Open Source, Nationality and Politics: How They Fit Together

Posted by gadolphus on Apr 2, 2011 12:39 AM EDT
The VAR Guy; By Christopher Tozzi
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If companies like Microsoft are the imperial powers of the digital world, domineering their way into new markets and not always playing nicely with adversaries, open source projects tend to thrive on a universalist, internationalist spirit. But it would be foolish to pretend that the open source channel is oblivious to national boundaries, a fact which Canonical’s Steve George highlighted in a recent blog post. Read on for the details, and some thoughts.

In general, closed-source vendors tend to be readily identifiable with particular countries. Even if they market to all corners of the world and have nationally diverse workforces, companies such as Microsoft and Apple are headquartered in the United States and run mostly by Americans. They operate internationally, but they are not international in character or culture.

The leaders of most open source projects, in contrast, pride themselves on inclusivity and openness to contributors of all nationalities and backgrounds. Ubuntu’s “Code of Conduct,” as but one example, makes reference to “a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Anarchasis Cloots, the spokesman of 18th century internationalism, could hardly have framed the Ubuntu mission in more universalist terms, were he still with us.

The open source world, moreover, is full of multinational personalities — from Mark Shuttleworth, who holds dual-citizenship in the United Kingdom and South Africa and who lives on the semi-autonomous Isle of Man, to Richard Stallman, who takes pride in his polylingualism and has sworn off employment in his native United States. And Linus Torvalds himself, of course, was born into the small Swedish-speaking minority of Finland, and now resides in Oregon. None of these men is quite so easily identifiable with a particular political jurisdiction or national community as the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Canonical, Open-Source and the U.K.

Given the international nature of much of the open source channel, the blog post by Steve George, vice president for business development at Canonical, stood out to me because of its positioning of open source development within a particularly national context — in this case, that of the United Kingdom. George advocates the value of open source software for British society, and cautions against underestimating the contributions which Britons stand to make to open source code. His post followed the publication of a similar item in The Register a day earlier.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing objectionable about George’s post. He doesn’t argue for the promotion of open source development in Britain at the expense of any other group; if anything, his piece serves only to benefit the open source ecosystem as a whole by pointing to the many benefits governments can derive on multiple fronts by considering open source solutions.

Nonetheless, the specifically British focus of the post seems an outlier to me in a channel whose discourse almost always shies away from questions of political boundaries and personal attributes.

Why It Matters

While the specific points George makes might be topics for discussion only among residents of the United Kingdom, the issue of how nationality and national barriers factor into the open source channel is one which all developers and users of open source software should perhaps think about more than they currently do.

After all, national and cultural circumstances centrally affect the way open source software is accessed and used. For instance, most residents of “developed” countries take for granted broadband Internet connections that allow them to download ISO images for Linux distributions in a few minutes, but such bandwidth remains prohibitively expensive in some parts of the world. Meanwhile, although many open source projects — such as Ubuntu — offer their products in a wide variety of languages, lack of localization can present an impediment for open source users in certain circumstances.

Commercial vendors operating within the open source channel should also take the nationality question to heart when planning their business strategies. Adoption of open source products is highly nuanced, but in general, cultural or political apprehensions to open source code can influence the willingness of many potential customers to give it a try. Hence, perhaps, part of the reason why Zarafa has faced tougher competition in the United States than in Europe.

Being more aware of the implications of nationality and borders for the open source channel won’t solve all the problems of open source developers and users, and it certainly won’t make 2011 the Year of the Linux Desktop. But it is an issue that, if we want to understand fully the open source movement and its place in the modern world, deserves a larger chunk of the discourse than it currently receives.

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