This story is the second in a series on cultural battles facing the open-source community. You can read the first article here. Installments in coming weeks will cover relationships with big tech and the rights of end users.
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“Isn’t it weird that the radically democratic miracle of open-source collaboration is so full of monarchical dictatorships?”
That’s the question Nathan Schneider asks in an essay for Hackernoon titled, “How’s That Open Source Governance Working for You?”
In it, he argues that open source suffers from a “tyranny of structurelessness,” a term borrowed from feminist theorist Jo Freeman. In open source’s absence of explicit project rules and governance structures, he argues, implicit ones take over. And those implicit rules benefit some people more than others.
Schneider is one of the open-source advocates at the forefront of the Ethical Source movement, founded by developer-activist Coraline Ehmke. As a journalist, Shneider has long examined radical movements: Occupy Wall Street, anti-capitalism and anti-nuclear efforts, among them.
Ethical Source does not strike Schneider as left-field or utopian. During our interview, he described the movement as “reasonable” — 13 times.
“I think it’s really reasonable for people to seek improvement to some of the core ideas of the [open-source] movement,” he said.
Those core ideas, Schneider told me, fall into two main categories: ethics and economics. Ethics have been a main focus of Ehmke’s work, with her Contributor Covenant code of conduct and do-no-harm Hippocratic License for open-source projects. Innovations like source-available licenses, which prevent large companies from taking and profiting from other projects’ code, address the economics side.
If ethics and economics were a Venn diagram, Scheider’s concern hovers around the middle: In its stated commitment to a free marketplace, who has open source screwed over?
Open Source’s Unanswered Questions
Open-source projects don’t pay their contributors. That means open-source productivity relies on a delicate game theory, which Open Source Initiative co-founder Eric Raymond refers to as a “self-correcting systems of selfish agents” in his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”
According to Raymond’s writings, open-source contributors “compete amicably for peer repute.” In other words, they’re socially motivated. In the open-source meritocracy, the best thinkers are, theoretically, recognized as such, and they receive the richest rewards.
This framework allowed open-source founders to pass the buck with regard to the economies of the open-source labor market. Today, companies largely fund open-source work, either through grants or, more commonly, by paying their employees to contribute.
And, for decades, that’s worked. Sort of.
Corporate America now welcomes the trade-off with open arms, and open-source software has made its way into most everything. But poor financial outcomes for project owners and contributors — as well as what some see as undue influence by large tech firms — has led many to question the long-term sustainability of the open-source ecosystem.
“When you don’t answer a question like, ‘How does economics work in a system?’ that question ends up getting answered for you, perhaps by entities that you may not actually want to be answering those questions,” Schneider said. “A company like Google, which does a lot of investing in open source, therefore gets to decide what kinds of priorities its developers will have.”
When you don’t answer a question like, ‘How does economics work in a system?’ that question ends up getting answered for you.”
So, how to begin addressing the flaws of this bustling non-economy?
One way is through more flexible licensure. Source-available licenses, for instance, make code shareable but not stealable, in that outsiders can access it but not use it for commercial gain. Those, Schneider said, preserve some of the best of open source while guarding against corporate plundering. Outside auditors can review an application’s source code to check its owner’s security claims. Developers can build tool integrations easier with access to a platform’s source code.
It’s also a value signal: “We want to share what we’re doing for anyone who wants to learn.”
Then there’s the Peer-Production License, which allows source code to be used only by worker-owned organizations, or cooperatives.
There are also ethics-focused licenses like Ehmke’s Hippocratic License, which prohibits human rights abuses, or the 996 License, which targets Chinese firms that implement a six-day workweek.
Open-source purists argue an explosion of new licenses would add unnecessary complexity to the open-source landscape. Schneider disagrees.
“[License authors] are just demanding reasonable stuff,” he said. “If every company was practicing reasonable labor policies, for instance, the  license would not be an issue. Its complexity would not be a concern, because everybody would be abiding by it.”
However, licenses that are more restrictive and less commercially oriented have been shown to correlate with lower contributor productivity.
Intellectual property isn’t the only framework for thinking about open-source reform, though. Another, according to Schneider, is feminist economics.
Gender is not the focus of the debates rocking the open-source community. It’s also not irrelevant to them.
Programmer Steve Klabnik, for instance, in the blog post that perhaps coined the term “open-source culture war,” noted he thinks gender “plays a huge role.” Klabnik declined to expound on that for this article
So, here are some of the ways gender could play a role. Did rising numbers of women in open-source spaces shift the no-holds-barred communication style many developers took for granted? Did reliance on the uncompensated donation of free time put women contributors at a distinct disadvantage? Did the so-called open-source meritocracy involve some baked-in sexism that caused women’s contributions to be undervalued? Are whiny, entitled women ruining the party for everyone?
The options are complex, and the truth may be too. But Schneider’s invocation of feminism helps unpack some factors that affect all open-source contributors, not just women.
That’s because feminists have a history of examining invisible economies, like childcare, domestic work and, now, open-source labor. In his paper “The Tyranny of Openness: What Happened to Peer Production?” Schneider praises the feminist tradition of “making hidden economies explicit and critiquing the ethical content embedded in claims of ethical neutrality.”
Both have implications for open source.
I don’t think anybody wants to run back to the proprietary approach.”
For example, working not for money but for, as Raymond calls it, peer repute, works better for people with higher incomes and more free time. Women, data shows, generally have lower incomes and less free time due to unpaid domestic work. The same applies for some ethnic minority groups, which make up 16 percent of open-source contributors — or any other person without the financial freedom to work for no pay.
Working for peer repute also works better for people who earn it more easily. A 2016 study found that when a contributor’s gender is identifiable, pull request acceptance is lower for women than for men. When gender is cloaked, women’s acceptance rate is higher than that of men. But women aren’t the only ones familiar with open source’s often-rigid hierarchies.
Another issue is the devaluing of what Schneider calls “feminized labor,” like non-coding contributions and community management. The open-source rockstars who parlay their contributions into high-paying corporate positions are rarely the people updating documentation or managing personalities, even though it’s widely agreed this work is essential for open-source projects to function. (This is part of a long tradition of the feminization of so-called soft skills.)
Alternatives to Implied Economies
Open-source’s implicit economy has led to rifts over who profits, who gets noticed, who gets paid and who gets jobs.
So, what to do? Will open source give up and return to the proprietary models its founders fought against?
“I don’t think anybody wants to run back to the proprietary approach,” Schneider said. “What people are asking for is, let’s just treat [open source] as a living creature, let’s allow it to adapt and learn, rather than being so exhausted from the battles that were fought in the ’90s and early 2000s that we don’t want to change anything.”
Open source was meant to be a commons, or a shared marketplace with resources that belong to — and benefit — its community as a whole. In a few important ways, it’s failed to achieve that. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late.
With some adjustments, open-source projects could create common-pool resources that are ethically and economically sustainable, Schneider said. He suggested they take a page from economist Elinor Ostrom’s (actual) book on the subject.
You have to create some kind of boundaries to know what it is you’re dealing with.... Because open source has kind of ignored that idea, it’s meant whoever has the most power in the room gets to call the shots.”
Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel prize in economics, argues that, in order for a commons to operate effectively, it needs boundaries, rules and consequences.
“You have to create some kind of boundaries to know what it is you’re dealing with, who’s actually part of the community and what expectations community members have to fulfill,” Schneider said. “Because open source has kind of ignored that idea, it’s meant whoever has the most power in the room gets to call the shots.”
Boundaries ask the questions, “Who has a stake in this commons, and who benefits from its use?” If the answer is contributors, source-available licenses are one potential solution, especially if normal contributors benefit financially from their enforcement.
Rules and consequences, meanwhile, could refer to participants’ behavior, which the Contributor Covenant addresses. But they also apply to open-source governance as a whole and, possibly, the entire internet.
Consider the open-source monarchs and dictators we’ve come to know and (sometimes) love. Governance-wise, they’re really not that different from the admins of your favorite Facebook groups — unilateral decision-makers with no term limits or explicit responsibilities to group members, Schneider explained.
That’s why he created CommunityRule, a tool with a variety of drag-and-drop governance models for communities looking to make their rules — and perhaps their economies — more explicit. Early stage projects may choose dictatorship, a choice that often makes sense, Schneider notes. For more robust communities, CommunityRule allows the easy adoption of malleable rules for things like elections, accountability and conflict resolution, as well as mechanisms for those rules to evolve along with contributor sentiment.
The potential applications for open-source projects are clear. With explicit governance by and for contributors, software-makers could establish ethical boundaries, such as: “I don’t want to build any technology that could contribute to a surveillance state,” or, “I don’t want this software to disproportionately harm America’s Black community.”
They could also set standards for economic transactions, like, “Contributors receive an hourly wage,” or “Contributors get a cut of any profits if this software is monetized.”
As for the internet at large, Schneider is working with the research collective Metagovernance Project to examine universal protocols that could expand users’ purported right to self-governance online. Call it a platform cooperative, worker-owned tech company, or (increasingly popular) decentralized autonomous organization, which I unpack in this story. Schneider, and many like him, are pressing for ordinary people to control their own online resources.
Getting there will be hard. And that, Schneider said, is OK.
“Your mind wants to say, ‘Let’s find a solution, let’s implement the solution, and it will be gone,’ rather than recognizing this is part of some deep baggage we’re going to have to hold,” he said. “I think the call is to keep asking ourselves these questions over and over and over, and to try to come to terms with them with every decision we make.”