Is Open Source Political?

Benkler writes, in 2006, about the origin of the term “open source”:1

… more of those who participated sought to normalize [Free Software], or, more specifically, to render it apolitical. […]
“Open-source software” was chosen as a term that would not carry the political connotations. It was simply a mode of organizing software production that may be more effective that market-based production.

Simply put, open source is a term was created to be apolitical.

However, if we go to the primary source, Eric Raymond’s “original call to the community to start using the term ‘open source‘”, we see a slightly different explanation:2

The problem with [the term Free Software] is twofold. First, it’s confusing; the term “free” is very ambiguous […] Does “free” mean “no money charged?” or does it mean “free to be modified by anyone”, or something else? […] Second, the term makes a lot of corporate types nervous.

This is the original motivation for changing the terminology from free software to open source. The term is ambiguous and makes corporate types nervous. To put the corporate types at ease, will the term have to be apolitical? Raymond continues:

[The change] says we’re willing to work with and co-opt the market for our own purposes, rather than remaining stuck in a marginal, adversarial position.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t political - it means that it isn’t adversarial! It is still promoting free (as in free speech) software, but with an angle that isn’t anti-corporation.

(As an interesting side-note, Raymond makes it clear that open-source intelligence came before open-source software — who knew?)

Benkler continues in his analysis of the new, “apolitical” term:

From the perspective of society at large and the historical trajectory of information production generally the abandonment of political motivation and the importation of free software into the mainstream have not made it less politically interesting, but more so.

Benkler says that open source had a political impact on society (rather than being inherently political), once it was imported into “the mainstream”.

I agree that open source has had a political impact, but I disagree that it should have anything to do with being apolitisized. So yes, open source is political. Open source has an impact that can be measured politically. Open source is, however, not adversarial and anti and rebellious in the same way free software is.

  1. Yochai Benkler, Peer Production and Sharing (chapter 3 in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom), 2006, Yale University Press
  2. Eric Raymond, Goodbye, “free software”; hello, “open source”, 1998, (accessed 18/2 2014)

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