Open source's identity crisis

No readers like this yet.
Free and open source software

For Karen Sandler, software freedom isn't simply a technical matter. Nor is it a purely ideological one.

It's a matter of life and death.

Sandler, Executive Director of the non-profit Software Freedom Conservancy, says software freedom became personal when she realized her pacemaker/defibrillator was running code she couldn't analyze. For nearly a decade—first at the Software Feedom Law Center, then at the GNOME Foundation before Conservancy—she's been an advocate for the right to examine the software on which our lives depend.

And, at this year's Open Source Convention, held July 20–24 in Portland, Oregon, Sandler will discuss a serious impediment to that cause: the way software developers negotiate their relationships with the projects to which they contribute. Difficulties advancing software freedom are part and parcel of this larger "identity crisis," she says.

We caught up with Sandler before she takes the stage at OSCON 2014.


What first attracted you to the issue of software freedom?

Well, at first, in the mid 1990s, when I was in school at Cooper Union, free software was a really interesting thing we were playing with in the computer lab. I remember thinking "this Linux thing is a neat idea ... too bad it probably won't go anywhere." Then I went to law school and became a cross-border securities lawyer, leaving most of my tech background behind. Eben Moglen (who had been one of my professors at Columbia Law School) formed the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) just when I had decided that I wanted to do something new.

View the complete collection of OSCON speaker interviews

I remember going into my first day thinking "open source is cool"; I wasn't really focused on the ideology. Working with SFLC's passionate clients opened my eyes to the important issues, and the ideology really hit home when I was diagnosed with my heart condition and prescribed a pacemaker/defibrillator. My life depends on the proprietary software that is literally connected to my heart. I can't review the code, and I know that there have been no proper procedures for its review by anyone else. What software does your life depend on? It may not be implanted in your body, but it may be controlling your car, helping you choose your democracies, and running your stock markets. It is impossible now for me to see software freedom as anything other than of core importance to our society as a whole.

Your professional work as an advocate for free and open source software began at the Software Freedom Law Center. Then you transitioned to the GNOME Foundation and, now, to the Software Freedom Conservancy—all in the span of about a decade. What ties all these positions together?

To be honest, it's funny to hear those as being separate! At SFLC I was providing the legal help to defend software freedom. GNOME was one of my clients. When I saw the first screenshots of GNOME 3 I knew that this new vision for the desktop was the way to go. I knew it would be impossible to get any mainstream adoption of free software without there being good looking, easy-to-use interfaces for new users, and I wanted to do everything I could to help.

Also while I was at SFLC, I co-founded Conservancy. We knew that free software projects needed a nonprofit home and the infrastructure to operate and that it was impractical for every project to form its own organization. I served as an officer of Conservancy since its inception. So with my move from GNOME to Conservancy, I've swapped my volunteer and paid roles. I'm very committed to both organizations and am pleased to say that I've recently been elected to the GNOME Board of Directors. So, I consider all three jobs part of the same important work for software freedom.

What's the most important lesson about free and open source software projects you learned while working as Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation?

There are so many lessons that I learned; the GNOME community is so amazing. One of the most important lessons is that good nonprofit ideology and governance is essential for a healthy free software community over time. It's important to lay down good groundwork early in a project to avoid control by one or two companies. While there has been a lot of interest by companies in GNOME, when it came time to setting up an organization the community decided on a 501(c)(3) charity. They got companies to participate in a non-voting advisory board which provided support to the Foundation but kept control in the hands of the community.

Conservancy is also a charity. In order to join, projects must be reviewed by our Evaluation Committee, and once they join they cannot allow any corporate control of their project. We even have project leaders subject to a formal Conflict of Interest Policy (which usually only applies to board members). Joining Conservancy is a statement that a project really is committed to the public good—and that they're willing to commit their assets to it permanently.

Also, a focus on ideology and a commitment to no corporate control motivates the community to do more, and for the right reasons.

What are your top priorities as you begin your work for the Software Freedom Conservancy?

Raising money to fund the good work of the organization. Want to donate?

I think the main thing I'd like to do is grow the organization to serve more fantastic free software projects and to help explain why their charitable nonprofit structure is so meaningful. Conservancy has been doing so much and with such little staff. We launched a project to work on free software that will help nonprofits with their accounting—something that proprietary software doesn't do well and exactly the kind of software that should be free and open. Right now most nonprofits rely on proprietary software and pay exorbitant licensing fees for software which fundamentally contradicts their underlying missions of charity and sharing. Worse still, the software that exists doesn't really do a great job at complicated nonprofit accounting. We'd like to make it so that nonprofits can work together to improve the situation. If we can get this project up and running it has the potential to save the nonprofit sector millions in licensing fees every year.

In a recent episode of your podcast, "Free as in Freedom," you explained the links between software freedom, technological access, and social justice. Tell us about those connections. Do we need to change the way we explain about free and open source software if we're going to successfully advance the cause?

Definitely. I read the article "The Meme Hustler" by Evgeny Morozov and it really got me thinking. He talks about how the free software movement was cleverly manipulated into the open source marketing campaign. I've never been one to get hung up on terminology, but I can see in retrospect how that marketing impacted my own thinking at the time. I don't care if we use the term "open source" or the term "free software" but I do care that we're talking about freedom.

Recently, when watching a few episodes of the TV show Silicon Valley, I got a little sick when I saw that the companies represented on the show all talked about making the world better through whatever profit driven software product it was that they were bringing to market. Being clear about our ideological goals and clearly connecting the dots between software freedom and social justice is important. Most of our developers know that software freedom is right but it's very hard to articulate, even for someone like me who's been trying to advocate to nondevelopers for a while.

I've been thinking a lot about the messaging in our movement because if we can't articulate why what we do is important, what are we doing? As we integrate software and in technology in general into our lives, it's becoming clear that we are making a grave mistake by letting single companies control the systems we rely on. We're building complex infrastructure where everything interacts with everything else—and we're only as safe as our weakest link. Software freedom is not the only piece in this puzzle but it is the cornerstone to ethical technology.

At OSCON, you'll speak about a persistent "identity crisis" in free and open source software communities. What, specifically, do you think is in crisis? What forces or factors contribute to these identity issues?

In free and open source software we all wear many hats. We use the term "we" to mean a nonprofit community of volunteers one moment and then "we" to mean our employers the next. Free software needs its contributors to be honest with themselves and each other about what their interests are and who they are speaking for at different times. We need better procedures in place for our community governance. How can we actually change the world if we don't know who we are and we're willing to let corporate influence overrun us? But I'll have to stop there as I don't want to spoil the talk!

View the complete collection of OSCON speaker interviews.

Bryan Behrenshausen
Bryan formerly managed the Open Organization section of, which features stories about the ways open values and principles are changing how we think about organizational culture and design. He's worked on since 2011. Find him online as semioticrobotic.

1 Comment

A really nice interview, Bryan. Some interesting insights here into free and open source software, freedom, and community.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.