CSPAN, open source software, and transparency

by Tim O'Brien

So, I keep this blog as politically "neutral" as I can. You came here for technology, so I'm not going to sound off about deficit spending or ruminate about "strategery" on O'Reilly.com, but CSPAN was on in the background all day and I couldn't help myself. I have a big CSPAN problem, and I have wasted many a day watching the minutae of governance. Some prefer sports; I opt for Senate hearings and BookTV. Read what the founder of CSPAN - Brian Lamb - said about TV in '99:

"I grew up with television being controlled by three men living in New York City. Everything trickled down from those three men, William Paley, Leonard Goldensen, and David Sarnoff. Now, they were just being good businessmen. They maneuvered to get the licenses first in radio, then in television. They set the standards for what television was going to be, and because there were only three, they tried to appeal to everyone all the time. But that is just not democracy." - Brian Lamb, August 1999 Organization of American Historians

CSPAN makes our government more transparent. And, Brian Lamb's experiment in transparency reminds me of the transparency of open source decision-making. What makes something like Linux successful isn't the availability of code; most people never even see it. The important part of open-source is transparency and a decision-making process open to public criticism. Do I believe that transparency makes a better piece of software? Not at all; any project can fail. But, I do feel more comfortable trusting a decision-making process I can follow. In other words, open source isn't about source at all, it is about transparency and the ability to watch and/or participate in an ongoing discussion. Open-source is a kind of digital democracy (or meritocracy).

Take Lamb's quote and think of it in the context of technology ("s/licenses/patents/g" and "s/television/internet/g"). Although, not a direct analogy, CSPAN provides the same service as a developer mailing list at the ASF or a discussion list at the W3C. Why should only Microsoft have a say in defining the format of our office documents? or the architecture of our operating systems? So, keep Lamb's quote in mind when you think about AOL, Debian, and Apache's rejection of the Microsoft Sender-ID proposal. Letting Microsoft hold a patent to a pivotal piece of core internet infrastructure is "just not democracy".

What do you think? Should we elevate Brian Lamb to his rightful position as "Pioneer of Open-source Government"?


2004-09-19 20:10:04
..and, Microsoft knows this...

I wrote this last night, and then this NYTimes article was written today. Microsoft is give large corporations and governments access to source code.

Here is a direct quote form the article:

"...Matusow said the company has learned from open-source organizations about the value of sharing source code with trusted groups. But he said this program has more to do with providing a deeper level of information about its products, such as to improve security, than in trying to snare business from open-source competitors.

``Open source is a factor, but this is in response to those long-term discussions around transparency,'' he said.

So, in other words, Microsoft writes software, doesn't let the public see the source code, and the provide access only to governments and large corporations. That is not "transparency" (but it does make me wonder if we could get copies of the source code through the Freedom of Information Act).

2004-10-01 15:01:18
its all about the community
The important part of open-source is transparency and a decision-making process open to public criticism.

Very true.

I think successful open source has a lot more to do with the community that develops around a product than it has to do with the features or quality of the code itself. (Granted, the code has to be decent, and the product useful.)

Also, although open source is often viewed as being the product of hundreds or thousands of developers, setting the tone of the community almost always comes down to one or two lead developers.

Recently I've been working on setting up a mail server and have had the opportunities to observe the communities around Postfix (an MTA), maildrop (a local delivery agent), and Dovecot (an IMAP server).

The differences among the respective communities is striking. Interestingly, Dovecot, the small upstart in this group, stands out as being very open to new ideas and welcoming of new members into the community.

It's quite possible that openness diminishes as a project becomes more mature, but I think in the end it has more to do with the personality and management skills of the lead developer.