π Digital π Society
The digital revolution: at humanity's expense?

Employees of the web giants contribute most to open source software

Laure Muselli, Lecturer in information systems management at Télécom Paris and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (I³-SES/CNRS)
On June 8th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time

laure muselli
Laure Muselli
Lecturer in information systems management at Télécom Paris and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (I³-SES/CNRS)
Stefano Zacchiroli
Stefano Zacchiroli
Lecturer at the University of Paris, on assignment at Inria
Fred Pailler
Sociologist and post-doctoral researcher at C²DH (Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History)
Mathieu O’Neil
Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Canberra
Key takeaways
  • The idea of “open source” retains an image of an ecosystem that is independent of tech giants, being collaborative and voluntary.
  • But in reality the opposite is true: web giants have been very interested and investing in open source software for years.
  • It is in fact among the biggest digital companies (the tech giants, but also Intel, Huawei, Samsung...) that we find the biggest contributors to open source projects.
  • As such, only 15% of Linux code is produced by unpaid contributors.
  • This manifests itself in particular in changes relating to intellectual property: more and more open source licenses are modified with the aim of keeping hold of the software developed.

Emer­gence and insti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion of open-source software

The his­to­ry of free soft­ware began in the 1980s, in reac­tion to the dom­i­na­tion and new restric­tive prac­tices in terms of free­doms of soft­ware pub­lish­ers. Aca­d­e­mics defined four free­doms that they believed should be applied, which became the prin­ci­ples of free soft­ware: free­dom of use, the free­dom to study the code and adapt it to one’s needs, the free­dom to redis­trib­ute copies, and the free­dom to improve the pro­gram and pub­lish those improve­ments. In order to pre­serve the free nature of this soft­ware, they also devel­oped the legal sys­tem of « copy­left ». Instead of using copy­right restric­tive­ly, by plac­ing soft­ware under licens­es designed to exclude use and access to the source code, copy­left con­sists instead of more per­mis­sive licens­es, but requir­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of the source code1.

The prin­ci­ples of open source soft­ware com­bined with the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of the Inter­net allowed the rise of a col­lab­o­ra­tive devel­op­ment mode2 in which geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant vol­un­teer devel­op­ers formed com­mu­ni­ties around soft­ware devel­op­ment projects that com­pet­ed with the so-called « pro­pri­etary » offer­ings: the Lin­ux oper­at­ing sys­tem, the Apache web serv­er or the Mozil­la web brows­er. But beyond a new devel­op­ment method, the free soft­ware move­ment is first and fore­most a phi­los­o­phy and val­ues of shar­ing, inde­pen­dence and freedom.

Although pro­pri­etary soft­ware pub­lish­ers, led by Microsoft, saw the free soft­ware move­ment as a threat and ini­tial­ly tried to dis­cred­it it, it was rather its insti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion that we wit­nessed in the 2000s. In 2002, IBM began to invest in free soft­ware, which grad­u­al­ly gained legit­i­ma­cy among com­pa­nies. Today, IT com­pa­nies [for « Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­o­gy »] have embraced free soft­ware, and espe­cial­ly its col­lab­o­ra­tive devel­op­ment mode. They are also invest­ing mas­sive­ly in it, fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Microsoft, which in 2018 bought GitHub, the very pop­u­lar plat­form for host­ing and man­ag­ing free soft­ware development.

Unpaid con­tri­bu­tions? The ques­tion of paid work

Even today, there is a ten­den­cy to asso­ciate free soft­ware with the image of vol­un­teer devel­op­ers and a hack­er eth­ic based on free­dom, hedo­nism and self-ful­fil­ment, albeit with indi­vid­ual ben­e­fits in terms of recog­ni­tion in the labour market.

The real­i­ty is dif­fer­ent, how­ev­er, as today, for exam­ple, only about 15% of con­tri­bu­tions to Lin­ux are made by vol­un­teers3. A clos­er look at the con­tri­bu­tions post­ed on a plat­form such as GitHub reveals that a major­i­ty of them are post­ed via a pro­fes­sion­al address4.

It seems, then, that a land­scape is emerg­ing around open source soft­ware in which vol­un­teer work and organ­i­sa­tions coex­ist with paid work and com­mer­cial enterprises.

Who are the con­tribut­ing companies?

That com­pa­nies con­tribute to open source soft­ware that they use on a dai­ly basis might seem log­i­cal, espe­cial­ly in a con­text where the free rid­er phe­nom­e­non of using with­out con­tribut­ing has often been denounced. How­ev­er, when we take a clos­er look at the com­pa­nies whose employ­ees con­tribute the most to the devel­op­ment of the most active, high­est rat­ed and/or most con­tributed projects, no com­pa­ny oper­at­ing in a non-com­put­er sec­tor ranks in the top 20 con­trib­u­tors. In fact, although some com­pa­nies are start­ing to imple­ment open source evan­ge­lism pro­grammes, they con­tribute very lit­tle to projects, usu­al­ly due to cul­tur­al and man­age­r­i­al resis­tance linked to a fear of los­ing con­trol of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights.

In fact, it is among the IT giants (Microsoft, Google, Apple, Intel, Face­book, Huawei, Ora­cle and Sam­sung) that we find the biggest con­trib­u­tors to these open source projects.

From mas­ter­ing dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture to mas­ter­ing data

Today, the entire dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture of the Inter­net is based on open source soft­ware (such as Lin­ux, Kuber­netes, and more gen­er­al­ly the entire soft­ware stack on which com­mer­cial clouds are built), and thus the Inter­net ser­vice plat­forms intend­ed for busi­ness­es or the gen­er­al pub­lic, such as search engines or social net­works. These plat­forms allow the IT giants that have devel­oped them to col­lect, process and val­ue the quan­ti­ties of data that are at the heart of their busi­ness models.

It is there­fore under­stand­able that these IT giants may have an inter­est in get­ting involved in the devel­op­ment of dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture, in order to define its ori­en­ta­tions and char­ac­ter­is­tics to best serve their activ­i­ties5. The aim is to agree on open tech­ni­cal stan­dards in order to min­imise risks or to pool devel­op­ment costs. But it is also a ques­tion of mak­ing open source tech­nolo­gies com­pat­i­ble with the expec­ta­tions of their client com­pa­nies, which requires a cul­tur­al change with­in the projects, in order to move towards a form of pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion6.

By con­trol­ling the dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture, dom­i­na­tion of the data mar­ket by web giants is rein­forced, with all the con­se­quences this may have for com­pa­nies and indi­vid­ual users in terms of inde­pen­dence and privacy.

What future for FLOSS?

Where­as free soft­ware had imposed itself as a safe­guard against the dom­i­na­tion of IT by a hand­ful of play­ers, which it crit­i­cised, it is now being incor­po­rat­ed by web giants. Despite speech­es high­light­ing their mem­ber­ship of a « free soft­ware com­mu­ni­ty » pre­sent­ed as uni­form, these com­pa­nies retain its col­lab­o­ra­tive devel­op­ment mode but place its prin­ci­ples and val­ues of shar­ing, inde­pen­dence and free­dom in sec­ond place. This can be seen in the igno­rance of the prin­ci­ples of open source licences, such as « Inner Source« 8 or that of the use of CLAs (Con­trib­u­tor License Agree­ments), which allow the licence gov­ern­ing a soft­ware prod­uct to be changed.

How­ev­er, many free soft­ware actors are still attached to these found­ing prin­ci­ples and mil­i­tate for their respect, which is nec­es­sary to guar­an­tee the dura­bil­i­ty of the free ecosys­tem, which is cur­rent­ly being called into ques­tion by the dom­i­na­tion of IT giants. This means pro­mot­ing a diver­si­ty of alter­na­tive decen­tralised and inter­op­er­a­ble plat­forms and ser­vices, such as the « archipelit­i­sa­tion » pro­posed by the Fra­ma­soft asso­ci­a­tion, the Matrix open stan­dard for secure and decen­tralised real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or NextCloud, a file host­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion solu­tion with an open architecture.

But beyond these ini­tia­tives, the ques­tion aris­es as to the role of the State in reg­u­lat­ing and financ­ing alter­na­tive plat­forms that pre­serve data sov­er­eign­ty and pro­tect pri­va­cy. Indeed, aren’t open source projects based on vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ties the pot of gold in the face of the iron pot of the IT giants, which have almost unlim­it­ed resources to pay the devel­op­ers of their own open source platforms?

1De Laat, P.B. (2005). Copy­right or copy­left: An analy­sis of prop­er­ty regimes for soft­ware devel­op­ment, Research Pol­i­cy, 34(10), 1511–1532.
2Von Hip­pel, E. (2005). Democ­ra­tiz­ing Inno­va­tion. The MIT Press
3The Lin­ux Foun­da­tion (2016). The Lin­ux Foun­da­tion Releas­es Devel­op­ment Report High­light­ing Con­tri­bu­tions to the Lin­ux Ker­nel Ahead of 25th Anniver­sary of Lin­ux. https://​www​.lin​ux​foun​da​tion​.org/​p​r​e​s​s​-​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​/​2​0​1​6​/​0​8​/​t​h​e​-​l​i​n​u​x​-​f​o​u​n​d​a​t​i​o​n​-​r​e​l​e​a​s​e​s​-​d​e​v​e​l​o​p​m​e​n​t​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​h​i​g​h​l​i​g​h​t​i​n​g​-​c​o​n​t​r​i​b​u​t​i​o​n​s​-​t​o​-​t​h​e​-​l​i​n​u​x​-​k​e​r​n​e​l​-​a​h​e​a​d​-​o​f​-​2​5​t​h​-​a​n​n​i​v​e​r​s​a​r​y​-​o​f​-​l​inux/
4 O’Neil, M., Cai, X. Musel­li, L., Pailler, F. & Zac­chi­roli, S. (2021). The copro­duc­tion of open source soft­ware by vol­un­teers and big tech firms. Can­ber­ra: DCPC / News & Media Research Cen­tre, Uni­ver­si­ty of Can­ber­ra. This research project was fund­ed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foun­da­tion and the Ford Foun­da­tion’s Crit­i­cal Dig­i­tal Infra­struc­ture Fund (2019–2020)
5But­ler, S. et al. (2019). On com­pa­ny con­tri­bu­tions to com­mu­ni­ty open source soft­ware projects. IEEE Trans­ac­tions on Soft­ware Engi­neer­ing. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​0​9​/​T​S​E​.​2​0​1​9​.​2​9​19305
6O’Neil, M., Musel­li, L., Rais­si, M. & Zac­chi­roli, S.(2021).“Open source has won and lost the war”: Legit­imis­ing com­mer­cial-com­mu­nal hybridi­s­a­tion in a FOSS project, New Media and Soci­ety, 23(5),.1157–1180.
8Inner Source » means that a com­pa­ny imple­ments the best prac­tices of open source soft­ware devel­op­ment, but retains pro­pri­etary licences for the code devel­oped. pi_note], or bypass­ing them, as in the case of appro­pri­at­ing open source code dis­trib­uted in SaaS mode7In SaaS mode (Soft­ware as a Ser­vice), soft­ware is exe­cut­ed remote­ly on the ser­vice provider’s servers. The user there­fore sub­scribes to a ser­vice con­tract rather than a user licence agree­ment, which cre­ates a « loop­hole » in the prin­ci­ple of free licens­ing: the ser­vice provider is no longer oblig­ed to offer access to the code, there­by depriv­ing the user of the free­doms that free soft­ware was sup­posed to guar­an­tee


laure muselli
Laure Muselli
Lecturer in information systems management at Télécom Paris and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (I³-SES/CNRS)

Laure Muselli's research focuses on how new logics such as digital transformation or open source change work, professions, identities and practices within organisations.