Weblog:   The Growing Politicization of Open Source
Subject:   Comment on Comment: The Circularly-Linked List Firing Squad
Date:   2002-08-18 16:40:13
From:   adamsj
This is more-or-less on topic, from my weblog:

There's an old joke told by and about every group known to humanity. I first heard it told by a fellow left-winger:

How do leftists form a firing squad?
They stand in a circle with the target at the center.

This week brought three exemplary instances of this behavior.

Exhibit A: Tim O'Reilly questioned in his weblog whether the proposed Digital Software Security Act, which would mandate the use of open source software by the state of California, was a good idea, considering that it cedes the moral high ground of freedom in software choice which open source currently occupies.

Exhibit B: Dave Farber gave a deposition in a pending case brought by the RIAA asking that major backbone providers be made to block a Chinese web site. In his deposition, he stated that this was certainly technically possible and would not create an undue burden on those providers.

Exhibit C: Larry Lessig's presentation on copyright and fair use was posted on the O'Reilly Network. Among other things, he said, "And, If You Can't Fight For Your Freedom . . . You Don't Deserve It. But you've done nothing." (Audience applause).

So, what's the result? In reverse order:

Dave Winer on Larry Lessig's talk: "Lessig is so damned irritating. He says 'We've not done anything yet.' Arrrrgh. Incorrect. He's not done anything yet. Perhaps his friends haven't done anything yet."

Doc Searls was more moderate: "I have to say that I bristled during the speech when Larry switched voices from the first person plural we to the second person singular you...But given how little any of us have succeeded thus far including Larry I'll forgive the broadness of Larry's reproach."

On Dave Farber's Interesting People list, he reprints An Open Letter To Dave Farber, which closes with "Whose side are you on, Dave? Theirs or the Internet's? And why?" I'm sure there's more Farber-flaming over on Slashdot, but I haven't yet checked.

Speaking of Slashdot, the reaction there to Tim O'Reilly's article was predictably furious, as were some of the comments posted directly to his weblog (though these were less angry than the Slashdot comments). The Slashdot article (from an editor, michael, by the way, not M. Anonymous Coward) ends: "O'Reilly seems to be promoting the agenda of Microsoft's Software Choice campaign. He's a business man; perhaps there's a reason we don't know about. But whatever his motives, his lame arguments are no reason to stop pushing for governments to use Free or Open Source software wherever possible."

What makes these reactions interesting is that these three were talking less about basic ideas or ethical principles than about tactics:

Farber gave his deposition because this lawsuit "seemed to be a good case to test the issues raised by DMCA (a law I believe was fatally flawed in concept and should be repealed)..." I'm not sanguine about the hopes of a test case in front of this Supreme Court, but then, we won't have another court any time soon.

O'Reilly took his position because "having governments specify software licensing policies is a bad idea". I think he is wrong on this specific point, but right in his implication that the DSSA invites a law requiring only closed-source software. (Many people don't know that security through obscurity is a weak approach.)

Lessig is, I think, just frustrated that people won't take effective action, and I'm with him all the way on this:

"Now, I've spent two years talking to you. To us. About this. And we've not done anything yet. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories. [But] nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington, right? Who would waste his time in Washington?"

Declan McCullagh has a recent opinion piece which I suspect speaks for the majority of techies, in which he is first exactly right, then spectacularly wrong:

"Trust me, a few--even a few thousand--peeved e-mail messages won't change vote totals that lopsided. (Did you know the Senate approved the DMCA unanimously?) Washington's political class is used to ignoring frenzied yowls from far more organized and well-funded groups than 'geektivists' can hope to emulate anytime soon.

"Instead, technologists should be doing what comes naturally: inventing technology that outpaces the law and could even make new laws irrelevant."

Well, Washington can write, pass, and enforce laws much, much faster than anyone can write code--I guarantee you that. Law can make pi equal to 22/7, the earth flat, and creation seven days long, with one off for good behavior. Unlike code, law doesn't have to make sense to be a fact of your life.

The key words in McCullagh's article are "anytime soon".

He's just barely right on that--effective political action does take persistence. But you know something else about it? It provides persistent results.

He's right that when folks "set up irate Web sites, launch online petition drives and tell all their friends to write to their congressional representatives...these efforts are mostly a waste of time. Sure, they may make you feel better, but they're not the way to win," because he's set up a straw man to knock down.

Yes, politicians are used to "ignoring frenzied yowls from far more organized and well-funded groups." Those more organized and well-funded groups usually get their way, though, when their "frenzied yowls" are backed up by organization, votes, and cold hard cash, with none of which we've yet to bother.

That techies have done an incompetent job of lobbying doesn't prove that lobbying is ineffective. It just proves we've done an incompetent job of it.

Why do we persist in the delusion that politics will leave us alone?

I believe the transcript of Lessig's talk is slightly off.

I was there, and I personally started the applause mentioned above, but I believe this is more accurate:

"And, If You Can't Fight For Your Freedom . . . You Don't Deserve It."

(Audience applause).

"But you've done nothing."

I know the moment when I decided to applaud is accurately reflected there. My memory is that the applause was slow to build and weak at its peak.

People, particularly here in the United States, tend to think freedom is one of the best things in life (true), and that the best things in life are free (not always). Freedom does not throw itself into your arms saying, "Take me, I'm yours!" That's an adolescent fantasy at best--the flipside of McCullagh's "anytime soon".

Time to grow up.


Doc Searls on Lessig, which links to
Dave Winer on Lessig (Dave Winer writes an excellent weblog, though I've criticized this item above)
Lawrence Lessig
Record Labels Want 4 Internet Providers to Block Music Site
Monthly Archives for Interesting-People
Tim O'Reilly's weblog
Slashdot | Tim O'Reilly Bashes Open Source Efforts in Govt
Declan McCullagh: Geeks in government: A good idea?