Arresting the slide from Open to Fauxpen

Do as I say, not as I do.

Today, I read Giannis Konstantinidis' excellent essay explaining his concerns for an organisation which has a long, celebrated "open" pedigree: the Mozilla Foundation. They are the stewards of the great exemplar of free and open source software (FOSS): Mozilla Firefox. They're also responsible for many other FOSS projects, venerable (like Mozilla Thunderbird), new (Mozilla Thimble), and ahead of their time (Mozilla Persona, Mozilla Open Badges)... So, as an organisation, their "Open" credibility is beyond reproach... but organisations are ultimately made up of people, and people have motivations, agendas, and they come and go. It seems that Mozilla's commitment to openness is starting to have a bit of a hollow ring, something like Google's famous pledge to "do no evil". And Mozilla isn't alone in letting its commitment to its core, founding principles slip.

The Issue

As Giannis points out in his essay, in its organisational Manifesto, the Mozilla Foundation proudly proclaims it is a champion of openness, particularly in software. Specifically, they make the following statements of principle (some are supported by a quote on their website, which I've included below in some cases):

  • "The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible" supported by the quote attributed to Johnathan Nightingale, VP Firefox: "You don’t have to make a case for open. You have to make a case for not open."
  • "Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional."
  • "Individuals must have the ability to shape the Internet and their own experiences on it" which is supported by a link to "using these free tools to teach the web".
  • "The effectiveness of the Internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide."
  • "Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource."
  • "Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability and trust."

The painful irony of this glowing endorsement of FOSS to improve the world and protect the interests and education of people... is that the Mozilla Foundation often eschews FOSS in favour of centralised proprietary software (like Medium, Slack, and Google Docs). This choice actively selects this software - completely antithetical to their Manifesto - over completely viable, widely used FOSS alternatives (like WordPress, Mattermost/Rocket.Chat/Zulip/Riot+Synapse, and NextCloud + Collabora respectively).

Choosing centralised, non-open standards-compliant proprietary tools over viable FOSS solutions when trying to build a more open world not only undermines the the organisation's message. It also imposes on the choices and values (and security and privacy) of those keen to participate in the community. How can a community make the statements above, and then, with a straight face say "in order to participate in this community discussion, you must accept Slack's terms and conditions" or to read and collaborat on our documents, you have to accept Google Doc's terms of service? That sort of inconsistency warrants the label "Fauxpen".

These choices, usually made with mumbled excuses about user interfaces or "mind-share", are just simply lame. The way to improve FOSS platforms is to use them. In many cases, though, these FOSS solutions are superior in both mind-share, ethics, and usability to the closed, centralised alternatives Mozilla have selected. So what does this mean? It's certainly a fair question, and one which many more people should be asking them, publicly. Among other things, it suggests that some of the leaders of Mozilla have read (and embraced) the ethically dubious Open Source (Almost) Everything by Tom Preston-Warner (former CEO of Github.com, a bastion of fauxpenness, claiming to be "where open source happens" but it is, itself, proprietary and centralised) which comes across (to me, at least) as a long-winded justification for hypocrisy.

A Caveat

I know there will be those who will question the use of Twitter or Facebook or even Alphabet/Google's search by open adherents... well, I chose my words above carefully. There are some technologies for which there is not yet a viable FOSS alternative. Those are mostly in the area of "network effect" businesses, which all three of the aforementioned are. We must use them to avoid effectively ex-communicating ourselves from the rest of the world. That said, however, they should always be seen as an uncomfortable "niggle" - a problem to be solved when the opportunity allows. We must always move forward with open intent! Let's help along the open, distributed contenders like GNU social (for the record, it's 'social' with a small 's' on purpose) and its current rockstar representative, Mastodon...

There's a word for it...

There's a word I was introduced to by Mandy Henk, the lead of Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand, (disclosure: until recently, I served on the CCANZ advisory group, a volunteer position) which was widely used in relation to the Occupy Wall Street movement: prefiguratism. I paraphrase its meaning like this:

Prefiguratism - the idea that, to be legitimate, a movement for social change must employ means which are compatible with its end.

Or, the corollary: a movement for change which employs means incompatible with its end fundamentally undermines its legitimacy as a movement.

I note that another famously open organisation (whose current leaders, interestingly, have a history with the Mozilla Foundation) that similarly seems to be eschewing FOSS community tools in favour of centralised proprietary tools is the global Creative Commons organisation. Given my investment of energy in its New Zealand affiliate over the years and my comprehensive use of, and support for, its licenses and community aims, this is deeply disappointing. While I recognise that this trend towards "Fauxpen" appears to be led from the global organisation (whose own proposed statement of values and mission are remarkably similar to the Mozilla Manifest with regard to privacy and decentralised openness, and yet are similarly in stark opposition to the organisation's daily practices and the technology choices they imposes on their community).

Let's nip Fauxpen in the bud

I'm not sure why organisations like these two past bastions of principled openness are losing their commitment (despite promoting it loud and clear through their "visions" and "missions") to open. I know that many of us who helped to found their respective communities and who contributed countless hours of our time to advocate on their behalf and work on their technologies, feel increasingly betrayed by this creeping fauxpenness. We need to act now and hold these organisations, who claim legitimacy in leading these communities, to account. The only redress we have is the court of public opinion. And it's the most powerful force for change there is.

We need to offer constructive solutions, but we also need to actively, and vocally, oppose the corruption of open practises by these organisations. In my experience, they inevitably give "expedience" or "practicality" as their excuse. That's not good enough. Anyone who values freedom knows that it's seldom the "easy" path. We accept that. In fact, we wouldn't have it any other way. But the more of us who stick to our values - and live them - the easier it will become for everyone else to do so. Remember, with FOSS, the user is  the developer. The more of us who use it, the better - inevitably - it will become. A group of open communities, united by principles and practises of openness is how we will reach the tipping point. Allowing our bastions of "open" to get away with slipping standards is the best way to allow our movement to be co-opted and ultimately strangled by the (mostly corporate) forces of centralised proprietary control. That is a possibly that I cannot accept. I ask you all to take action in your own ways. Ask difficult questions of your leaders. In public. Don't accept weasel words. And remember: expedience is the enemy of principle.

Update 2017-09-18 - the Drupal experience

Over the weekend, I became aware of a remarkably similar fracas occurring in a community in which I've long been involved (although less so of late), that building the Drupal CMS (this site's built on it). There's an exhaustive thread discussing the adoption of Slack alongside the founding community technology, IRC. There's been lots of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments (with good justification) but ultimately, the Drupal community's elected leadership, the Drupal Association, don't seem to have made a definitive statement (other than that they don't want to "self host" a messaging/chat solution)...

A lot of people are strongly opposed to the adoption of Slack, although it's happened anyway - a fait accompli. Thankfully, some other self-starters in the EU part of the Drupal community have also set up  https://drupalchat.eu - a Rocket.Chat instance (similar to the four I maintain) - which is designed to scale to the full requirements of the Drupal community, should it join en masse (I hope it does!).

Note - the cost of using Slack (the current ad hoc solution is using the "free" plan, which results in a max of 10,000 messages being held, with older ones "falling off" - most undesirable for a community interested in preserving its historical communications!) would be about $30k/month given current community numbers.