“the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” – and other news

It’s been a long time I haven’t blogged, and I do plan on going back to it. I was thinking to migrate this blog from WordPress to a static site, but some events prompted me to post here earlier than I was initially expecting.
First, a few words about me (hah!) After 6 years working for the French Government in cybersecurity I have returned to the private sector. It’s been 6 extraordinary years working on Open Source, cybersecurity and cloud computing. I’m now working for a rather unique french company called Vates. Vates is the main developer behind Xen Orchestra, an hypervisor and Kubernetes management platform, and XCP-ng, the fast growing fully open source Xen hypervisor distribution. Both projects are fully Free and Open Source Software and Vates happily provides support for these tools. But that’s not what I’m writing about in this post (and by the way, the opinions expressed  are mine only and does not represent anybody else’s opinion).

These days the Free and Open Source Software community is seeing its theoretical foundations somewhat challenged. First, there are those who would like to see the official definition of Open Source changed so that it matches their marketing and lobbying needs. It is a rather complex issue here, on which I will likely write about some time in the future. There are also those who have a business model issue as (much) bigger companies seem happy to distribute their own, Open Source licensed software on their platform (read: cloud platforms) but do not necessarily enable an effective revenue sharing across the ecosystem. Next, there is a growing momentum towards what is sometimes referred to as “ethical” open source licenses. By inserting the compliance or adherence to more or less specific ethical norm, these licenses would supposedly force their recipients to accept these norms by using the software distributed under these licenses. In other words, if a license comes with the obligation for me or for my employer to comply with human rights, I can no longer use nor distribute the software if I know or suspect I’m not respecting the norms contained within the declaration of Human Rights as expressed by the United Nations.

Complying with human rights, however, may be the best case scenario here. Other cases include a general “Do No Evil” clause, which by definition is impossible to comply with. Practically, it disregards the abyss of “Evil” both individuals and corporations or governments are capable of doing to the point of being a metaphysical absurdity. In the case of the Human Rights clause, one would have to believe that it would be scrupulously followed by entities and people who are already in violation of human rights…

More troubling is the question of who sets what’s good and evil. In the case of human rights, there’s some loose consensus about its importance and about its moral values in countries that are mostly western and democratic. The rest of the world has many examples of daily, ongoing and continuous violations of human rights. In other words, ethical standards are important, but ethical standards work and can be enforced within organizations. Within Free and Open Source Software Licenses they raise troubling questions.

Enter the case of Eric S. Raymond (aka ESR). Eric S. Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, the man who initially coined the terms “Open Source” and the author of the seminal “the Cathedral and the Bazaar” book, was discussing how he felt such ethical open source licenses were in direct violation with specific points of the Open Source Definition. In the course of this discussion, things became heated. As a result, Eric Raymond got moderated out of the mailing lists of the organization he co-founded. His last posts were indeed somewhat rude, but not out of the ordinary level of a heated exchange on a mailing list. Eric did end up publishing a good post summarizing an other wise precise and relevant chain of thoughts.

I hope this moderation was done as a temporary measure in order to bring some peace to the discussion. Be that as it may the discussion reveals a troubling tendency at the level of the Open Source Initiative: some people would like to turn Open Source and Hacker’s ethos into something it is not, a political movement that is only very partially about software and a lot about liberal ideas.

It is fine to support liberal ideas of course, but it is even better to support and enforce Free Speech. What’s even better is to ensure that whatever debate there is sticks to matters directly relevant to Free and Open Source Software itself and not any concern for “bad actors” in general. A good example of that is the attempt by the proponents of these ethical licenses to name, shame and ultimately prohibit entities such as ICE to use their software. Now I would not want to be in trouble with ICE and I don’t think it has a good track record in its own line of government activity (to say the least). But we must realize there are two important factors at play here: first, ICE is a government entity that, believe it or not, supposedly enforces laws and regulations passed by and enacted by the democratically elected representatives of the people of the United States of America, and second, some people actually support the actions of ICE. Calling a license ethical because some form of political or moral consideration is inserted in it implies that the licensor believes there is at least a very strong social consensus on the matter and that discriminating against a particular group or people is fine, regardless of what the Open Source Definition clearly states.

These are troubling developments, and it seems to me that the OSI is falling prey to some of the torments of our time. Namely, absolute, peremptory moral judgements made in the name of one’s own convictions that aim at suppressing anybody else’s opinion or validity as a human being. What hurts the most in this case is that it is the  people who claim to have the highest ethical standards and the most concern for social justice who are driving this puritan, absolutist and ultimately misguided moral crusade. And we should know that things become dangerous when Free Speech is threatened. Hopefully the next OSI board will know this too: Get out and Vote!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: