The Power of Openness

Subject: The Power of Openness
From: Keith Bostic (
Date: Wed Mar 31 1999 - 15:44:00 CEST

From: Kevin Taglang <kevint@BENTON.ORG>

                The Power of Openness:
        Why Citizens, Education, Government and
    Business Should Care About the Coming Revolution
              in Open Source Code Software

As software and networking technologies rapidly insinuate themselves into
the deepest reaches of American commerce, culture and governance, the
architecture of our democratic society is being transformed. One lesson that
is becoming clearer is that the design of hardware and software and the
governance of the Internet matters. These issues can profoundly affect
competition and innovation in markets, the ability of universities,
libraries and nonprofits to pursue their missions, and the control that
individuals can exercise over their lives.

Within the past year, a number of forces have converged to suggest the
socially constructive potential of software whose design code can be freely
accessed and modified by computer users. It is a complex story that is still
unfolding and known chiefly in computing/Internet circles. As we will
explain in Section I, a growing grassroots movement on a global scale is
challenging proprietary models of software development by generating
superior, more reliable software that is far cheaper and even free.

The implications are not just technical but economic, political and
cultural. A new software movement based chiefly on free, open access to the
source code of software, is showing its tremendous power to fortify user
sovereignty in the computing/Internet marketplace. This movement represents
one of the most novel, potentially powerful expressions of the consumer
movement in a generation. Over time, if fully developed, the new models of
software development could produce innovative, cost-efficient software at
much less cost than today, a capacity that could particularly benefit the
voluntary, academic, nonprofit and professional communities. It could also
help check the excesses of a market-dominated culture by fortifying these
"gift culture" communities while mitigating worrisome concentrations of
corporate power in the software industry.

But the rich latencies of this Internet-facilitated phenomenon may never
develop if a new kind of networking leadership does not coalesce to assert
the important values that can only flourish in an environment of openness.
The user community and many non-technical constituencies must begin to
identify and advance their strategic interests in open code software. Such a
mobilization of resources is especially needed because many segments of the
software and computer industries seem committed to containing the expansion
of open code software, but, for now, have not consolidated enough to develop
a unified response.

In the meantime, fissures among the proponents of open source code software
may complicate the forward momentum of this movement. One branch, the Free
Software movement, sees distinct moral, social and civic value in the source
code of software being legally available to anyone in perpetuity. Another
branch, the Open Source movement, is more concerned with the technical
superiority of open source code software and its intriguing commercial
possibilities. Rather than privilege one or the other branch of the movement
-- whose strategic objectives both overlap and diverge -- this essay will
refer to both collectively as "open code" (not "open source") unless one or
the other is specifically intended. In the interest of inclusiveness, this
text will also use the term "new software movement" to refer to new
non-proprietary models of software development and alternative intellectual
property regimes.[1]

To the layperson, it may not be immediately apparent why the new software
movement holds rich promise. This proposal seeks to explain why its
surprising emergence into the mainstream in 1998 is so significant and how,
with timely and strategic assistance, open code software could evolve into a
powerful new platform for the reinvigoration of the non-commercial civic
sector in American society. By radically empowering computer users, it could
help rejuvenate our democratic culture, improve education, catalyze a more
consumer-responsive economy and ensure fairer, open governance of the Internet.

To reap the full potential of the open code revolution, we propose creating
H20, an independent nonprofit organization to help foster the development
and usage of the new software. We use the metaphor of water, H20, to
emphasize that software is increasingly indispensable to life, at least an
enfranchised civic, political, economic and social life. If software is to
truly improve these domains, it must be capable of circulating freely so
that it can nourish the fundamental values of an open society: democratic
participation, social equity, equal opportunity and educational achievement,
among others. Openness is a virtue in software development not just because
it tends to produce superior product, but equally because it fortifies free
market competition and democratic principles.

This essay explains why open code software is so important, especially for
various non-technical constituencies, and how a new organization -- H20 --
could help promote new development and usage of open source code software.
This document is deliberately aimed at the layperson as much as the computer
sophisticate because a new and broader conversation must be started, one
that considers the far-reaching implications of open code software for how
we shall govern ourselves, improve education, foster innovation and economic
growth, and protect the sovereign interests of citizens and consumers. This
text, then, is intended for anyone interested in these realms as well as for
influential leaders of the foundation community who could catalyze some
powerful changes by fostering the development of open source code software.

See the rest of the essay at ( Written by
David Bollier, an independent journalist and consultant based in Amherst,
Massachusetts, who writes frequently about the social and democratic
implications of the electronic media. A student of citizen advocacy,
progressive politics and cultural change, he has worked for the past fifteen
years with television writer/producer Norman Lear on assorted non-television
projects; with Ralph Nader on a number of civic empowerment/public policy
initiatives; and with several foundations and activists who know how to grow
new vectors of possibility. In recent years, Bollier has proposed a
strategic agenda for reinventing democratic culture using new electronic
media (; chronicled socially
visionary models of business management in his book Aiming Higher; and
synthesized the economic, social and political reasons for curbing suburban
sprawl and rejuvenating urban regions ( Bollier
can be reached at

(c) 1999 Berkman Center for Internet and Society (
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any
medium, provided this notice is preserved.

[1] Much of this debate revolves around what kinds of software licensing and
distribution ought to prevail, and what terms of engagement with the
proprietary software world should be entertained. Richard Stallman, a
leading software development, prefers the term "free software" to stress the
freedom to use source code as one sees fit and the freedom to use derivative
programs as well, without the customary restrictions that copyright law
imposes. Others, such as Eric Raymond, prefer the term "open source
software" to stress the accessibility of the source code even if proprietary
derivative versions (having closed, copyrighted source code) are allowed. It
should be noted that "freeware" and "shareware" are not appropriate synonyms
for "free software" because "freeware" does not necessarily have open source
code; it can simply be a free or promotional version of a program whose
binaries (but not source code) are accessible to users. A review of the many
strands of the new software movement can be found in Charis DiBona, Sam
Ockman & Mark Stone, editors, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source
Revolution (O"Reilly & Associates, 1999).


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