Should the New Mantra Be: "Free as in Data"?

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It's early at the Open Source Convention, held this week in San Jose — the keynotes were just this morning — but I'm already starting to see a few themes. One of them, mentioned both in the first keynote address this morning, is the notion that freedom is not necessarily synonymous with software freedom.

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS ]

For example, said Tim O'Reilly, you can think of the "Internet OS" as a data operating system, based on the growing importance of some of its subsystems, such as location and identity — Who should own the databases? It's no longer an issue of having source code; it's the data you have and control that defines power.

"There's a natural tendency towards monopoly," said O'Reilly. And for those who care about freedom (of which software freedom is a subset), that raises the question: Should those databases be centralized or federated?

The meta-issues that question suggests, which touch on software as a service (SaaS), Internet architecture decisions, and "cloud" software licensing, were the topic of a panel discussion moderated by Bradley Kuhn from the Software Freedom Law Center, "With Software as a Service, Is Only the Network Luddite Free?"

Free software may not matter as much as it used to, said O'Reilly, and it may cause us to miss things that we ought to be paying attention to. "The architecture of systems matters more than the licenses," he pointed out. "The Internet isn't free because of a license but because it was designed for cooperation." It's not just the availability of the source code, because you don't have the machine and you don't have the data that's been collected. "How do we think of these services as fundamentally federated?" he asked. "We're going to live with the consequences [of the answer]."

Open source is based around the convenient fact that for 20 to 30 years, computing has happened on a user's local computer, said Benjamin Mako Hill, senior researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management. One result is that open source philosophy and licenses are built around this highly individualistic use of software. But that's increasingly not the case in a world of network service, Hill said. "It's no longer as simple as a user's computing; it's a group's computing." And none of us is quite sure what is meant by "a group to control its computing." Some of these issues are addressed in the Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services (which I confess I haven't had time to read — hey, I'm listening to the speakers!).

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