The rapid adoption of open source software by businesses and institutions across the globe has established it as one of the most important movements in recent history. The movement has paved the way for a significant amount of information sharing not only among people using and creating free and open software, but among many institutions and businesses traditionally associated with closed source/proprietary models. This article addresses why this movement has avoided some of the pitfalls of neo-liberalism, as Henry A. Giroux defines it, and how it represents a significant paradigm shift in the exchange of information on our planet.
The Linux operating system (Red Hat, Ubuntu, etc.), the Apache HTTPD web server that approximately 40% of all websites run on, the Firefox web browser, PHP, and MySQL are just a couple of notable examples of open source software. Open source in its simplest sense means that the programmer who originally wrote the application, script, or utility is willing to share her “source code” with others. Source code is simply the set of instructions she’s given to the computer or to the interpreter that make the program work. It’s the recipe for the secret sauce. This is useful if the end user understands the language in which the program is written because he is then free to add to the original code to make improvements or modifications. He is also free to fix any bugs that might be in the code. In the closed source model that came before (and that still exists), the software user had to contact the company, person, or institution responsible for the code, file a bug report, and wait patiently for a bug fix, enhancement, or modification — if said company, person, or institution deemed the request worth spending the programmer hours to work on — which further assumes those programmer hours haven’t already been committed to working on the next bigger, better, newer, and more money making software application.
Open source software comes in a number of flavors and licenses. Apache, BSD, and GPL licenses are a couple of the more popular ones. The BSD license is the least restrictive of the three. It is so open that many businesses, including Apple Inc. use BSD code. (Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD/NetBSD.) Many makers of network equipment, routers, switches, network monitoring devices, etc. are using BSD licensed code and operating systems in their devices. Some of these companies give thanks by donating to the projects from which they’ve borrowed such significant amounts of technology from. But many do not contribute back to the projects from which they’ve so liberally borrowed software and ideas. As far as the BSD license is concerned, this is okay. There is no obligation for the user to give anything back, or to share changes to the code, or to even give credit. BSD licensed software is free for anyone to use for any purpose. The GPL (GNU Public License) is a bit more restrictive about what can be done with “GPL’ed” software if it is used, modified, then distributed. In short, the GPL requires the user who modifies and distributes software licensed under the GPL to make the source code (including the source code of any modifications) available to its users.
The old model of closed systems of proprietary information and licensing offers the consumer little choice. This is akin to how “neoliberal ideology, with its ongoing emphasis on deregulation and privatization, has found its material expression in an all-out attack on democratic values and on the very notion of the public sphere.” (Giroux) The users, if they aren’t wealthy businesses, are stuck paying exorbitant and potentially crippling licensing fees. In addition to licensing, sometimes expensive yearly support contracts are required. The software rapidly falls out of date and becomes no longer compatible with other businesses using newer versions of the software. So the users are often stuck in a painful loop of planned obsolescence of the software that they rely on to run their business, or to organize their lives. Some vendors have been accommodating to customers using older versions of their software, but many are quite callous about the forcing them to upgrade to the newer versions, focusing on the needs of bigger customers with deeper pockets.
Some users of these proprietary software applications just won’t upgrade. They will use the application until they are forced to move on. Leaving aside the problem of having important personal or business information on ancient systems, and how to recover it if the system crashes, by avoiding updates these users expose themselves to all manner of security vulnerabilities that jeopardize the integrity, confidentiality, and privacy of their information.
Another alternative smaller businesses and individuals will resort to is using pirated copies of the closed source software, which also exposes them to security vulnerabilities (crackers embed malicious code into versions of popular software on torrent/file sharing sites). Smaller, mom and pop businesses and individuals who work independently in jobs that require or are greatly benefitted by the use of computer technology can hardly afford the high cost of running legitimate (non-pirated) copies of business software. They are also subject to random audits by the company whose software was pirated, which can bring with it hefty fines. Again, this speaks to Giroux when he says, “Within the discourse of neoliberalism, the notion of the public good is devalued and, where possible, eliminated as part of a wider rationale for a handful of private interests to control as much of social life as possible in order to maximize their personal profit.”
In the early ‘90s a movement of pretty geeky computer people started sharing their source code with one another. Linus Torvalds and his Linux OS used the GPL. More and more people started using these products because they found the alternatives (like Microsoft Windows, or the established “big iron” UNIX variants) to be inflexible and prohibitively expensive. At some point the feature set of these open source alternatives to traditionally closed source commercial alternatives became so rich and powerful that they could easily replace their expensive competitors. And most users found them to be more stable and flexible. Open source software became more than an enthusiast’s home-brew solution. It became a commercial competitor. Today companies like Red Hat, Canonical, and many others have an entire business model built around open source software.
But what’s most significant is the impact the openness this model has engendered. Closed source companies are scrambling to keep up with the open source alternatives. Microsoft lost the browser war to open source browser alternatives. Microsoft market share for desktop OSes is slipping dramatically. Companies like Sun Microsystems open sourced formerly closed source projects like Java, and the Solaris operating system. Universities have begun releasing coursework and vast digital image libraries for free. Startups like The Khan Academy now offer entire mathematics curricula and courses for no cost whatsoever. Even the Wikileaks phenomenon owes its popularity to the groundwork that was laid by the early pioneers of the free and open source software movement, many of whom had the mantra that “information wants to be free.” Back to Giroux, “educators, parents, activists, workers, and others can address this challenge by building local and global alliances and engaging in struggles that acknowledge and transcend national boundaries, but also engage in modes of politics that connect with people’s everyday lives.” He goes on, “Most specifically, democracy necessitates forms of education that provide a new ethic of freedom and a reassertion of collective identity as central preoccupations of a vibrant democratic culture and society.” The open source way has spoken to these points Giroux has made. The openness of this movement is why it is a proponent of change, bringing lasting value by encouraging openness, sharing, collaboration, and transparency over profit. Instead of being just another commodified artifact in a commercial society, this movement represents a significant paradigm shift in the exchange of information on our planet.