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The Growing Politicization of Open Source

by Tim O'Reilly
Aug. 15, 2002

Note added on October 2: In various articles and web sites, the article below has been used to suggest (incorrectly) that I am a supporter of the Initiative for Software Choice. See Software Choice vs. Sincere Choice for the full story.

I just received some thought-provoking mail in response to the recent news about the proposed Digital Software Security Act, which would require open source software to be used in California state agencies. According to news.com, " If enacted as written, state agencies would be able to buy software only from companies that do not place restrictions on use or access to source code."

This mail comes from someone I've worked with for the past several years in promoting open source in corporate America. He's a thoughtful advocate for the benefits of open source, but he's disturbed (as am I) by the growing politicization of open source. He asked me to keep his mail anonymous, because he doesn't have permission to speak for his employer (and it's not Microsoft!). He wrote:

Yes, it does bother me. When I first heard of the proposed legislation in Peru, I thought it was great theater, and that the open source advocates in Peru clearly made some telling points about its benefits. But the more I think about it, the more you I realize that having governments specify software licensing policies is a bad idea. My correspondent crystallized my feelings on the matter, and made me realize that support for such legislation was a violation of what I have previously called "my version of Freedom zero". I think he's right. This is a slippery slope, and a really dangerous idea, which thoughtful free software and open source advocates ought to reject.

As T.S. Eliot said in Murder in the Cathedral: "This last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." No one should be forced to choose open source, any more than they should be forced to choose proprietary software. And any victory for open source achieved through deprivation of the user's right to choose would indeed be a betrayal of the principles that free software and open source have stood for.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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