innovation, etc. However on a global scale the more fundamental problem is really getting as many countries as possible to a state where they have both adequate information and communications infrastructure and a population equipped by education and economic circumstances to take advantage of it.

Second, technological: The FOSS movement is driving an ongoing move to open systems, including open protocols, open formats, and open APIs. Open source software provides reference implementations for open standards, which then become de facto implementations for those standards, which in turn promotes those standards over proprietary alternatives. (TCP/IP, RFC822/SMTP, and HTML/HTTP are good examples here.) The combination of open formats, open protocols, and open APIs then opens up new opportunities for innovative mashups of existing data / services.

In the (ideal) end state there’s a rich landscape of publicly-available software, data, and web services leveragable by activists for particular purposes. In this world (as others have proposed) government leverages its limited budget by concentrating on providing raw data only plus a set of APIs into online government services, allowing others to build on top of this.

Key challenges to getting to this ideal state exist on both the commercial side and the government side. On the commercial side there’s an open question as to how open companies are going to be with their data and services, or whether they’re going to discourage certain types of reuses. On the government side there’s the natural inclination of bureaucracies to hoard and control data (e.g., putting up barriers to FOIA requests), as well as opposition from incumbents that already have a favored position as gatekeepers to government data and services.

Fnally, social: Beyond their role in developing software, open source projects also serve as a training ground for people to learn how to collaborate effectively for a common purpose. This includes learning how to persuade others to take actions, build consensus, resolve disagreements in ways that do not disrupt the project, agree upon and work within a suitable governance framework, evangelize on behalf of the project, and so on. Participants in open source projects also get exposure to broader policy issues: copyright and the role of the public domain, the patent system, the role of corporations vs. nonprofits, digital equity issues, and so on.

In an sense FOSS projects function (or at least could function) as the 21st century equivalent of the voluntary associations that served as the seedbed for earlier social and political movements, with lots of people learning organizing/ activism skills that can be leveraged outside the open source context. Of course only a few people will end up traveling this road, but that’s always been true. It’s like FOSS projects in general: a broad group of casual participants at the base of the pyramid, with smaller groups playing a more active role. But as the base broadens more and more people end up as active participants, and some will move into other related areas.

In the (ideal) end state there’s a critical mass of social citizens (to use Alison Fine’s term) with deep experience in decentralized participation (to borrow Mitchell Baker’s term) in online movements (FOSS projects and analogous projects, e.g., Wikipedia, etc.). This mass of participants in turn supports a broad set of political and social initiatives created and led by a smaller group of engaged activists. (Some use the term social entrepreneurs to describe this phenomenon. A more radical variant is Jamais Cascio’s vision of super-empowered hopeful individuals.) These initiatives in turn are able to effect major societal change, including change within governmental and political structures. Overall this is analogous to what happens in Silicon Valley and to some extent elsewhere, where a whole ecosystem of people and institutions generates, supports, and rewards entrepreneurial activity in the economic sphere.

One key challenge in getting to this end state is balancing control vs. spontaneity: having grass roots participation that actually accomplishes something as opposed to being unfocused and ineffective on the one hand, or suppressed or captured by special interests on the other hand.

A related challenge is moving from changing the way political campaigns are run to changing the way governments are run. Campaigns are analogous to startups: relatively small groups of people focused on a clear goal, working to a short-term deadline, and motivated to do whatever is necessary to succeed. Governments on the other hand are analogous to large established corporations: set in their ways, largely insulated from the threat of failure, and restrained by both their internal organization and by their situation in a larger system. And since governments don’t compete and win against each other as corporations do, wholesale change is difficult and typically requires either a major national crisis (e.g., the Great Depression) or a long-term generational transition. It remains to be seen whether the US government at least can be changed in this way, especially if government continues to be seen by many as irrelevant to addressing the problems of the 21st century. (See Matthew Burton’s post Why I help the man, and why you should too for some good thoughts on this question.)

That completes my thoughts on the first question, i.e., why is open source and the FOSS movement relevant to politics 2.0? As for the second question (why is PdF, politics 2.0, etc., relevant to the FOSS community?), I think there are again at least three answers:

First, there are relatively narrow political questions that impact (or could impact) FOSS projects: copyright and patent issues, network-related issues (e.g., net neutrality, broadband access), etc., and in my personal opinion it’s not a good idea for the FOSS world to simply stand by while others debate and decide those issues. (I’d compare this to the attitude that many west coast companies had in the past regarding what went on in Washington DC.)

Second, if we think open source is a good model and potentially applicable outside the software field, and we want to promote the general ideas of openness and decentralized participation (e.g., as
articulated in the Mozilla Manifesto), I think we have a responsibility to work with and support others interested in extending the open meme to other contexts. (For example, we can help people understand which aspects of open source might be relevant in those contexts and which might need to be modified to fit particular circumstances. See also Mark Surman’s open vs. open post for more on this topic.) Since political and social activism is one of those areas, it’s worthy of at least some of our attention.

Finally, the continued health and growth of the FOSS movement depends on having a steady flow of new participants, and that in turn depends on there being an increase both nationally and globally in the number of people with both the education and spare time to participate in FOSS projects. I think it’s therefore in our interest to promote a basic level of good governance worldwide, so that (regardless of their particular political structures) governments act in general to promote greater educational and economic opportunity for all, more connectivity with the outside world, and so on. The end goal is for them to advance on a trajectory toward integration with and participation in the community of economically, socially, and technologically developed countries (thus shrinking the gap, as Thomas P.M. Barnett puts it). For example, we see this dynamic at work in the increased interest in Mozilla and other FOSS projects in countries like Brazil, India, China, etc., as more and more people in those countries move beyond a subsistence level of existence.

Recently both David Eaves and Mark Surman have blogged about the potential for the Mozilla Foundation to serve as the locus for a larger movement to promote the open web and related issues. They don’t envision the Mozilla Foundation ever evolving into a traditional social movement organization operating within the industrial and hierarchical model of influence and power (as Eaves puts it), nor do I; the strengths of Mozilla lie elsewhere. However in my opinion every movement, no matter how nontraditional, eventually bumps up against the fact that governments still matter, and politics still matters. That’s why I think it’s worth our venturing out every so often from our traditional FOSS community and seeing what the rest of the world is up to. And thus I’m off (a bit late) to attend PdF 2008.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on open source and politics 2.0

  1. Mark Surman

    Great post, Frank. I definitely think there is a case for deeper links between open source movements and people looking to ‘open source’ traditional political processes. It’s great that the Foundation is helping to make this link happen.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Chris Kelty’s new book Two Bits (http://twobits.net/read/). It’s a super articulate and deep look at free software as a social movement … looking through a sympathetic yet rigorous anthropologists lens. I just recommended this to a community organizer friend trying to figure out how open source impacts her work. It would also be great reading for people at PDF.

    Looking forward to your posts from the floor. Especially interested to hear about the leadership panel Brian is on.

  2. hecker Post author

    Mark: As it happens, I downloaded “Two Bits” a few days ago and read a little bit of it, though I haven’t had time to do a full read-through. It does look interesting.

    As for more posts about PdF 2008, I have to first catch up with other stuff, and then I’ll try to go through my PdF notes and see what’ worth posting about.

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  4. Billigflug

    Open source is an awesome. The only thing that might be disadvantageous is that people can offer bad downloads, that may contain disruptive codes.

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