Toward an Open Source Society

By Sublett

One of the oldest canards against anarchism is that it is impractical, that without central authority to keep the peons in line any large project will dissolve into chaos and disorder. Yet the open source software movement provides modern day proof that anarchism works, even when not conducted by anarchists.

Source code is the human readable text of a computer program, written by programmers and compiled into binary format for execution by the computer. Without the source code, it is nearly impossible to modify a computer program, or even understand how it works. Proprietary software vendors like Microsoft keep their source code confidential, distributing binary-only software to rob users of the ability to modify it for their own purposes. For good measure they throw in things like undecipherable file formats that no other software can support. Customers are left completely dependent on the vendor for bug fixes and new features, trapping them on an endless treadmill of upgrades, always hoping that the next version will fix their current problems without introducing too many new ones. Usually they are disappointed.

Open source software projects, by contrast, make their source code available to everyone. Anyone with an Internet connection can access the code and submit changes to the project maintainers. Non-code contributions can include bug reports, testing, documentation, and tech support. Development is thus conducted by a community for mutual benefit, instead of a corporation for maximum profit. This advantage is not just hypothetical. Successful open source projects in all areas of computing are slowly burying their closed competition.

Anarchist hacker Richard Stallman probably deserves more credit than anyone else for starting the open source movement (although he prefers the term “free software”). Stallman became an anarchist at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, where MIT gathered the best hackers they could find, gave them the most advanced computers available, and let them go nuts. Nothing was kept secret within the lab, and anyone could work on whatever they wanted, including picking locks and hacking the phone system. What resulted was software that was decades ahead of its time and a group of programmers who could command huge salaries from industry. When the other AI Lab hackers left for more lucrative jobs, Stallman continued writing free software on his own.

His work during this period included a set of vital utilities for Unix-based operating systems called the GNU tools (GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix), as well as the Emacs text editor and other useful programs. But Stallman’s greatest contribution, and his greatest hack, was the GNU General Public License (GPL). Under copyright law, copyrighted works – which include software – can be licensed under nearly any terms the author desires. Anyone receiving the copyrighted work is legally bound by the terms of the license. The GPL allows anyone to freely redistribute the software it covers (and any derivations), but the redistribution must include the source code and be covered by the GPL. So while Microsoft would be allowed to dress up a GPLed program and sell it as their own, there would be no point in doing so. Since they would have to include the source code, their customers would be able to compete with them on an equal footing. This neat bit of legal jiu-jitsu makes it impossible to monopolize GPLed software, the exact opposite of the intent of copyright law. While there are other open source licenses, the GPL is the most common and has done the most to drive acceptance of open source.

There are legions of successful open source projects, but two of the best known are the operating system called Linux and the Firefox Web browser. Firefox is known to millions of users as a fast and convenient way to access the Web. Its extension system allows programmers to easily create downloadable plug-ins, resulting in features like ad blocking that no commercial vendor would dare provide. Firefox has been stealing market share from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer since its introduction in 2004, approaching 50 percent in parts of Europe.

Linux was introduced in the fall of 1991 by Finnish student Linus Torvalds in response to the copyright restrictions surrounding Minix, an operating system used for teaching purposes at universities. Torvalds switched Linux over to the GPL the next year and later incorporated Stallman’s GNU tools. Known formally as GNU/Linux, the new operating system got a tremendous boost when the Internet, formerly confined to academia, was released to the general public in 1993. Now anyone with a phone line and a PC could download the Linux source code and make their own modifications.

Volunteer hackers all over the world rose to the opportunity. Attracted by the subversive potential of the GPL and the chance to help create something new and worthwhile, they poured code into the new project. Device drivers, bug fixes, and new features began to accumulate. Other projects sprang up to provide applications for Linux. Non-programmers contributed documentation, testing, and Web hosting. Within a few years, Linux progressed from a student hobby to a powerful, stable, and enormously flexible operating system that now runs on everything from iPods to supercomputers.

As Linux improved, users began to take notice. Network administrators trying to save money on server software started making the switch. Stealth Linux installations began to appear in corporate IT departments, powering things like firewalls and e-mail servers, with in-house geeks keeping the “hippie operating system” a secret from their bosses. A small startup called Google found Linux to be ideal for indexing Web pages. As Linux's reputation grew, it started to crop up on things like cell phones and home wireless routers. Big hardware companies like IBM and HP began adopting and even contributing to Linux, if only because it was cheaper than trying to extend their own proprietary operating systems to compete with it. Even in the home-user market, Linux’s weakest point, distributions like Mandriva and Ubuntu have made it a relatively painless experience for novices.

Gandhi famously remarked, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Linux marked its entry into the winning phase on January 30, 2007, the day Microsoft unleashed Windows Vista on a defenseless computing public. Four years late, horribly slow, saddled with a restrictive copy protection system, and severely lacking in hardware support, Vista destroyed forever the idea that software is best developed by a bureaucracy. Facing a user revolt, Microsoft was forced to allow computer makers to continue selling Windows XP simply to prevent a mass defection to OS X and Linux. Today XP, now seven years old and increasingly obsolete, remains Microsoft's top-selling operating system, while Linux steadily gains market share at its expense.

So if the open source approach works so well for software, why not use it everywhere? Why not create an open source society? These are the questions the ruling establishment desperately hopes you won’t ask. Passive, isolated consumers are the lifeblood of the corporate oligarchy, and that makes open source anything an enormous threat. As more and more of us turn to mutual cooperation to solve our problems, the elite will be faced with a question of their own: If anarchism is so impractical, why is it working?

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