Post Open Source

Call for mini-essays on “the cost of freedom” in free knowledge movements in honor of Bassel Khartabil

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Dear friends,

I’m helping organize a book titled “The Cost of Freedom” in honor of Bassel Khartabil, a contributor to numerous free/open knowledge projects worldwide and in Syria, where he’s been a political prisoner since 2012, missing and in grave danger since October 3. You can read about Bassel at and lots more at and

Much of the book is going to be created at a face-to-face Book Sprint in Marseille Nov 2-6; some info about that and the theme/title generally at

We’re also asking people like yourself who have been fighting in the trenches of various free knowledge movements (culture, software, science, etc.) to contribute brief essays for inclusion in the book. One form an essay might take is a paragraph on each of:

* An issue you’ve faced that was challenging to you in your free knowledge work, through the lens on “cost”; perhaps a career or time opportunity cost, or the cost of dealing with unwelcoming or worse participants, or the cost of “peeling off layer upon layer the proprietary way of life” as put in
* How you addressed this challenge, or perhaps have yet to do so completely
* Advice to someone starting out in free knowledge; perhaps along the lines of had you understood the costs, what would you have done differently

But feel free to be maximally creative within the theme. We don’t have a minimum or a maximum required length for contributed essays, but especially do not be shy about concision or form. If all we get is haiku that might be a problem, or there might be a message in that of some sort.

Other details: The book will be PUBLISHED on Nov 6. We need your contribution no later than the end of Nov 3 UTCThursday, Nov 5 at 11:00 UTC (Paris: noon; New York: 6AM; Tokyo: 9PM) to be included. The book will be released under CC0; giving up the “right” to sue anyone for any use whatsoever of your contribution is a cost of entry…or one of those proprietary layers to be peeled back. Send contributions to

Feel free to share this with other people who you know have something to say on this topic. We’re especially looking for voices underrepresented in free knowledge movements.


p.s. Please spread the word about #freebassel even if you can’t contribute to the book!

AcaWiki non-summary

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Six years ago I helped launch AcaWiki, a site based on Semantic MediaWiki (software for which I had very high expectations, mostly transferred to Wikidata) for summarizing academic research.

A substantial community failed to materialize. I’ve probably been the only semi-consistent contributor over its entire six years. The best contributions have come from Jodi Schneider, who summarized a bunch of papers related to her research on the semantic web and online discourse, Benjamin Mako Hill, who summarized his PhD qualification exam readings, and Nate Matias who did the same and added a bunch of summaries related to online harassment. Students of an archaeology course taught by Ben Marwick summarized many papers as part of the class. Thank you Jodi, Mako, Nate, Ben, and a bunch of people who have each contributed one or a few summaries.

I’m not going to try to enumerate the deficiencies of AcaWiki here. They boil down to lack of time dedicated to outreach and to improving the site, and zero effort to raise funds to support such work, following a small startup grant obtained by AcaWiki’s founder Neeru Paharia, who has since been busy earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. With Neeru I’ve been the organization’s other long-term director so bear responsibility for this lack of effort. In retrospect dedicating more time to AcaWiki these last years at a cost to non-collaborative activity (e.g., this blog) would have been wise. I haven’t moved to take the other obvious course of shutting down the site, because I still believe something like it is badly needed, not least by me, as I wrote in 2009:

This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).

More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.

This has held true even given AcaWiki’s tiny size to date: I regularly look back at summaries I’ve written to remember what I’ve read, and wish I summarized much more of what I’ve read, because most of it I’ve almost totally forgotten! I recommend summarizing papers even though it is hard.

Much harder still and more valuable are literature reviews. These were envisioned to be a part of AcaWiki, but I now think that every Wikipedia article should effectively be a literature review (and more). A year ago I blogged about an example of Wikipedia article as literature review led by James Heilman. Earlier this year Heilman wrote a call to action around a genre of literature review, Open Access to a High-Quality, Impartial, Point-of-Care Medical Summary Would Save Lives: Why Does It Not Exist? (which of course I summarized on AcaWiki). I have a partially written commentary on this piece but for now I can only urge you to read Heilman, or start with and improve my summary.

This brings me to one of my excuses for not dedicating more time to AcaWiki: hope that it would be superseded by a project directly under the Wikimedia umbrella, benefiting from that organization’s and movement’s scale. But, I’ve done almost nothing to make this happen, either. I imagine the current effort that could lead in that direction is WikiProject Open Signalling OA-ness, as I’ve noted at the top of a page on AcaWiki listing similar projects. By far the best project on the list is Journalist’s Resource, also launched in 2009, with vastly greater resources. The projects listed so far as “similar” must only the tip of an iceberg of efforts to summarize academic research, for it’s widely recognized (yes, citation needed; I just created a placeholder on AcaWiki for gathering these) that summarization in various forms is valuable and much more is needed.

If this hasn’t been enough of a ramble already, I’ll close with miscellaneous notes about and unsorted to-dos AcaWiki:

  • Very brief summaries, perhaps 140 character or not much longer, would be useful complements to longer summaries. It would be easy to add a short summary field to AcaWiki.
  • For summaries of articles which are themselves freely licensed, it might be useful to include the author’s abstract in AcaWiki. Again, it would be easy to add a field.
  • There’s lots of research on automated summarization, some of it producing open source tools. These could be applied to initialize summaries, either for human summaries, or en masse bot summary creation.
  • I have added a field for an article’s Wikidata identifier. AcaWiki is one of a handful of sites potentially using Wikidata for authority control. There will be many more. But it’d be far more useful to do something with that identifier, most obviously to ingest article metadata from Wikidata and create Wikidata items/push metadata to Wikidata where items corresponding to summarized articles do not exist. I’ve not yet seriously looked into how much of this can be currently accomplished using Wikibase Client.
  • Last month there was debate about a program giving some Wikipedia contributors gratis access to closed academic journals. Does this program help improve Wikipedia as a free resource, or promote non-free literature? It must do some of both; which is the bigger impact on long-term free knowledge outcomes probably depends on one’s perspective. My bias is that improving and promoting free resources is vastly more important than suppressing non-free ones. But I also think that free academic summaries could help in both respects. For Wikipedia readers, a reference with an immediately available summary would be more useful than one without. The summary would also reduce the need to access the original non-free article. AcaWiki in its current state is inadequate, but perhaps the the debate ought motivate more work on free academic summaries, here or elsewhere.
  • Has any closed access publisher freed only article abstracts (including a free license; abstracts are almost always gratis access)? This would be useful to a site like AcaWiki at the least, especially if abstracts were more consistently useful.
  • Should the scope of AcaWiki be explicitly expanded to include summarizing material that is somehow academic but is not in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in an academic journal? Some of the summaries I’ve contributed are for books or grey literature.
  • Periodically it’s been suggested to change the default license for AcaWiki summaries from CC-BY to CC-BY-SA. I should add updated thoughts at the link.
  • Some time ago in order to put a stop to the creation of spam accounts, I enabled the ConfirmAccount extension, which forces users who want to contribute to fill out an account request form. I admit this is hugely annoying. I have done zero research into it, but I would love to have an extension which auto-enables account creation based on some external authentication and reputation, e.g., Wikimedia wiki accounts or even users followed/subscribed to/endorsed by existing AcaWiki users on other sites, e.g., social networks.
  • Upgrade site to https when Let’s Encrypt becomes generally available. Alternatively, see if it is possible to move hosting (currently a $10/month Digital Ocean VPS) to Miraheze, which mandates https.
  • I intended to write an update on AcaWiki for Open Access Week (October 19-25). I only realized after beginning that AcaWiki was recently 6 years old.
  • I’m going to ping the people who have contributed to AcaWiki so far to look at this post and provide feedback. What would it take for them to feel good about recommending others do what they’ve done, e.g., summarizing PhD or research program readers, or assigning contributing or improving AcaWiki summaries to their classes? Or if something else entirely should be done to push forward free summarization of academic literature, what is that something?
  • For some time Fabricatorz did a bit of work on and hosted AcaWiki. From my email correspondence I see that Bassel Khartabil did some of that. As I’ve blogged before (1, 2, 3), Bassel has been detained by the Syrian government since 2012. Recently he has gone missing and presumably is in grave danger. Props to his Frabricatorz and many other friends who have done more to raise awareness of Bassel’s plight than I would have imagined possible when writing those previous posts. See for info and links, and spread the word. I’ll add a note about #freebassel to the AcaWiki home page (which badly needs a general revamp) shortly.

If any of this interests you, get in touch or merely watch for updates on the acawiki-general mailing list, AcaWiki on, Twitter, or Facebook, or blog comments below, or the AcaWiki site.

Democratizing Wikimedia Innovation

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Through the end of this month the Wikimedia community is electing 3 members of the Wikimedia Foundation board. You qualify to vote if you’ve made at least 300 edits before April 15 and 20 between October 15 and April 15 to any Wikimedia project.

If you don’t quality to vote, it won’t be hard to do so for next time if you get started now: Log in or create an account and be bold when you see a typo, incorrect or missing information in a Wikipedia article. Familiarize yourself with Wikipedia’s sibling projects; edits to any of them count. Play the Wikidata Game. I heartily recommend doing these things as a matter of learning and sharing knowledge regardless of desire to vote in Wikimedia elections or lower threshold and more fun votes such as for the Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Year. The current election is just an excuse for inserting this Public Service Announcement. ;-)

If you do qualify to vote, please do. I voted for Denny Vrandečić and give him the strongest possible endorsement. I also voted for and endorse James Heilman.

The election uses approval/disapproval ratio to determine winners, so disapproval votes are powerful. I made a few but don’t want to publish because frankly all of the candidates are excellent and extremely qualified for a Wikimedia Foundation community board seat.

community-centered theory of changeThe central issue in this election is evident in the Candidate statements, discussion, structured Q&A (1, 2, 3, 4), in a series of blog posts by Pete Forsyth (who was briefly a candidate but stepped aside), and outside the context of the current election, in blog posts by Lane Raspberry and Nimish Gautam., and the one message I’ve sent on the issue, which the first paragraph of Vrandečić’s candidate statement sums up:

Wikimedia is a modern wonder – and yet, it must change: most of our projects, as they are today, cannot truly succeed. To achieve our mission, we must increase the effectivity of every single contributor. At the same time, the communities are often seen as change resistant – but falsely so: they do welcome change, done right, as I have shown with Wikidata.

Along these lines, I especially commend Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s answers to the following Q&A topics: Use of Superprotect and respect for community consensus, Retaining current volunteers versus recruiting new ones, Improving content, and Diversity and scope.

It’s commonplace for central organizations (of which I am a fan) to neglect or denigrate communities they serve, whether the relationship is one of collaboration, constituency, or consumption. Sometimes a version of neglect is even the right behavior, e.g., a product or project with some users may need to be EOL’d. But most organizations could do much better. It is essential that the Wikimedia Foundation do so, as the people who edit or otherwise contribute to the various Wikimedia projects are its key competitive advantage. If Wikimedia and other commons-based peer production projects are to stay relevant, nevermind helping achieve world liberation, they need to figure out how to become more effective, starting with embracing the idea that most of the vision and innovation needed to do so will come from the community, not the central organizations, and implementation done in partnership with the community.

Unrelated to the community issue, I’ve previously blog cheered Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s work on Wikidata and Wikipedia/medical journal collaboration respectively.

Tangential ex-Wikimedia Foundation links:

I was very sad to read that Erik Moeller recently left the foundation, where he was Deputy Director. Though he seemed to endorse the organization/community vision dichotomy (my one message linked above is a mailing list reply to him), in my view he is perhaps the best example in the Wikimedia universe of community vision — he had written about and many cases prototyped most of the innovations the foundation is still working on implementing, many years later, before becoming an employee.

Moeller has since started a podcast, interviewing another ex-Wikimedia Foundation person, Sumana Harihareswara, for the first episode.

Harihareswara has two recent posts on Crooked Timber, Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft and Where are the women in the history of open source? I found them both very interesting and left comments.

Former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner is now “developing a strategic plan for and with the Tor Project” and separately researching “the broader state of ‘freedom tech’ — all the tools and technologies that enable free speech, free assembly, and freedom of the press.” That’s great news; Tor and other ‘freedom tech’ tools are incredibly exciting and important. But, a moment of critical cheering: as I noted around the time Gardner stepped down as WMF ED, I’m inclined to think that re-routing the knowledge economy is even more important than tools that can route around censorship for a good future. The former is what Wikimedia projects do.

Mike – Please Call Now for GPL’s Funding Approval

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Today I glanced at my spam folder and noticed an odd one:

Subject: Mike – Please Call Now for GPL’s Funding Approval

Though not a subject line fitting the style of either, for a moment I thought mail from Karen Sandler or Bradley Kuhn of Software Freedom Conservancy might have been misfiled.

Nope, it’s just spam:

Mike,I wanted to send you a quick reminder to let you know that I still have an opening today to get GPL instantly qualified for 1-2 times your gross monthly revenue, up to $500,000. There is no personal guarantee or collateral required. If you have $180,000+ per year in gross revenue and have been in business for 12 months, you could qualify for this program.

If you can, please give me a call before 6:00 pm CT today so I can get you in the system, 888-###-####. Over 90% of applicants qualify for this special program, but I need to get your application in.

But I smiled. GPL’s funding approval will have to come from you, dear reader. The Conservancy fundraising effort for enforcement of GPL compliance I mentioned last month met its goal, but with more support we could further ramp up compliance work (my mention last month explained why all sorts, including GPL lovers, haters, and exploiters, ought want this). Donate in support of compliance work or become a general Conservancy supporter!

Hello World Intellectual Freedom Organization

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

Today I’m soft launching an initiative that I’ve been thinking about for 20 years, obtained a domain name for in 1998, blogged about once in 2004, and the last few years have been exploring on this blog without naming it. See the first items in my annual thematic doubt posts for 2013 and 2014: “protecting and promoting intellectual freedom, in particular through the mechanisms of free/open/knowledge commons movements, and in reframing information and innovation policy with freedom and equality outcomes as top.”

I call it the World Intellectual Freedom Organization (WIFO).

Read about its theory, why a new organization, proposed activities, and how you can help/get involved.

Why today? Because April 26 is World Intellectual Freedom Day, occupying and displacing World Intellectual Property Day, just as intellectual freedom must occupy and displace intellectual property for a good future. Consider this 0th World Intellectual Freedom Day another small step forward, following last year’s Without Intellectual Property Day.

Why a soft launch? Because I’m eager to be public about WIFO, but there’s tons of work to do before it can properly be considered launched. I’ve been getting feedback from a handful of people on a quasi-open fellowship proposal for WIFO (that’s where the activities link above points to) and apologize to the many other people I should’ve reached out to. Well, now I’m doing that. I want your help in this project of world liberation!

Video version of my proposal at the Internet Archive or YouTube. My eyes do not lie, I am reading in an attempt to fit too much material in 5 minutes.

I’ll probably blog much less here about “IP” and commons/free/libre/open issues here from now on, especially after opening a WIFO blog (for now there’s a Discourse forum; most of the links above point there). Not to worry, I am overflowing with idiosyncratic takes on everything else, and will continue to post accordingly here, as much as time permits. ☻

Be sure to celebrate the 0th World Intellectual Freedom Day, even if only momentarily and with your lizard brain.

uBlock now blocks newsletter tracking links

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A year ago I wrote that most email newsletters are spam, file accordingly. Glad to see that someone agrees. Sometime between versions 0.9.10 and 0.9.30 of uBlock, the ad-blocking extension started blocking the tracking links commonly found in email newsletters (the ones I mentioned in previous post and many more are matched by the EasyPrivacy list included in uBlock). If you mistakenly subscribe to such a newsletter and click one of its links with a recent uBlock version installed, below is what you’ll see.

The Firefox Addons site has an old version of uBlock. Get it from the uBlock releases page instead.

Newsletter senders, including many from well-meaning organizations, please read my previous post and stop being jerky to your customers, fans, constituents, subscribers, patrons, or however you think of people receiving your newsletter — give them transparent, untracked links.

Or you could play cat and mouse with the uBlock and EasyPrivacy developers. This would be further evidence that your organization is a misallocation of resources.

2 great Document Freedom Day announcements

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Yesterday (March 25) was again Document Freedom Day, a celebration of open standards. Rather than my usual critical cheering, this year I took to adding all of my pertinent posts to a free/libre/open formats/protocols/standards category and want to highlight two exciting announcements:

(1) IETF NetVC BoF notes, slides:

Goals for the Proposed WG

  • Development of a video codec that is:

    • Optimized for real-time communications over the public Internet
    • Competitive with or superior to existing modern codecs
    • Viewed as having IPR licensing terms that allow for wide implementation and deployment
    • Developed under the IPR rules in BCP 78 (RFC 5378) and BCP 79 (RFCs 3979 and 4879)
  • Replicate the success of the CODEC WG in producing the Opus audio codec.

For more on why this is exciting, see Opus! and “I would love it if all patents evaporated” (WebRTC). Appropriately, yesterday also brought another blog-like post (discussion) on the development of the Daala codec, which could form the basis of the hoped-for IETF standard.

(2) LibreOffice Online is coming. If successful it will fill a major gap in the free software product line. I worried about this gap the last time I congratulated LibreOffice on another release.

Apple watch

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Apple Watch official logoApple epitomizes the future we’re choosing by way of treating knowledge as property: gross inequality and hierarchical control, but amazing, such that it is hard to imagine a different arrangement. (I argue very different arrangements concerning knowledge are possible and some would produce much better outcomes — freedom and equality — and some would produce much worse, but still be considered amazing, as they would be relative to the past — knowledge policy is a point of incredible leverage in either direction.)

I don’t watch Apple closely at all, but occasionally a headline catches my eye, as two have recently.

  • Android share of smartphone profits plummets to 11 percent. 89% of smartphone profits go to Apple, despite shipping only 19.7% of smartphones. Of course there are other contributing factors, but these numbers suggest to me something about the surplus obtained by producers and consumers in the case of proprietary (iOS) and open source (Android) operating systems, and the resulting concentration of wealth toward owners of the former.
  • Apple Is Now More Than Double the Size of Exxon—And Everyone Else. That’s by market capitalization, around $750 billion. As the article notes, IBM in 1983-1985 had more than double the market cap of any other company. Knowledge as property driven wealth concentration is not at all new, but I suspect it is increasing as knowledge becomes unambiguously the commanding heights and we shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy (transition captured in pithy phrases such as “data is the new oil” and “software is eating the world”) and knowledge is increasingly subject to various freedom infringing (intellectual property) regimes, and I suspect that more people are recognizing this.

In the more people department, I’ve noticed in the last day:

Now these two are largely making stereotypical contemporary political points for or against state activity respectively (the latter by proxy of claiming Democrats don’t really care about inequality) and not demanding a fundamental shift away from property as the regime governing knowledge (the former demands a ‘golden share’ of intellectual property derived profits for the state). But I’d be very happy to see both “sides” embrace such a shift. Demanding that government and government-funded knowledge not be treated as property is a good start.

My ironic edit of 5 reasons you should never buy an Apple Watch, pointing out that control and inequality appear to be marvelous.

6 reasons for GPL lovers, haters, exploiters, and others to enjoy and support GPL enforcement

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Linux kernel developer Christoph Hellwig today filed a lawsuit against VMware (NYSE:VMW; US$36 billion market cap) due to their long time refusal to observe the terms of the GPL when incorporating code by Hellwig into their kernel, which remains proprietary. If VMware observed the GPL’s terms, their kernel including all source would be released under the GPL. This is a significant case, in part due to the rarity of GPL enforcement lawsuits. Details on the website of Software Freedom Conservancy, which is coordinating and funding (you can help) this action.

If the GPL is rarely enforced, its differentiation from non-copyleft licenses such as MIT, BSD, and Apache is muted. Why should you support license differentiation and thus GPL enforcement?

  1. You think copyleft is a wonderful hack, a productive and even necessary strategy for protecting and expanding the software commons. No enforcement makes the hack buggy: rarely executing and easily circumvented. So of course you want enforcement.
  2. You think copyleft curtails freedom, and ironically hampers the software commons — intractable incompatibility means software can’t be freely mixed, and the attempt to prevent capture by proprietary software interests only abets capture of the field by intellectual parasite lawyer interests. Your efforts to persuade developers and companies that they should avoid GPL software at all costs (up to reimplementation) in preference to permissive and public domain instruments can only be enhanced by prominent GPL enforcement by lawsuit.
  3. You think copyleft is great for software business, as one can acquire users by offering GPL software, then acquire customers by shaking down users who could conceivably not be observing the GPL to the letter. Public GPL enforcement makes your salespeople more compelling.

Among people who have any opinion about copyleft, I’m pretty sure there are very few who accept more than one of the above thoughts. I enjoy all three (the third looks like a sin tax to me). My point here is that people who completely disagree on the purpose and efficacy of copyleft ought all be excited and supportive of copyleft enforcement. But there are additional, less commonly discussed reasons:

  1. You think strong copyleft encourages more people to release free software, people who would not be comfortable with releasing under a non-copyleft license, whether because they fear piracyproprietarization more than obscurity (some overlap with 1 above), or because they want to make wealthy entities pay (lots of overlap with 3 above). Strong copyleft serves as the NonCommercial of the software world (without being fundamentally broken like NC, though the most radical believers in 2 above might disagree) in that it increases the range of licensing options to meet the preferences of both those who fear exploitation by business, and those who want to exploit business. Strong copyleft isn’t so strong without enforcement, so anyone who understands the value of this differentiation should want it to be strengthened by enforcement actions.
  2. You think copyleft-for-x is needed for some non-software field (or hear such thoughts expressed; e.g., for seeds or hardware designs, even real property), but the details of how copyleft works are a bit fuzzy. Enforcement by lawsuit is where the rubber meets the road, so you should enjoy the demystification provided by such actions and support them. Also, successful copyleft enforcement will stoke more people to have desires for copyleft-for-x, thus increasing your community of people intent on figuring out the “for-x” part.
  3. You think copyleft is most usefully considered as a prototype for and test of rules that ought be enforced by more effective regulatory mechanisms. Whether you think software provided without source and permissions should be totally banned, not regulated at all, or only regulated for particular uses or in particular fields (e.g., products and services already subject to other safety, disclosure, and pro-competition or consumer protection requirements), it is absurd to think that developer whim and resources in applying and enforcing the GPL regulates and regulates effectively an optimal set of software. It is time to move beyond debate of a hack of state-deputized private censorship as central to software freedom politics and policy, and on to debating directly state vs. market regulation of software (with all the usual arguments about (in)adequacy of market provision and harm/help of state intervention) as in any field of importance, preferably with very strong commons-favoring bias from both sides (e.g., software freedom market-skeptics and state-skeptics ought agree that regulation by private censorship, which serves proprietary interests almost exclusively, be wound down, and that state entities self-regulate by mandating software freedom for everything they acquire and fund). Unenforced copyleft means the rules prototyped are untested, reducing salience of the prototype, so you also should enjoy GPL enforcement actions.

I enjoy these latter 3 reasons especially, perhaps especially because few other people seem to (I’m eager to be or become wrong about this).

Go help Software Freedom Conservancy support Hellwig’s enforcement against VMware, or tell me why I’m wrong. Note I’m on Software Freedom Conservancy’s board and endorse all of their work, but as usual, this blog post represents only my opinion. Of the reasons to support enforcement above, they’d agree with 1; probably find 2 and 3 and maybe 4 objectionable; 5 and 6 perhaps curious but distant from work in today’s trenches. Again, my point is that many more people than those who agree with 1 (copyleft for good), even those who totally disagree with 1, should enjoy and support GPL enforcement.

The lawsuit will probably be heavily covered in the technology press, but you can read some early discussions now at, Hacker News, and reddit. You can also read about copyleft in general at (another Software Freedom Conservancy project; my take).

Annual thematic doubt 2

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

My second annual thematic doubt post, expressing doubts I have about themes I blogged about during 2014.

commons ⇄ freedom, equality ⇄ good future

Same as last year, my main topic has been “protecting and promoting intellectual freedom, in particular through the mechanisms of free/open/knowledge commons movements, and in reframing information and innovation policy with freedom and equality outcomes as top.”

Rather than repeating the three doubts I expressed last year under the heading “intellectual freedom” (my evaluation of these has not much changed), I will take the subject from a different angle: the “theory of change” I have been espousing. This theory is not new to me. Essentially it is what attracted me to following the free software movement circa 1990 — its potential of extensive, pro-freedom socio-economic reform from the bottom up. That and wanting to run a unix-like on my computer — a want satisfied without respect to freedom as soon as I could use a Sun workstation at work, and for many years now would have been satisfied by OS X. I never cared very much about being able to read, modify, and share all of the software on my computer — the socio-economic implications of those capabilities make them interesting, to me. The claimed ends of the theory are in the ‘for a good future’ slogan I’ve occasionally used at least since 1998. I occasionally included the theory in blog posts (2006) and presentations (2008). Much of my ‘critical cheering’ last year (doubt) and before has largely been about my perhaps unreasonable wish that ‘free/open’ organizations and movements would take the theory I do and act as I think follows. I could easily be wrong on the theory or best actions it implies. Accordingly, I ratcheted down critical cheering in 2014; hopefully most but not all of what remained was relatively fun or novel. Instead I focused more sharply on the theory, e.g., in Sleepwalking past Freedom’s Commons, or how peer production could increase democracy, equality, freedom, and innovation, all of them!

The theory could be attacked from a number of angles — I’d love to see that done and learn of new vulnerabilities. For example, commons might not significantly affect freedom and equality, these may not be the right values, and one might consider a ‘good future’ to be one with maximum hierarchy, spectacle, even war (I repeatedly argue that future tech and culture will be marvels in most plausible futures, and that is a reason to reject ones that do not have freedom and equality as top values, but also something that makes it hard to see how a future — or present — could be different or better with more knowledge economy/policy-driven freedom and equality). But this isn’t a cheap refutation post (see below) and I don’t have very practical doubts about those values and what they imply constitutes a good future.

But I do have practical doubts about the first leg of the theory. Summary of that leg before getting to doubts: Commons-based knowledge production simultaneously destroys rents dependent on freedom infringing regimes, diminishing the constituency for those regimes, grows the constituency and policy imagination for freedom respecting regimes, and not least, directly increases freedom and equality.


  • Effects could be too small to matter, or properly attributed to generational or other competition among firms, not commons-based production. Consider Wikipedia, a success of commons-based production if there is one. Such success may not be possible in other sectors, especially ones that command top policy attention (drugs and movies) — policy imagination has not been increased. The traditional encyclopedia industry was already mostly destroyed by Microsoft Encarta when Wikipedia came along. The encyclopedia industry was not a significant constituency for freedom infringing regimes, so its destruction matters not for future policy. Encyclopedias were readily accessible at libraries, vastly more useful info of the sort found in encyclopedias is accessible online now, excluding Wikipedia, and ‘freedoms’ to modify and distribute are just not relevant nearly all humans.
  • I claim that the best knowledge policy reform is that which favors commons and that the reforms traditionally proposed by copyright and patent reformers are relatively futile because such proposals if implemented would not significantly change the knowledge economy to produce freedom and equality nor grow the constituencies for such changes — rather they are just about who, how, and for how much the outputs of production under freedom infringing regimes may be used — so-called balance, not the tilt I demand. But perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is the best that can be hoped for, especially given decades of discourse and organization-building around those proposals, and almost none about commons-favoring reform. Further, perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is best without qualification — commons-based production is a culturally marginal (in software; wholly irrelevant in most other sectors) arrangement that ought be totally ignored by policy.
  • Various (sometimes semi-) free/open movements within various sectors (e.g., software, education, research publication) are having some policy successes, without (as far as I know) usually considering themselves to be as or more central to shaping knowledge policy as usual things fitting under ‘copyright reform’ and ‘patent reform’ but this could be just what needs to happen. The important thing is that commons-based knowledge production entities act to further their interests with minimal distance from current policy discourse, not that they have any distracting and possibly discrediting theory about doing so relative to overall knowledge policy.

Only the first of these gives me serious pause, though my discounting the last two might be a matter of (dis)taste — my feeling is that most of the people involved thoroughly identify with the trivia of copyright, patent, and similar law, even if they think those laws need serious reform, and act as if commons-based production is something to be protected from reform in the bad direction, but not at all central. Sadly if my feeling is accurate, the second and third doubts probably ought give me more pause than they do.

Despite these doubts, the potential huge win-win (freedom and equality, without conflict) of reorienting the knowledge economy and policy around commons-based production makes robust discourse (at the least) on this possibility urgent, even if tilt probability is low. One of the things that makes me favor this approach is that reform can be very incremental — indeed, it is by far the most feasible reform of any proposed — we just need a lot more of it. Push-roll towards tilt!

The most damning observation is perhaps that I’m only talking, and mostly on this very blog. I should change my ways, but again, this is not a cheap refutation post.

Software Freedom/Futurism/Science Fantasy

I recently wrote that “it’s much easier to take software freedom as a serious issue of top importance if one has a ‘futurist’ bent. This will also figure in a forthcoming post from me casting doubt on everything in this post and the rest from 2014.”

How important are computers to human arrangements, and how large is the range of plausible computer-involved arrangements, and how much can those realized be changed? Should anyone besides programmers and enthusiasts care about software specifically, any more or less than they care about the conditions under which any tool is created and distributed? (Contrast with other tools would be good here, but I’ll leave for another time.)

The vast majority of people seem to treat software as any other tool — they want it to work as well as possible, and to be as cheap as possible, the only difference being that their intuitions about quality and cost of software may be worse than their intuitions for the quality and cost of, for example, bridges. Arguably nearly everyone has been and perhaps still is correct.

But one doesn’t need to be much of a futurist to see software getting much more important — organizations good at using software ‘eating’ the lunches of those less good at using software, software embedded in everything or designing everything (and anything else being obsolete), regulating and mediating every sort of arrangement — with lots of plausible variation as to how this happens.

Now the doubt: does future-motivated interest in software freedom share more with interest in science fiction (i.e., moralistic fantasy) or with interest in future studies and the many parts of various social sciences that aim to improve systems going forward in addition to understanding current and past ones? If the latter, why is software freedom ignored by all of these fields? Possibly most people who do think software is becoming very important are not convinced that software freedom is an important dimension to consider. If so (I would love to see some kind of a review on the matter) it would be most reasonable to follow the academic consensus (even if it is one of omission; that consensus being of software freedom not interesting or important enough to investigate) and if one cares about the ethical dimensions of software, focus instead on the ones the consensus says are important.

Two additional posts last year in which I claim software freedom is of outsized and underappreciated importance (of course I don’t usually restrict myself to only software, but consider software a large and growing part of knowledge embodying cumulative innovation, and of the knowledge economy leading to more such accumulation) and some of many from years past (2006, 2006, 2007, 2007). The first from 2006 highlights the most obvious problem with the future. I had forgotten about that post when mentioning displacement of movies by some other form as the height of culture in 2013 — one has to squint to see such displacement even beginning yet. The second isn’t about the future but is closely related: alternative history.

Uncritical Cheering

I feared that many of my posts last year were uncritical cheering (see critical cheering above and last year). Looking back at posts where I’m promoting something, I have usually included or at least hinted at some amount of criticism (e.g., 1 2). I don’t feel too bad. But know that most of the things I promote on my blog are very likely to fail or otherwise be inconsequential — if they were sufficiently mainstream and established they’d be sufficiently covered elsewhere, and I likely wouldn’t bother blogging about them.

One followup: I cheered the publication of the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article in Open Medicine — a journal which has since ceased publishing.

Freeway 980

I continue to blog about removing freeway 980, which cuts through the oldest parts of Oakland. Doubt: I don’t know whether full removal would be better (at least when considering feasibility) than capping the portion of 980 which is below grade. I intended to read about freeway capping, come to some informed opinion, and blog about it. I have not, but supposedly Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf has mentioned removing 980. Hopefully that will spur much more qualified people to publish analyses of various options for my reading pleasure. ConnectOakland is a website dedicated to one removal/fill scenario.


I’m satisfied enough with the doubt in my two posts about Mozilla’s leadership debacle, but I’ll note apparent tension between fostering ideological diversity and shunning people who would deny some people basic freedoms. I don’t think this one was fairly clear cut, but there are doubtless far more difficult cases in the world.

Instead of doubt, I’d like to clarify my intention with two other posts: thought experiment/provocation, serious demand.


I fell further behind, producing no new dedicated collections of refutations of my 8+ year old posts. My very next post will be one, but as with previous such posts, the refutations will be cheap — flippant rather than drilling down on doubts I may have gained over the years. Again these observations (late, cheap) are what led me last year to initiate a thematic doubt post covering the immediately previous year. How was this one?