Open Source / Open Standards

One of the key drivers of the ongoing communications revolution is openness. Websites flourished on apache software, freely available to everyone both to use and to modify or create add-ons. This is but one example of why open source software is critical.

Open standards encourage innovation by encouraging competition for business. For instance, the CD-ROM is an open standard which means that a CD recorded by one vendor’s recorder (e.g. Panasonic) will work in another vendor’s player (e.g. Sony). Those that have significant market share cannot abuse it because another vendor can produce similar equipment with better features or cheaper prices.

Most importantly, open standards allow people and communities to avoid “vendor capture.” This is a situation where the community may be entirely dependent on a single vendor’s proprietary technology. Without the ability to access their own data – which may be locked in proprietary hardware or even just a file that they cannot open without the correct software — they have no choice to but pay what the vendor requires and beg for timely support.

Open standards and open source are essential to local self-reliance. Citizens and communities should have the right to modify the technology they use in order to improve it and solve problems. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, has compared software to a recipe. When cooking, you do not need permission to alter the pancake recipe to your taste. When you come across a problem in software that you are using, you should have the right to fix it.

As computers and information technology grow more important openness becomes increasingly important as part of the historical record. If city council minutes are stored in a closed or proprietary standard, they may be unusable in 5 or 10 years if the vendor maintaining that standard disappears. Open standards are public knowledge, allowing the greatest opportunity for later recreating if needed.

Note: we recognize that “free” and “open source” software are not interchangeable; however, they are close enough for our purposes. Those interested can read more about the differences between open source and free software. In short, the GNU Public License, or GPL, was a unique arrangement that encouraged coders to participate in projects that were guaranteed to remain in the public commons rather than being turned in to proprietary software. Read the original GPL here. Anyone can modify software licensed under the GPL but they must then make those modifications public, preventing anyone from privatizing software in the commons.

Open standards, open source, and free software does not mean they come without cost. To again reference Stallman, think free as in freedom, not free beer.

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with ILSR. He is a leading national expert on community networks, Internet access, and local broadband policies. Christopher built, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. Its interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 600 such networks. He also hosts audio and video shows online, including Community Broadband Bits and Connect This!