Crisis in OSS, rise of the corporate internet, and.. Counter measures

If you are not in open-source circles and not tech-savvy the discussions that are raging in the FOSS ecosystem will probably have entirely passed you by.

There are two things at play here:

  1. There is a crisis in open-source software development, that threatens its continued success
  2. Big tech companies have become so dominant that their corporate interests prevail in internet evolution

And also there is a counter-movement appearing, which is very interesting to our community. But first the issues:

Open-source has become the dominant software distrubution model and is all-pervasive. From the smallest startup to the biggest tech giant: OSS projects are used extensively. Open source has been a tremendous success. But the OSS model is starting to show cracks.

OSS project developers find it hard to eek out a living from their work. There revenue models to work in open-source are not successful. Many developers quit the space and are hired by tech companies instead. There is a feeling that - though e.g. big tech companies open-source a lot of their own projects - in general the business work is profiting off of open-source without giving enough back to sustain OSS development.

Furthermore companies that have very successful OSS projects, like Mongo and Redis, have started to tweak how the software is licensed, adding commercial and proprietary clauses to the license model with confusing names, like the Commons Clause. When people adopt their software with these licenses they slowly compromise the software freedom that makes OSS so appealing.

There are many resources describing the crisis. Just mentioning a couple here, taken from HN: Open source confronts its midlife crisis, and on licensing The Commons Clause is an existential threat to open source and FSF marks commons clause as non-free, recommends users fork software using it.

The second issue facing the internet is related to the dominance of Big Tech, their huge treasure chests and their walled garden approaches. Their dominance is such, that they are steering the evolution of the internet in ways that do not benefit its openness, and guarantees/extends their continued domination in the future.

Most institutions, standards bodies and open conferences these days are sponsored in one way or other by big tech. Big money is thrown at them, and because revenue models in the OSS world are so bad, these pose enormous temptation to accept big tech as sponsors. And as a result big tech now gets to influence how they act and how they are able to criticize bad behavior / ethics of their sponsors. See Aral Balkan’s article in I was wrong about Google and Facebook: There is nothing wrong with them

Also big tech companies push their own de-facto standards to further their own interests, like Google Amp. See HN Kill Google AMP before it kills the web. This last standard drives mobile web traffic through google servers (allows for tracking/spying) and works best when browsed with Chrome).

Now for the good news.

Counter forces are organizing. There are frantic searches for alternative funding models and solutions for open-source developers, discussions about making changes to licensing. Christopher Lemmer Webber, co-author of various internet standards like ActivityPub is discussing alternatives to W3C and WhatWG. And the aforementioned Aral Balkan (creator of the Ethical Design Manifesto is organizing a radical movement to stimulate people to avoid ‘compromised’ institutions and conferences.

So there is more and more thought on creating alternative organizations, conferences and communities to protect the open and free internet. And all of these developments should be highly applauded and further stimulated by our community, as the people involved here are most closely aligned with Humane Technology principles.

I created this thread as a reminder and to continue to track these developments


Say all the tech companies combined all over the world are taking in US $1 trillion in revenue a year. That’s more than even the budgets of all but the largest countries in the world. The tech industry has tremendous money and tremendous influence. Community resistance should be the first line of defence, especially in open source software communities. But as you said, many open source developers are often not even making enough to live, while big tech software developers (the 0.1%) are getting ludicrously wealthy.

So given this, the solution must be replacing the current big tech with ethical tech enterprises who develop open source projects which are really open source. As I have said before users would choose ethical tech because it could be more secure, safer, and more in line with their own interests rather than the interests of unethical big tech. These ethical open source tech enterprises probably wouldn’t get far relying on donations and grants alone, they would need to sell ethical software and services that people could purchase to fund their development and operations. Users and the world as a whole would be better off, especially as tech would finally be working for the world instead of for the rich. An ethical open source tech industry would help usher in much more competition and openness in the tech sector, leading to lower profits and lower salaries overall, but greater choice, more freedoms, increased well-being and a boost in human flourishing.