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Following an increasingly common trend in what has been cynically dubbed “pay per view”, the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) has joined a long string of self-titled “independent” think tanks such as the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute in releasing a study strongly critical of Open Source (outside of strictly limited fields within research and academia).
The IPI website claims that “IPI’s focus is on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets” but their report sides with business practices guaranteeing individual liberty only to a very few, and what amounts to economic slavery for the very many.
The idea of a free market presupposes that the participants in the market follow a few de facto rules (“the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”). If those rules aren’t followed, the “free” part completely breaks down as market participants became dominant and willing to sacrifice principle for profit as they have evidently become in the computer software industry. IPI is failing its constituency as it in turn inadequately assesses the situation and blindly, dogmatically pursues the one remaining plausible goal of limited government at the expense of all else.
Stacking irony upon irony, IPI have pursued too narrow a view of the term “government” and this has led them in fact if not in intent to rally behind private control of computer software markets at the same time as they vocally espouse uncontrolled markets. Private governance of such a market is an economic and political tragedy because the powers involved are not even as accountable for their acts and principles as a public government would be.
Open Source is the one light on the horizon in terms of true deregulation in the computer software industry. It decentralises control to the point where unreasonable dominance of the market becomes effectively impossible. Even “cheating” by leveraging a dominant position to control factors such as network protocols or hardware manufacturing policy becomes less effective as more market participants adopt technology which would be harmed by such distortions, and so refuse to accept them.
This manner of intrinsic regulation benefits not only the Open Source community but anyone who would enter and compete in a truly free market. All we need to do to ensure this deregulation is provide the burgeoning Open Source industry with an incubation period – similar to the original intent of short patent protection periods and other startup incentives – in which to build up a critical mass of users on otherwise fair terms and unmolested by powerful incumbents, including convicted lawbreakers.
In the absence of a totally fair way of achieving this, the best that can be hoped for is some kind of counterweight to the immense political and marketing clout of the incumbents.
In this world, a small minority of the population owns as much as a second pair of shoes. Open Source represents the single supportable mechanism for bootstrapping a very poor individual’s capabilities to a point where they can realistically expect to participate in the information economy at all. The cost of legally acquiring sufficient tools from closed-source suppliers is prohibitive, and the Open Source development model has been the only one which has broken the market stranglehold of merchants of software basics whose first concern is their pound of flesh and not the welfare of their customers.
The power of the incumbents was graphically demonstrated when South American nations like Peru and Argentina moved to protect their economies against them: the US government promptly threatened trade sanctions should those plans go ahead. Blatant protectionism at its very worst! And did IPI speak out against this protectionism? Did The Heritage Organisation? Did The Independent Institute? Not a chirp, nary a whisper.
So why would IPI speak so strongly and at such length against Open Source, but not against international protectionism? In AdTI’s case, as in TII’s, the direct financial support of Microsoft was a fairly obvious clue. Microsoft have since become more subtle, as demonstrated by their inducing Baystar to temporarily bail out The SCO Group in a plausibly deniable fashion. This hints that the links may be more tenuous than before, but they will still be there. The unofficial rallying cry of a weblog devoted to making all sides of these issues public is “follow the money”, and that principle seems to work reliably.
“Independent” is just a claim, and “non-profit” doesn’t mean “non-greedy”. I call on IPI and other “independent” think-tanks to set their own moral houses in order before thinking about undermining others. If you truly support free markets – markets not governed by any one power – then step aside and let us free them. If on the other hand you’ve already taken Microsoft’s shilling, be honest about it. You’ll be caught out sooner or later anyway, we respect honesty, and we’re getting sick to death of pretenders.
There is something a little bit surreal about sitting in a meeting of the Jamaica Linux Users Group (JaLUG), in a cafe beside a waterfall — with Linus, Ted, Eric and other luminaries in the front of the room and an attentive audience filling the rest of the space — while a veteran local IBM executive stands up and describes the adoption of Linux by the company’s customers with adjectives like “huge”. — Doc Searles
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