Post Open Services

How different would the net be without Firefox?

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

David Flanagan, latest making claim I’ve read many times:

Without Mozilla, there would have been no Firefox, and the internet would be very different today.

Mitchell Baker in only a few more words included a combined mechanism and outcome:

We moved the desktop and browsing environments to a much more open place, with far more options and control available to individuals.

Baker further explained Mozilla aims to make an analogous difference in the computing environment of today and the future:

Today we live in a different online era. This era combines desktop, mobile devices, cloud services, big data and a social layer. It is feature-rich, highly centralized, and focused on a few giant organizations that exert control over almost all aspects of the experience. Today’s computing environment is deeply in need of an open, exciting alternative that shows what the Open Web brings to this setting — something built on parts including Firefox OS, WebGL, asm.js, and the many other innovations being developed at Mozilla. It is comparable to the desktop computing environment we set out to revolutionize when we started Mozilla.

Mozilla needs to bring a similar scope of change to the new computing era. Once again, Mozilla needs to break down the walled gardens of online life and bring openness and opportunity to all. Once again, we have the chance to build products and communities in a way that no one else will.

(Baker’s post announced Brendan Eich as CEO, Flanagan lays out some information following Eich’s resignation. That crisis presumably changed nothing about evaluations of Mozilla’s previous impact, nor its plans for analogous future impact. The crisis just provided an opportunity for many to repeat such evaluations and plans. This post is my idiosyncratic exploitation of the opportunity.)

Those are important claims and plans, and I tend to strongly agree with them. My logic, in brief:

  • there’s a lot of scope for the net (and society at large) to be substantially more or less “open” than it is or might be due to relatively small knowledge policy and knowledge economy changes;
  • there’s a lot of scope for commons-based projects to push the knowledge economy (and largely as an effect, knowledge policy) in the direction of “open”;
  • due to network effects and economies of scale, huge commons-based projects are needed to realize this potential for pushing society in an “open” direction;
  • Mozilla is one of a small number of such huge commons-based projects, and its main products have and will be in positions with lots of leverage.

Independent of my logic (which of course I doubt and welcome criticism of) for agreeing with them, I think claims about Mozilla’s past and potential future impact are important enough to be criticized and refined rather than suffering the unremitting bludgeoning of obscurity or triviality.

How could one begin to evaluate how much and what sort of difference Mozilla, primarily through Firefox, has made? Some things to look at:

  • other free/open source software browser projects;
  • competition among proprietary browsers;
  • differences between Firefox and proprietary browsers in developing and implementing web standards;
  • all aspects of Mozilla performance vs. comparable (Mozilla is different in many respects, but surely amenable to many tools of organizational evaluation and comparison) organizations;
  • 2nd order effects of a superior (for a period, and competitive otherwise) free/open source browser, e.g., viability of free desktop (though never achieving significant market share, must be responsible for huge increases in consumer surplus due through constraint on proprietary pricing and behavior) and inspiration for other open source projects, demonstration of feasibility of commons-based competition in mass market.

It’s possible that such questions are inadequate for characterizing the impact of Mozilla, but surely they would help inform such characterization. If those are the wrong questions, or the wrong sort of questions, what are the right ones? Has anyone, in any field, taken evaluation of Mozilla’s differential impact beyond the Baker quote above? I’d love to read about how the net would have been different without Firefox, and how we might expect the success or failure of new Mozilla initiatives to produce different worlds.

These kinds of questions are also important (or at a minimum, interesting to me) for other commons-based initiatives, e.g., Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Counter-donate in support of marriage equality and other Mozilla-related notes

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

I’m a huge fan of Mozilla and think their work translates directly into more human rights and equality. So like many other people, I find it pretty disturbing that their new CEO, Brendan Eich, donated US$1000 in support of banning same sex marriage. True, this is scrutiny beyond which most organizations’ leaders would receive, and Mozilla in deed seems to have excellent support for LGBT employees, endorsed by Eich, and works to make all welcome in the Mozilla community. But I think Evan Prodromou put it well:

If you lead an organization dedicated to human rights, you need to be a defender of human rights.

Maybe Eich will change his mind. Perhaps he believes an ancient text attributed to an ultra powerful being commands him to oppose same sex marriage. Believers have come around to support all kinds of liberal values and practices in spite of such texts. Perhaps he considers marriage an illegitimate institution and would prefer equality arrive through resetting marriage to civil unions for all, or something more radical. I can comprehend this position, but it isn’t happening this generation, and is no excuse for delaying what equality can be gained now.

Freedom to Marry logoIn the meantime one thing that Mozilla supporters might do to counter Eich’s support for banning same sex marriage, short of demanding he step down (my suspicion is that apart from this he’s the best person for the job; given what the mobile industry is, someone from there would likely be a threat to the Mozilla mission) is to “match” it in kind, with counter-donations to organizations supporting equal rights for LGBT people.

Freedom to Marry seems to be the most directly counter to Eich’s donation, so that’s what I donated to. The Human Rights Campaign is probably the largest organization. There are many more in the U.S. and around the world. Perhaps Eich could counter his own donation with one to an organization working on more basic rights where homosexuality is criminalized (of course once that is taken care of, they’ll demand the right to marry too).

Other Mozilla-related notes that I may otherwise never get around to blogging:

  • Ads in new tabs (“directory tiles”) have the potential to be very good. More resources for Mozilla would be good, “diversification” or not. Mozilla’s pro-user stance ought make their design and sales push advertisers in the direction of signaling trustworthiness, and away from the premature optimization of door-to-door sales. They should hire Don Marti, or at least read his blog. But the announcement of ads in new tabs was needlessly unclear.
  • Persona/BrowserID is brilliant, and with wide adoption would make the web a better place and further the open web. I’m disappointed Mozilla never built it into Firefox, and has stopped paying for development, handing it over to the community. But I still hold out some hope. Mozilla will continue to provide infrastructure indefinitely. Thunderbird seems to have done OK as a community development/Mozilla infrastructure project. And the problem still needs to be solved!
  • Contrary to just about everyone’s opinions it seems, I don’t think Mozilla’s revenue being overwhelmingly from Google is a threat, a paradox, or ironic. The default search setting would be valuable without Google. Just not nearly as valuable, because Google is much better at search and search ads than its nearest competitors. Mozilla has demonstrated with FirefoxOS that they’re willing to compete directly with Google in a hugely valuable market (mobile operating systems, against Android). I have zero inside knowledge, but I’d bet that Mozilla would jump at the chance to compete with Google on search or ads, if they came upon an approach which could reasonably be expected to be superior to Google’s offerings in some significant ways (to repeat, unlike Google’s nearest search and ads competitors today). Of course Mozilla is working on an ads product (first item), leveraging Firefox real estate rather than starting two more enormous projects (search and search ads; FirefoxOS must be enough for now).
  • The world needs a safe systems programming language. There have been and are many efforts, but Mozilla-developed Rust seems to have by far the most promise. Go Rust!
  • Li Gong of Mozilla Taiwan and Mozilla China was announced as Mozilla’s new COO at the same time Eich was made CEO. I don’t think this has been widely noted. My friend Jon Phillips has been telling me for years that Li Gong is the up and coming power. I guess that’s right.

I’m going to continue to use Firefox as my main browser, I’ll probably get a FirefoxOS phone soon, and I hope Mozilla makes billions with ads in new tabs. As I wrote this post Mozilla announced it supports marriage equality as an organization (even if the CEO doesn’t). Still, make your counter-donation.

WWW next 25: Universal, Secure, Resilient?

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Today folks seem to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of a 1989 proposal for what is now the web — implementation released to the public in August, 1991.

Q&A with web inventor Timothy Berners-Lee: 25 years on, the Web still needs work.

The web is pretty great, much better than easily imagined alternatives. Three broad categories it could improve in:

  • Universality. All humans should be able to access the web, and this should be taken to include being able to publish, collaborate, do business, and run software on the web, in any manner, in any language or other interface. Presently, billions aren’t on the net at all, activity outside of a handful of large services is very expensive (in money, expertise, or marketing), and machine translation and accessibility are very limited.
  • Security. All of the above, securely, without having to understand anything technical about security, and with lots of technical and cultural guards against technical and non-technical attacks of all kinds.
  • Resilience. All of the above, with minimal interruption and maximal recovery from disaster, from individual to planetary scale.

Three pet outcomes I wish for:

  • Collective wisdom. The web helps make better decisions, at all scales.
  • Commons dominance. Most top sites are free-as-in-freedom. Presently, only Wikipedia (#5) is.
  • Freedom, equality, etc.

Two quotes from the Berners-Lee Q&A that are on the right track:

Getting a nice user interface to a secure system is the art of the century.

Copyright law is terrible.

Gov[ernance]Lab impressions

Friday, March 7th, 2014

First, two excerpts of my previous posts to explain my rationale for this one. 10 months ago:

I wonder the extent to which reform of any institution, dominant or otherwise, away from capture and enclosure, toward the benefit and participation of all its constituents, might be characterized as commoning?

Whatever the scope of commoning, we don’t know how to do it very well. How to provision and govern resources, even knowledge, without exclusivity and control, can boggle the mind. I suspect there is tremendous room to increase the freedom and equality of all humans through learning-by-doing (and researching) more activities in a commons-orientated way. One might say our lack of knowledge about the commons is a tragedy.

26:

Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

I read about the Governance Lab @ NYU (GovLab) in a forward of a press release:

Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people.

That sounded interesting, perhaps not deceivingly — as I browsed the site, open tabs accumulated. Notes on some of those follow.

GovLab’s hypothesis:

When institutions open themselves to diverse participation and collaborative problem solving, they become more effective and the decisions they make are more legitimate.

I like this coupling of effectiveness and legitimacy. Another way of saying politics isn’t about policy is that governance isn’t about effectiveness, but about legitimizing power. I used to scoff at the concept of legitimacy, and my mind still boggles at arrangements passing as “legitimate” that enable mass murder, torture, and incarceration. But our arrangements are incredibly path dependent and hard to improve; now I try to charitably consider legitimacy a very useful shorthand for arrangements that have some widely understood and accepted level of effectiveness. Somewhat less charitably: at least they’ve survived, and one can do a lot worse than copying survivors. Arrangements based on open and diverse participation and collaborative problem solving are hard to legitimate: not only do they undermine what legitimacy is often really about, it is hard to see how they can work in theory or practice, relative to hierarchical command and control. Explicitly tackling effectiveness and legitimacy separately and together might be more useful than assuming one implies the other, or ignoring one of them. Refutation of the hypothesis would also be useful: many people could refocus on increasing the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchical, closed systems.

If We Only Knew:

What are the essential questions that if answered could help accelerate the transformation of how we solve public problems and provide for public goods?

The list of questions isn’t that impressive, but not bad either. The idea that such a list should be articulated is great. Every project ought maintain such a list of essential questions pertinent to the project’s ends!

Proposal 13 for ICANN: Provide an Adjudication Function by Establishing “Citizen” Juries (emphasis in original):

As one means to enhance accountability – through greater engagement with the global public during decision-making and through increased oversight of ICANN officials after the fact – ICANN could pilot the use of randomly assigned small public groups of individuals to whom staff and volunteer officials would be required to report over a given time period (i.e. “citizen” juries). The Panel proposes citizen juries rather than a court system, namely because these juries are lightweight, highly democratic and require limited bureaucracy. It is not to the exclusion of other proposals for adjudicatory mechanisms.

Anyone interested in random selection and juries has to be at least a little interesting, and on the right track. Or so I’ve thought since hearing about the idea of science courts and whatever my first encounter with sortition advocacy was (forgotten, but see most recent), both long ago.

Quote in a quote:

“The largest factor in predicting group intelligence was the equality of conversational turn-taking.”

What does that say about:

  • Mailing lists and similar fora used by projects and organizations, often dominated by loudmouths (to say nothing of meetings dominated by high-status talkers);
  • Mass media, including social media dominated by power law winners?

Surely it isn’t pretty for the intelligence of relevant groups. But perhaps impetus to actually implement measures often discussed when a forum gets out of control (e.g., volume or flamewars) such as automated throttling, among many other things. On the bright side, there could be lots of low hanging fruit. On the dim side, I’m surely making extrapolations (second bullet especially) unsupported by research I haven’t read!

Coordinating the Commons: Diversity & Dynamics in Open Collaborations, excerpt from a dissertation:

Learning from Wikipedia’s successes and failures can help researchers and designers understand how to support open collaborations in other domains — such as Free/Libre Open Source Software, Citizen Science, and Citizen Journalism. [...] To inquire further, I have designed a new editor peer support space, the Wikipedia Teahouse, based on the findings from my empirical studies. The Teahouse is a volunteer-driven project that provides a welcoming and engaging environment in which new editors can learn how to be productive members of the Wikipedia community, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of newcomers who go on to make substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

Interesting for a few reasons:

  • I like the title, cf. commons coordination (though I was primarily thinking of inter-project/movement coordination);
  • OpenHatchy;
  • I like the further inquiry’s usefulness for research and the researched community;
  • Improving the effectiveness of mass collaboration is important, including for its policy effects.

Back to the press release:

Support for the Network from Google.org will be used to build technology platforms to solve problems more openly and to run agile, real-world, empirical experiments with institutional partners such as governments and NGOs to discover what can enhance collaboration and decision-making in the public interest.

I hope those technology platforms will be open to audit and improvement by the public, i.e., free/open source software. GovLab’s site being under an open license (CC-BY-SA) could be a small positive indicator (perhaps not rising to the level of an essential question for anyone, but I do wonder how release and use of “content” or “data” under an open license correlates with release and use of open source software, if there’s causality in either direction, and if there could be interventions that would usefully reinforce any such).

I’m glad that NGOs are a target. Seems it ought be easier to adopt and spread governance innovation among NGOs (and businesses) than among governments, if only because there’s more turnover. But I’m not impressed. I imagine this could be due, among other things, to my ignorance: perhaps over a reasonable time period non-state governance has improved more rapidly than state governance, or to non-state governance being even less about effectiveness and more about power than is state governance, or to governance being really unimportant for survival, thus a random walk.

Something related I’ll never get around to blogging separately: the 2 year old New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (summary), concerning the danger of allowing term to denote a government that publishes data, even merely politically insensitive data around service provision, rather than politically sensitive transparency and ability to demand accountability. I agree about the danger. The authors recommend maintaining distinctions between accountability, service provision, and adaptability of data. I find these distinctions aren’t often made explicit, and perhaps they shouldn’t be: it’d be a pain. But on the activist side, I think most really are pushing for politically sensitive transparency (and some focused on data about service provision might fairly argue such is often deeply political); certainly none want open data to be a means of openwashing. For one data point, I recommend the Oakland chapter of Beyond Transparency. Finally, Stop Secret Contracts seems like a new campaign entirely oriented toward politically sensitive transparency and accountability rather than data release. I hope they get beyond petitions, but I signed.

Unlock federated MediaGoblin hosting revolution game

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

About 16 months after raising $42k to feed the programmers (my post about that campaign), the MediaGoblin team is asking again, with promised features dependent on the total amount raised.

I’m pretty excited about three features. First, at $35k:

Federation: Connect and share with friends and family even if you’re on different MediaGoblin sites! We’ll be adding federation support via the Pump API.

Mostly because this would be a boost to the so far disappointing and fractured federated social web.

Second:

[UNLOCK] Premium hosting reward! If we hit 60k, we’ll add a new reward option: premium hosting!

Doesn’t federation make hosting superfluous? Everyone should run their own server, right? No, those are extremely delusional or elitist claims. I don’t want to run my own server, nor do 7 billion others. Federation (preferably in conjunction with free software, data and identifier portability) enables interoperation and competition among individual-, community-, and commercially-run services. At this stage there seem to be very significant economies of scale (inclusive of marketing!) in running servers. Hopefully someone (the developers would be natural) will realize the necessity of mass hosting of federated services for federation to win.

Third:

[statement] After watching the new MediaGoblin video, i want to play their video game.

[response] I’ve joked about putting a goblin video game as a 500k feature unlock

Here I just wanted to point out how much of MediaGoblin lead developer Christopher Webber’s personality and vision is in the campaign video, assets, and overall scheme. That vision goes pretty far beyond federated media hosting. Free games and art are part of it. But a MediaGoblin game would be a great marketing tie-in solely for the goal of promoting MediaGoblin. I hope this happens; $500k this campaign would be great, but under other circumstances if not.

Defensive Patent License 1.0 birthday

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Defensive Patent License version 1.0 turned 0 yesterday. The Internet Archive held a small celebration. The FAQ says the license may be used now:

Sign up and start using the DPL by emailing defensivepatent@gmail.com.

There will be a launch conference 2014-02-2811-07 in Berkeley: gratis registration. By that time I gather there should be a list of launch DPL users, a website for registering and tracking DPL users, and a non-profit organization to steward the license, for which the Internet Archive will serve as a 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor.

Loosely organized thoughts follow. But in short:

  • DPL users grant a royalty free license (except for the purpose of cloning products) for their entire patent portfolio, to all other DPL users. This grant is irrevocable, unless the licensee (another DPL user) withdraws from the DPL or initiates patent litigation against any DPL user — but note that the withdrawing or aggressing entity’s grant of patents to date to all other DPL users remains in force forever.
  • Participation is on an entity basis, i.e., a DPL user is an organization or individual. All patents held or gained while a DPL user are included. But the irrevocable license to other DPL users then travels with individual patents, even when transferred to a non-DPL user entity.
  • An entity doesn’t need any patents to become a DPL user.
  • DPL doesn’t replace or conflict with patent peace provisions in modern free/open source licenses (e.g., Apache2, GPLv3, MPL2); it’s a different, complementary approach.
  • It may take years for the pool of DPL users’ patents to be significant enough to gain strong network effects and become a no-brainer for businesses in some industries to join. It may never. But it seems possible, and well worth trying.
  • Immediately, DPL seems like something for organizations that want to make a strong commitment, but a narrow one (only to others making the commitment), to patent non-aggression, ought to get on board with. Entities that want to make a broader commitment, including those that have already made complementary commitments through free/open source licenses or non-aggression pledges for certain uses (e.g., implementing a standard), should also get on board.

History

Last year I’d read Protecting Open Innovation: The Defensive Patent License as a New Approach to Patent Threats, Transaction Costs, and Tactical Disarmament (by Jennifer Urban and Jason Schultz, also main authors of the DPL 1.0) with interest and skepticism, and sent some small comments to the authors. The DPL 1.0, available for use now, incorporates some changes suggested in A Response to a Proposal for a Defensive Patent License (DPL) (and probably elsewhere; quite a few people worked on the license). Both papers are pretty good reads for understanding the idea and some of the choices made in DPL 1.0.

Two new things I learned yesterday are that the DPL was Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s idea, and work on the license started in 2009. Kahle had been disturbed that patents with his name on them that he had been told were obtained for defensive purposes while an engineer at Thinking Machines, were later used offensively by an entity that had acquired the patents. This made him wonder if there could be a way for an entity to commit to using patents only defensively. Kahle acknowledged that others have had similar ideas, but the DPL is now born, and it just may be the idea that works.

(No specific previous ideas were mentioned, but a recent one that comes to mind is Paul Graham’s 2011 suggestion of a pledge to not initiate patent litigation against organizations with fewer that 25 employees. Intentionally imprecise, not legally binding, and offering no benefit other than appearing on a web page, probably not surprising it didn’t take off. Another is Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement (2012), in which a company promises an employee to seek their permission for any non-defensive uses of patents in the employee’s name; unclear uptake. Additional concepts are covered at End Soft Patents.)

Kahle, Urban, and Schultz acknowledged inspiration from the private ordering/carving out of free spaces (for what Urban and Schulz call “open innovation communities” to practice) through public licenses such as the GPL and various Creative Commons licenses. But the DPL is rather different in a few big ways (and details which fall out of these):

  1. Subject of grant: patent vs. copyright
  2. Scope of grant: all subject rights controlled by an entity vs individual things (patents or works subject to copyright)
  3. Offered to: club participants vs. general public

I guess there will be a tendency to assume the second and third follow strictly from the first. I’m not so sure — I can imagine free/open source software and/or free culture/open content/data worlds which took the entity and club paths (still occasionally suggested) — and I think the assumption would under-appreciate the creativity of the DPL.

DPL and free/open source software

The DPL is not replacement for patent clauses in free/open source licenses, which are conditions of public copyright licenses with different subject, scope, and audience (see previous). Additionally, the DPL’s non-grant for cloning products, which I do not understand the scope of, probably further reduces any overlap between modern FLOSS license patent provisions and the DPL that may exist. But, I see no conflict, and some complementarity.

A curiosity would be DPL users releasing software under free software licenses without patent provisions, or even with explicit patent non-grants, like CC0. A complementary curiosity would be free/source projects which only accept contributions from DPL users. Yet another would be a new software license only granting copyright permissions to DPL users (this would almost certainly not be considered free/open source), or releasing DPL users from some license conditions (this could be done as an exception to an existing license).

The DPL isn’t going to directly solve any patent problems faced by free/open source software (e.g., encumbered ‘standards’) any time soon. But, to the extent the DPL decreases the private value (expected rents) of patents and encourages more entities to not see patents as useful for collecting rents, this ought push the problems faced away, just a bit. Even if software patents were to evaporate tomorrow (as they should!), users of free/open source software would encounter patents impacted all sorts of devices running said software; patents would still be a problem for software freedom.

I hope that many free/open source software entities become DPL users, for the possible slowly accruing benefits above, but also to make common cause with others fighting for (or reforming slightly towards) intellectual freedom. Participation in broader discourse by free/open source software entities is a must, for the health of free software, and the health of free societies.

End Soft Patents’ entry on the DPL will probably be a good place to check years hence on how the DPL is viewed from the perspective of free/open source software.

DPL “enforcement”

In one sense, the DPL requires no enforcement — it is a grant of permission, which one either takes or not by also becoming a DPL user. But, although it contains provisions to limit obvious gaming, if it becomes significant, doubtless some entities will try to push its boundaries, perhaps by obfuscating patent ownership, or interpreting “cloning” expansively. Or, the ability to leave with 180 days notice could prove to be a gaping hole, with entities taking advantage of the pool until they are ready to file a bunch of patents. Or, the lack of immediate termination of licenses from all DPL users and the costliness of litigation may mean the DPL pool does little to restrain DPL users from leaving, or worse, initiating litigation (or threatening to do so, or some other extortion) against other DPL users.

Perhaps the DPL Foundation with a public database of DPL users will play a strong coordinating function, facilitating uncovering obfuscated ownership, disseminating notice of bad behavior, and revocation of licenses to litigators and leavers.

DPL copyleft?

In any discussion of X remotely similar to free/open source software, the question of “what is copyleft for X?” comes up — and one of the birthday presenters mentioned that the name DPL is a hat tip to the GPL — is the DPL “copyleft for patents”?

It does have reciprocality — only DPL users get DPL grants from other DPL users. I will be surprised if at some point someone doesn’t pejoratively say the DPL is “viral” — because the license to DPL users stays with patents even if they are transferred to a non-DPL user entity. A hereditary effect more directly analogous to the GPL might involve a grant conditioned on an licensee’s other patents which read on the licensed patent being similarly licensed, but this seems ineffective at first blush (and has been thought of and discarded innumerable times).

The DPL doesn’t have a regulatory side. Forced revelation, directly analogous to the GPL’s primary regulatory side, would be the obvious thing to investigate for a DPL flavor, but the most naive requirement (entity must reveal all patentable inventions in order to remain a DPL user in good standing) would be nearly impossible to comply with, or enforce. It may be more feasible to require revelation of designs and documentation for products or services (presumably source code, for software) that read on any patents in the DPL pool. This would constitute a huge compliance and enforcement challenge, and probably very difficult to bootstrap a significant pool, but would be an extremely interesting regulatory experiment if it gained any traction.

DPL “Troll-proof”?

The slogan must be taken with a mountain of salt. Still, the DPL, if widely adopted, would mitigate the troll problem. Because grants to DPL users are irrevocable, and follow a patent upon changes of ownership, any patent with a grant to DPL users will be less valuable for a troll to acquire, because there are fewer entities for the troll to sue. To the extent DPL adoption reduces patenting in an industry, or overall, there will be less ammunition available for trolls to buy and use to hold anyone up. In the extreme of success, all practicing entities become DPL users. Over a couple decades, the swamp is drained.

Patents are still bad

The only worrisome thing I heard yesterday (and I may have missed some nuance) was the idea that it is unfortunate that many engineers, and participants in open innovation communities in particular, see patents as unethical, and that as free/open source software people learned to use public copyright licenses (software was not subject to copyright until 30-40 years ago), they and others should learn to use appropriate patent tools, i.e., the DPL.

First, the engagement of what has become free/open source software, open access, open data, etc., with copyright tools, has not gone swimmingly. Yes, much success is apparent, but compared to what? The costs beg to be analyzed: isolation, conservatism, internal fighting, gaming of tools used, disengagement from policy and boundary-pushing, reduction (and stunting) of ethics to license choice. My ideal, as hinted above, would be for engagement with the DPL to help open innovation communities escape this trap, rather than adding to its weight.

Second, in part because extreme “drain the swamp” level of success is almost certainly not going to be achieved, abolition (of software patents) is the only solution. And beyond software, the whole system should be axed. Of course this means not merely defending innovators, including open innovation communities, from some expense and litigation, but moving freedom and equality to the top of our innovation policy ordering.

DPL open infrastructure?

I hope, in part to make the DPL attractive to existing open innovation communities, I really hope the DPL Foundation will make everything it does free and open with traditional public copyright and publishing tools;

  • Open content: the website and all documentation ought be licensed under CC0 (though CC-BY or CC-BY-SA would be acceptable).
  • Open source/open service: source code of the eventual website, including applications for tracking DPL users, should be developed in a public repository, and licensed under either Apache2 or AGPLv3 (latter if the Foundation wishes to force those using the software elsewhere to reveal their modifications).
  • Open data: all data concerning DPL users, licensed patents, etc., should be machine-readable, downloadable in bulk, and released under CC0.

DPL readability

I found the DPL surprisingly brief and readable. My naive guess, given a description of how it works, would have been something far longer and more inscrutable. But the DPL actually compares to public licenses very favorably on automated readability metrics. Table below shows these for DPL 1.0 and some well known public copyright licenses (lower numbers indicate better readability, except in the case of Flesch; Chars/(Flesch>=1) is my gross metric for how painful it is to read a document; see license automated readability metrics for an explanation):

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8ffe2c5c25b85e52f42fcde68c2cf6a88b7abd69 Apache-2.0 8310 16.8 19.8 15.1 20.7 64.6 16.6 33.6 247
20dc61b94cfe1f4ba5814b340095b4c3fa23e801 CC-BY-3.0 14956 16.1 19.4 14.1 20.4 66.1 16.2 40.0 373
bbf850220781d9423be9e478fbc07098bfd2b5ad DPL-1.0 8256 15.1 18.9 15.7 18.4 65.9 15.0 40.6 203
0473f7b5cf37740d7170f29232a0bd088d0b16f0 GPL-2.0 13664 13.3 16.2 12.5 16.2 57.0 12.7 52.9 258
d4ec7d0b46077b89870c66cb829457041cd03e8d GPL-3.0 27588 13.7 16.0 13.3 16.8 57.5 13.8 47.2 584
78fe0ed5d283fd1df26be9b4afe8a82124624180 MPL-2.0 11766 14.7 16.9 14.5 17.9 60.5 14.9 40.1 293

Automated readability metrics are probably at best an indicator for license drafters, but offer no guidance on actually improving readability. Last month Luis Villa (incidentally, on the DPL’s advisory board) reviewed a manual of style for contract drafting by editing Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement per the manual’s advice. I enjoyed Villa’s post, but have not attempted to discern (and discernment may be beyond my capability) how closely DPL 1.0 follows the manual’s advice. By the way, Villa’s edit of the IPA per the manual did improve its automated readability metrics:

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8774cfcefbc3b008188efc141256b0a8dbe89296 IPA 4778 19.6 24.0 15.5 22.7 75.8 17.0 27.1 176
b7a39883743c7b1738aca355c217d1d14c511de6 IPA-MSCD 4665 17.4 21.2 15.6 20.4 70.2 16.0 32.8 142

Net

Go back to the top, read the DPL, get your and other entities in the queue to be DPL users at its launch! Or, explain to me why this is a bad idea.

“I would love it if all patents evaporated” (WebRTC)

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I’ve been following WebRTC (Real Time Communications) because (1) it is probably the most significant addition to the web in terms of enabling a new class of applications at least since the introduction of Ajax (1998, standardized by 2006), and perhaps since the introduction of Javascript (1995, standardized by 1997). The IETF working group charter puts it well (another part of the work is at W3C):

There are a number of proprietary implementations that provide direct interactive rich communication using audio, video, collaboration, games, etc. between two peers’ web-browsers. These are not interoperable, as they require non-standard extensions or plugins to work. There is a desire to standardize the basis for such communication so that interoperable communication can be established between any compatible browsers. The goal is to enable innovation on top of a set of basic components. One core component is to enable real-time media like audio and video, a second is to enable data transfer directly between clients.

(See pad.textb.org (source) for one simple application; simpleWebRTC seems to be a popular library for building WebRTC applications.)

And (2) because WebRTC is the scene of the latest fight to protect open web standards from rent seekers.

The IETF working group is choosing between H.264 Constrained Baseline Profile Level 1.2 and VP8 as the Mandatory To Implement (MTI) video codec (meaning all applications can count on that codec being available) for WebRTC. H.264 cannot be included in free and open source software, VP8 can, due to their respective patent situations. (For audio-only WebRTC applications, the free Opus codec seems to be a non-controversial requirement.)

Cisco has recently promised that in 2014 they will make available a binary implementation of H.264 for which they will pay license fees for all comers (there is an annual cap on fees, allowing them to do this). That’s nice of them, but the offer is far from ideal for any software (a binary must be downloaded from Cisco servers for each user), and a nonstarter for applications without some kind of plugin system, and for free and open source software distributions, which must be able to modify source code.

Last week I remotely attended a meeting on the MTI video codec choice. No consensus was reached; discussion continues on the mailing list. One interesting thing about the non-consensus was the split between physical attendees (50% for H.264 and 30% for VP8) and remote attendees (20% for H.264, 80% for VP8). A point mentioned several times was the interest of “big players” (mostly fine with paying H.264 fees, and are using it in various other products) and “little players” (fees are significant, eg startups, or impossible, eg free and open source projects); depending on one’s perspective, the difference shows how venue biases participation in one or both directions.

Jonathan Rosenberg, the main presenter for H.264, at about 22 minutes into a recording segment:

I would love it if all patents evaporated, if all the stuff was open source in ways that we could use, and we didn’t have to deal with any of this mess.

The argument for why H.264 is the best choice for dealing with “this mess” boils down to H.264 having a longer history and broader adoption than VP8 (in other applications; the two implementation of WebRTC so far, in recent versions of Chrome and Firefox, so far exclusively use VP8).

Harald Alvestrand, the main presenter for VP8, at about 48 minutes into another recording segment:

Development of codecs has been massively hampered and held back by the fact that it has been done in a fashion that has served to maximize the patent encumbrances on codecs. Sooner or later, we should see a way forward to abandon the dependence on encumbered codecs also for video software. My question, at this juncture, is if not now, when?

Unsurprisingly, I find this (along with the unworkability of H.264 for free and open source software) a much more compelling argument. The first step toward making patents evaporate (or at least irrelevant for digital video) is to select a codec which has been developed to maximize freedom, rather than developed to maximize encumbrances and rent collection.

What are individuals and entities pushing H.264 as the best codec for now, given the mess, doing for the longer term? Are they working on H.265, in order to bake in rents for the next generation? Or are they contributing to VP9, the next-next generation Daala, and the elimination of software patents?

Addendum: Version of this post sent to rtcweb@ietf.org (and any followups).

The real Open Source _ proliferation problem

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The Open Source Initiative, best known for keeping a list of licenses compliant with its Open Source Definition, has hired its first-ever full time paid staffer, Patrick Masson as General Manager.

Masson’s blog has lots of good entries (if you just want to be amused, try a 10 year press release diff). One thing he bemoans repeatedly and pithily (It’s “many eyeballs…” not “many projects…”) is too much fragmentation and too little collaboration among open source projects. His most recent post, Joiners, Not Starters:

What’s painful is that there are already over 350 open source communities developing learning management systems. I find it frustrating and hypocritical to hear, “This is a great time to get involved for people who are interested in helping to shape this project…” from people who chose not to get involved–rather, choosing to do something on their own. Why is it a great time to join the Adapt project over any other existing effort looking to build community for support, contribution and collaboration? Why didn’t the folks who are developing Adapt take advantage of this great time in open source development and join an existing initiative? Indeed, couldn’t every current open source project (substituting out Adapt for their own name) use the above announcement to generate awareness and adoption of their own project?

Sounds just like the first question/advice for anyone looking to start a new organization. Economies of scale are hard to beat. But fragmentation is much worse for software, so much of its value coming from network effects. When lots of people, preferably most of the relevant population, are using a software application, it’s easy to find training, advice, employees, commercial support, and preinstalls of that software. It is easy to figure out which software is pertinent. Massively valuable stuff. Oh, and more people contributing to making the software better, if it is open source.

When there are lots of open source alternatives for a particular kind of software, and this contributes to none of them being dominant, the ability of open source to compete with proprietary vendors and deliver freedom to users and society, is severely hampered. More or less killed. (The inverse can also be true, but probably with many fewer instances.) The Linux desktop is probably an example. Further, public policy is negatively impacted: fragmented projects serve at best as existence proofs, dominant open projects powerfully shape the policy conversation, and the policy ecosystem — by wiping out the capitalization of entities aligned with rent seeking.

People who know the open source world well like to worry about about “license proliferation” (which the OSI’s license list mentioned at the beginning serves to throttle) and related, license incompatibility. I do too, including in and across nearby spaces, to the extent I think it is a minor tragedy that licenses first developed for software didn’t also come to dominate culture, data, hardware, etc, yet. But I’m pretty sure the open world could cope with each project adapting or developing a license just for its own use, though it would be hugely annoying. Fortunately, progress has often been in the right direction.

Project/program proliferation and related dwarfish network effects and collaboration are much, much bigger problems. There are cases where a dominant program has arisen from a highly fragmented field (eg WordPress among a mess of open source blog engines, Django among lots of Python web framework, git among a smaller number of distributed version control systems), but I’m not sure this has ever come about because people agitated against proliferation. There are standards-like collaborations among projects, such as freedesktop.org, which can result in more sharing of code and collaboration among projects, but I’m not sure do much to enable mass adoption and network effects. What more can be done, given that of course it will always be acceptable, often educational, and very occasionally wildly successful to work on Yet Another Foo?

  • The low-hanging fruit is to help projects become easier for new contributors to get involved in, and friendly for staying involved in. Decrease the cost of contributing to existing projects, more will choose to do that rather than start, or leave to start, new projects.
  • I don’t have much insight into the politically charged process of picking winners and merging efforts. Distributions (which are themselves terribly fragmented) probably already do a lot. Could they do more? Could institutions broker mergers? Could OSI? Stun all by bringing LibreOffice and OpenOffice together. GNOME, KDE, and Unity as well. How about federated social web efforts?
  • Marketing, promotion, sales. These are what any large proprietary software company does (same outside software, for publishing, etc.), and what open source projects need a lot more of, both to compete directly with proprietary industry, and to help winners with huge network effects emerge.

Each of these points also apply very strongly to non-software projects.

Another thing Masson repeatedly bemoans on his blog, and that I very much agree with, is the lack of “open” advocates eating their own dogfood — using open things other than the one they’re promoting, or open things from fields other than the one they’re supposedly opening:

However with so little folks actually interested in openness, but rather promoting their open product, we just don’t see the level of adoption we should with all open initiatives. Basically, if I can be blunt, you’re a hypocrite if you get up in front of your peers to proclaim the superiority of your project because it embraces open principles and practices, arguing it is those principles and practices that yield better products, but you yourself have not adopted other open resources. “Hold on, let me open up PowerPoint to tell you about how bad commercial software is.”

This not only harms network effects (or rather, has “open” advocates contributing to the network effects of proprietary software, culture, etc), but reduces knowledge transfer across open projects and fields. Masson seems to come from the education technology world; if that is anything like the open education[al resources] world, I suspect he’s speaking from painful experience.

Congratulations to OSI and Masson. I look froward to amazing progress on the above problems and many others! You can support their work by joining OSI as an individual member. Of course I also recommend joining the Free Software Foundation as an individual member. Because open source means freedom.

“We’ve found that lots of messages from googlegroups.com are spam”

Monday, September 16th, 2013

gmail screenshot with googlegroups.com are spam explanation

Take this as an indication that running a large mailing list hosting service, and keeping it relatively free of spam, is very hard. Google Groups is unlikely to be shut down anytime soon, but maybe all messages and groups will be migrated to Google+ posts and communities, respectively. Lots of people would hate that, but Google controls the identifiers (this is probably most immediately pertinent), transitioning ownership or stewardship of services is hard, and the software isn’t free (but, at least non-software copyright may not be much of a practical obstacle; has anyone ever been threatened or actually prevented from mirroring mailing list archives?). The world would move on.

Two other amusing but less indicative of anything about the service screenshots of Gmail, from 2009.

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If you want FLOSS alternatives to GMail and Google Groups, commercial ones include MyKolab and OnlineGroups respectively. Both are expensive; a post explaining why MyKolab is. If you’re politically aligned, Riseup provides mail and lists (their NSA statement; I’m surprised I haven’t seen the string alternastructure until now). Mailman 3⸮ And if you want everything to move to social-networky-but-free platforms, not much has changed since 3 months ago.

Googbye Adalytics

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

I featured a 468×60 Google AdSense block in the footer of this blog since 2004-08-30, and included Google Analytics javascript since 2006-12-29. I failed to note adding either.

I’m behind on my 8 year blog refutation schedule, will probably do a six middle months post rather than Q2 and Q3 separately; see Q1. In the meantime, I’ll note removing AdSense and Analytics now.

I added AdSense as a small way of getting to know a hugely significant part of the net a little better through direct experience. My revenue expectations were met over the years — trivial, due to trivial traffic and relatively innocuous placement. Viewing my blog with a browser sans adblock and with flash for the first time in perhaps years just now prompted the removal and this post, which I had planned to do in the fullness of time — the innocuous placement was still ugly, and with flash enabled all of the ads are graphical and many animated. Clearly I have learned all I am capable of learning via this experiment, which I am glad I did. If I ever have something characterized as third party ads here again, it’ll be via some very different mechanism.

I more dimly recall adding Analytics because I never looked at log analysis generated reports, and maybe if I looked I would find something to optimize. I seldom looked at Analytics, and never discerned anything. If I really feel the urge to look again, I’ll use a log analysis program, and if I want an Analytics-like interface, use Piwik. I realize for some analysis, and especially some experiments, in-page javascript can be very helpful. If I ever really want to do that, Piwik can.

Relatedly, I’ve meant to recommend Don Marti’s blog for a long time, when I got around to saying and doing more about net advertising, but don’t wait for me.