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?