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
Employees of the web giants contribute most to open source software
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
Professor in computer science at Télécom Paris (IP Paris)
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.