The 2 Problems Facing Linux (and Open Source) in 2020

The world of Free and Open Source Software (Linux, et al.) has some serious problems that are going to reach a critical point in the year ahead.

Those problems are not technological.  As of right now Linux (and Open Source, more generally) powers every single one of the top 500 supercomputers in the world.  The majority of all smartphones have, primarily, Linux and Open Source at their core.

No, from a tech point of view, Open Source is doing just dandy.

Instead the problems, as I see them, come in two forms.

1) Influence (and control) over Open Source institutions by organizations and companies who are, in most areas of their business, opposed to Open Source.

Some of the largest and, arguably, most influential organizations within the Open Source world are heavily funded by companies who are predominantly opposed to Open Source as a concept.

Microsoft and Facebook fund the Open Source Initiative.  Facebook, VMWare, Microsoft, Comcast, and Oracle (all companies that focus on Closed Source almost entirely -- the vast majority of their work is closed and some of these firms take drastic legal action against Open Source projects and their users) all fund the Linux Foundation (and have seats on the Linux Foundation board).  

Some of these seats cost half a million dollars per year.

Companies don't throw around that kind of money without expecting something in return.

That's not a conspiracy theory... that's just good, obvious business.  If Microsoft, for example, simply wished to be generous, they would donate the half million dollars, issue a press release about how nice they are, and be hands off.  Instead, they are paying for board positions to give them greater control over activities and stances of organizations like the Linux Foundation.

Again.  Not a conspiracy.  I'm not claiming anything unfounded or unproven.  Simply pointing out the business relationships that have formed -- and that companies don't typically pay half a million dollars (per year) for nothing in return.

I want to also stress this point: None of this makes these companies, like Microsoft, evil.  I don't view Microsoft as evil... simply a company focused (primarily) on Closed Source software and with a track record of attacking those that threaten their core businesses.  They're just doing the business they do.  Looking at how the business needs (real or perceived) of such a company can impact the organizations they have some control over (such as the Open Source Initiative and the Linux Foundation) is, regardless of your views of any of these entities, the prudent thing to do.

To me, Microsoft buying seats on the Linux Foundation board feels like a cigarette company buying a seat on the board of an organization focused on helping people quit smoking -- in that their interests are not (by and large) aligned.  Or Tesla buying a seat on the board of a chain of gas stations.

Note: I have reached out to both The Linux Foundation and Microsoft repeatedly over the last several months.  I genuinely want their viewpoint.  To date, no response has been given.

If corporate control over a small number of Open Source organizations was the extent of the issue, I'd say this is a somewhat isolated business case.  Isolated case, this is not.

One of the other big activities is of companies focused on Closed Source (and restricting rights of end users -- such as Right to Repair, and fair use of content) purchasing significant control over standards bodies that help drive the direction of the broader computer industry.

One of the easiest examples to explain is that of Microsoft, Google, and Netflix purchasing power within the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium -- that is the self-appointed organization responsible for setting the standards that drive not just everything you see via your web browsers... but many ways that computing devices communicate behind the scenes).

This power has had direct ramifications.  Most notably, at least to me, the fact that those companies pushed the W3C to adopt a policy of support of injecting Closed Source into web standards... and pushing DRM (Digital Rights Management, which restricts when, where, and how you can, for example, watch a video) as a ratified standard of "The Open Web."

In this we have a clear, well documented, example of large Closed Source companies causing significant change -- making Closed Source and DRM a standard within something that is, by design, supposed to remain fully open and DRM-free.

Regardless of if you believe those are good, positive changes (I don't, but I can see the arguments for them)... there's no denying that the changes are significant and the purchasing power of large corporations made them happen.

Those companies appear to remain committed to paying large sums of money to maintain similar control over these standards bodies and Open Source organizations going forward.  As such it is reasonable to assume additional standards and policies will be pushed that positively impact their bottom line.  Because, again, that's how business works.

Will those policies be ultimately good or bad for Open Source and open standards?  Remains to be seen.  Thus far, the track record is mixed.  At best.

2) Influence (and control) of Open Source projects, institutions, and communities by those seeking to harm others.

I'm a pretty live and let live sort of guy.  If people have good intentions -- to treat each other with respect and love -- I tend to like them.  I've even gone so far as to publish my own, personal Code of Conduct.  It reads, in entirety, "Be Excellent to Each Other."

Unfortunately not everyone within the broader Open Source world follows that ideal.

Over the course of 2019 (and 2018, before it) we've seen a steady increase in... for lack of a better word... hate.  A small portion of the Open Source world that actively acts in hateful, exclusionary ways towards other members of the Open Source community.  Based on what I've observed, I believe this sort of thing will continue to ratchet up during 2020 until a breaking point is reached.

Let me give two examples that I think illustrate my point.  Both relate to technology conferences in the Open Source world.

A year and a half ago, at a prominent Open Source conference held in Portland, Oregon -- a keynote was given by a highly visible Microsoft employee. During that keynote, the presenter specifically encouraged those in attendance to commit crimes against people based on skin color and gender (in this case, "white" and "male" -- though the idea is horrific regardless of gender or ethnicity).  He said we need people to be "willing to go to jail" that we needed "accomplices."  He even had a slide talking about the need for "accomplices" against people of certain skin colors.

This was not a rinky dink conference.  This was not a nobody, from a no-name company.  This was a high profile person from Microsoft giving a conference sanctioned keynote presentation.

And, in it, he was seeking to divide the entire community -- to encourage racism and sexism to the point of committing criminal activity against each other.

This was not an isolated incident.  These sorts of hateful calls to commit crime against other members of the Open Source community are becoming increasingly commonplace at conferences across the land.

In another example, just last month The Linux Foundation banned one podcaster from attending a conference immediately after someone complained that said podcaster once wore a red "Make America Great Again" hat.

Note: That particular situation is slightly more complex (and warrants further study if you are interested in the topic), but that does appear to have been the core of why the individual was banned.  I reached out to The Linux Foundation (repeatedly, via multiple channels) for clarification.  I offered them a chance to say something to the effect of "We do not ban members of the Republican party" or something similar.  If the individual's political affiliation had no bearing on the banning, making a statement to that effect would have been a simple, obvious way to calm any tension.  They declined to make any such statement -- or any statement at all -- to me, or any other journalist who contacted them.

There are a few similarities with these two cases -- similarities shared with the numerous other such instances over the last two years.  But, at the core, both actions (one from The Linux Foundation and one from a representative of Microsoft) seek to harm someone else who, supposedly, is deemed "unacceptable."

In one case someone is banned from participating in a portion of the industry due to a perceived political affiliation (one shared by roughly half of the U.S. populace), and in the other a direct call to action to commit crimes against others based on race and gender.

Like with the concerns over Closed Source companies buying influence over Open Source organizations... these are not isolated incidents.  And they appear to be ramping up.

A truly fascinating detail of all this... is that many of the individuals and organizations who are preaching hate -- or seeking to cause division and harm -- work directly with the companies buying buying control of Open Source organizations.

In fact, if you draw a Venn Diagram with one circle representing "Seeking to harm others who they disagree with" and the other circle being "Companies buying influence of Open Source"... it's pretty much just a single circle (with, perhaps, a small divot at the top).

What comes next?

If I had to make a prediction for 2020, based on the increasing activities over the last couple years... I would say that things will only accelerate and intensify with both of the issues I call out here.

It's difficult to say exactly how everything will shake out, in the end.  But major divisions among the Open Source world seem nearly inevitable.  Forking of major, critical projects.  Communities dividing in half.  Journalists being banned from events for covering them accurately.  Continued threats against people who speak out against hate and racism.

As it stands right now, I know that me making the statements I make in this piece will cause me to receive numerous threats.  I expect hit pieces.  And that sounds just awful.  But the statements I've made are accurate, factual... honest.  And I stand by them.

In fact, that is likely the only way to truly combat the issues facing the Open Source world over the next year.  If we all, as a group, stand up and speak out.  Calmly.  Kindly.  But honestly and factually.

The more of us speak out against hate, the harder it will be to vilify concepts like "kindness" and "Being excellent to each other."

So here I am, making this stand right now.

I do not think that companies with a vested interest in the failure of Open Source should be allowed to fund the major Open Source organizations.  That is, to say the least, a conflict of interest.

And I roundly reject the hate, racism, sexism, and overall bigotry that is working to divide the Open Source world ever further.  I do not care what country you come from, what religion you are, or what your political party is.  If you treat others with kindness, you're aok with me.

Both of those comments will get me attacked.  Which is ridiculous.

Bullies be damned.


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