Post Open Source

Protect commons from patents

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Rob Landley has a good idea: software patents shouldn’t apply to public domain software. This is exactly the kind of commons-favoring reform that ought be topmost on the agenda of anyone who cares about a good [digital] future. It will take years for many such reforms to be feasible. This only means it is urgent for commoners of all free/open stripes to begin thinking of themselves collectively as a politically potent self-interested group, not as merely surviving through private opt-outs from increasingly bad regulation and reaction against apparent existential threats.

I’m a huge fan of the public domain and think that among private opt-outs, public domain instruments ought be used much more than they are. Landley makes an interesting case (historical and otherwise, read his full post) for limiting protection from software patents to public domain software rather than any free/open source software, but I disagree — in this reform step, it makes sense to protect developers and users of any free/open source software from patents with regard to that software.

Up to the last paragraph the rest of this post is dedicated to this disagreement (and in another sense of dedicated, to the public domain, as is everything by me), but don’t let that distract from my overall appreciation of Landley’s post — read the whole thing (his blog is also interesting overall, stylistically like early blogs, and it does have posts back to 2002, though I’ve only been following it approximately since the first link in previous paragraph: see link text “disagree”, appropriately enough).

Landley writes:

The reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source” is partly that open source is difficult to legally define

Public domain hasn’t got that problem. It avoids the whole can of worms of what is and isn’t: the code is out there with zero restrictions.

1) Existing law and regulation deals with “open source”, e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense and the Italian government. This is no significant obstacle. On the other hand, “public domain” has another problem: FUD about whether it is “legally possible” to put new works in the public domain and whether various public domain instruments “work”. This FUD needs to be combated, but I think it’ll be more effective to do so in part by getting public domain instruments recognized as free/open instruments by various gatekeepers than by dumping FUD on the same.

The price for freedom from patents should be zero restrictions: if the authors have no control over what people can do with it, why should uninvolved third parties have a say? Ideally the smooth, frictionless legal surface of the public domain should go both ways.

That’s the constitutional argument: freely redistributable, infinitely replicable code serves the stated constitutional purpose of copyrights and patents better than patents do. Releasing your copyrights into the public domain should also prevent patent claims on that code.

2) That’s a fine assertion, but it’s really outside the free/open source (and nearby) consensus on software patents: they should be abolished, i.e., one should not have to give up anything to be protected from them. Changing the focus to strategically demanding freedom from patents for free/open source software (while still agreeing they ought be abolished for all) would mark a huge shift in the imagination of the movement(s). Limiting the scope of protection to only public domain software: how is it imaginable to take that idea beyond an interesting blog post? I wish a huge constituency for public domain software existed, but as of now it is a rounding error.

3) Zero restrictions is a fine ideal (indeed, copyright and patent should be abolished entirely), but whether viewed as a “price” or grant of permissions, releasing work under any free/open license makes very significant grants. Attendant conditions may be annoying, self-defeating, necessary, or something else depending on one’s perspective (I try to view them charitably as prototypes for more effective regulation not based on copyright holder whim, but also think it is worthwhile to try to improve them, and, as above, encourage more use of public domain instruments) but obviously these licenses are adequate to facilitate vibrant commons projects (essentially all well known free/open source software, except for SQLite and djbware, which use public domain dedications), and it is the actual commons that needs to be favored, not some idealized zero friction symmetry between patent and copyright.

The historical reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source license” is possible legal precedent: back when software was unpatentable, it was also uncopyrightable. An awful lot of public domain software used to exist, and when people added copyrights to it, they opened it to patents as well. Software that _isn’t_ copyrighted, historically, also wasn’t patented. If somebody tries to enforce patents against public domain software, we can make a clear distinction and ask a judge to opine.

4) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet heavily against us winning. Happy to be wrong.

5) I’ve already mentioned size of the constituency for (2) and quantity of (3) free/open source software relative to only public domain software, but these bear repeating in the form of size of benefit. Protecting all free/open source software from patents would immediately benefit millions of free/open source software developers and users, and solve big problems for free/open source software and standards. There would be essentially no immediate benefit from only protecting public domain software from patents. Long term it would encourage more public domain software. To make that extremely lopsided trade off one has to believe that free/open source licenses are really, really awful relative to the public domain. I can understand that belief emotionally, but don’t think what evidence we have about success of various projects bears the belief out. Rather, the specific conditions (including none) just aren’t all that important so long as a minimum of permissions are granted. Exclusive public domain advocates may hate licenses, but licenses just don’t matter that much!

As the title of this post implies, free/open source software (inclusive of public domain software) is not the only commons threatened by patents that ought be favored through blanket protection from patents. Defining some of these (e.g., for seeds, 3D printing, general purpose robotics, and synthetic biology?) will be harder, in part because there may be no “well understood term in the trade” such as “open source”, but this is a much smaller hurdle (indeed, a sub-sub-task of) than organizing the relevant constituencies and making the case to the public and policymakers that favoring commons is indeed good policy.

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.

Empowered Mozilla?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

I don’t feel glad about Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, but it is probably for the best that it happened quickly. Even the President of the United States has changed his tune on same sex marriage since 2008. Apparently Eich really wanted to not even pretend to change his opinion and make up for it.

There is irony and danger in excluding holders of non-inclusive political opinions in the name of inclusivity. But the particulars of this instance make sense. (1) The excluded opinion isn’t just any. It’s in a class of opinions which deny equal rights to some people based on attributes they did not choose. Once society gets around to expanding the circle of moral equality to another group, advocacy against the expansion or for retraction quickly becomes an abomination suppressed on the free market; and not soon enough. I don’t see any way to avoid this. I suspect that the general case for socially (as opposed to legally: there should be no legal intolerance for even abominable opinions) tolerating diverse opinions is harmed if anti-equality opinions are treated as any other political opinion. (2) The opinion holder isn’t just anyone, but the symbol of a very public organization. Whether the chief executive should be such a central figure — certainly not when it comes to criminally powerful heads of nearly all states — is another question. I look forward to publicly holding the opinion that jurisdiction of birth serves as a legitimate reason for denial of equal rights becoming verboten for leaders, and in any educated company, at which point international apartheid must quickly crumble.

I hope that this brief crisis somehow spurs Mozilla to get back to its roots, even if in other respects Eich would have been the best leader to do that. For anyone who cares about the Mozilla mission, the crisis reveals a lot more about governance and communications problems at the organization than about Eich’s views, which were already known last year. I don’t think the crisis was only due to the outrage of marriage equality advocates. People expect better from Mozilla than the corporate/political PR style which Mozilla seems to have adopted: non-specific hype and if that doesn’t go over well reassure without directly addressing concerns. That approach could hardly be more calculated to provoke outrage among people who feel a part of the Mozilla community.

About crowd outrage, including destructive measures (promotion of browsers that are ethically far worse than Firefox), and Mozilla’s initial response of reassuring without directly addressing concerns (which horribly undersold Mozilla’s excellent practices and values, seeming to be offered as pathetic reassurance rather than the bedrock that they are): the whole thing reminds me of mass protest stemming from some legitimate issues, government refusal to directly address issues, and a rapid escalation to regime change as a non-negotiable demand, with destruction and opportunity creation for trolls quickly following.

Though in every recent case I can think of, the outraged crowd has good reason to be outraged, there is something “illegitimate” about obtaining change through packing the streets (or net), and certainly much dangerous about it: the collateral damage and opportunities created for the worst actors are enormous. Is there any hope for crowds or institutions to become “smarter” and more constructive? That’s in part what I was hoping for in the Mozilla case in my previous post.

I can think of approximately three possibilities; hopefully many more exist. (1) Better predictions about outcomes, i.e., any at all beyond self-serving punditry. Prediction markets are one possible, but so far failed (in the sense of near zero use), mechanism. Some outraged crowd members might pay attention to risk, and perhaps even tip the crowd into more rational behavior. Within regimes (inclusive of those controlling non-state organizations) better predictions might strengthen the hands of those who advocate for responding in a way not seemingly calculated to tip the crowd into regime change as a non-negotiable demand. (2) New “legitimate” arrangements which somehow promote directly addressing concerns rapidly, without allowing any mass of angry people to demand regime change. I don’t have any concrete ideas, but might be related to (3) new “legitimate” arrangements designed to encourage change without crisis, thus reducing the “need” for crisis. In many ways (2) and (3) are the function of “the market” and “culture” with emphasis depending on topic. But organizations (state, firm, or other) play a tremendous role, so institutional design is highly pertinent. One version of such institutional design, or at least call for such, is Roberto Unger’s concept of empowered democracy (from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

Unger’s proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock through the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.

I don’t have any comments on Unger’s proposed innovations (apart from skeptical curiosity), but the goal increasing (implied positive) change while reducing crisis seems one worthy of exploration, by organizations of all sizes.

Brendan Eich’s going away post:

Networks breed first- and second-mover winners and others path-dependent powers, until the next disruption. Users or rather their data get captured.

Privacy is only one concern among several, including how to realize economic value for many-yet-individually-weak users, not just for data-store/service owners or third parties. Can we do better with client-side and private-cloud tiers, zero-knowledge proofs and protocols, or other ideas?

Can a browser/OS “unionize its users” to gain bargaining power vs. net super-powers?

This is basically why I think Mozilla is so great and important. Lots of free/libre/open projects and organizations have good values. They largely don’t matter because network effects dominate. Huge organizations with good values are necessary, and all the better if they explicitly are thinking about the challenges imposed by the network effects of incumbents which embody poor values.

There’s no analogy worthy of making, and cringe when others try. But I’m glad that marriage equality advocates and their predecessors in struggles for civil rights succeeded in gaining bargaining power vs. the social super-powers of the day.

SK Combinator Conservancy

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Just announced, Karen Sandler is now Executive Director of Software Freedom Conservancy, Bradley Kuhn its Distinguished Technologist. I have a huge amount of respect for the work and knowledge of both of them, and assert that their combined expertise on free and open source software policy and nonprofit governance is unmatched anywhere. Read the announcement for details.

Software Freedom Conservancy logo

If you’re running a free/open source software project having reached the stage of needing an organizational home (e.g., to handle funds and legal), consider applying to become a Conservancy member project (n.b. I’m on the new project evaluation committee and the Conservancy board).

Donate to Conservancy directly, to one of its current member projects, or to its nonprofit accounting software project (my endorsement).

Wikipedia: Conservancy, Kuhn, Sandler, and SK combinator calculus, more commonly known as SKI combinator calculus.

Listen to Free as in Freedom, a podcast hosted by Sandler and Kuhn. Does this change make the timely release of a new episode more or less likely? ☻ I’ve appeared on FaiF and its predecessor.

Addendum: Posts from Kuhn and Sandler.

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.

Document marketing freedom 0.1

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Yesterday (emphasis added):

Microsoft’s DOS-based version of Word, first released in 1983, was not a success against the dominant word processor of that era, WordPerfect. The 1989 release of Word for Windows changed all that: within four years it was generating over half the worldwide word processing market revenue. It was a remarkable marketing and engineering achievement. We are today revealing the technical magic by releasing the source code to version 1.1a of Word for Windows.

Today (March 26) is Document Freedom Day, promoting open standards. I’m all for open standards, particularly as a matter of policy at all levels, and hats off to DFD for any increased awareness of the rationale for open standards and demand for open standards that result from DFD activities. But non-open formats’ domination of word processing and many other fields is not due to advocacy of closed standards, and I doubt generic advocacy of open formats will lead to the liberation of word processing or any other field.

Individuals and organizations adopt specific software. There’s lots of remarkable engineering behind specific programs which implement open standards. Remarkable marketing (broadly construed — any sales or adoption effort) of such programs? It should be no surprise that free/open products (this applies to much more than software) in almost all mass markets remain marginal — the result of failure to compete with proprietary/closed vendors on marketing (previously stated).

In my DFD post last year I called out LibreOffice and Jitsi as open standard implementing programs needing promotion. Each has made lots of engineering progress in the past year. Please let me know if I’ve missed corresponding marketing progress. (This is not a criticism of either project. I’m sure they’d each love marketing help. LibreOffice does have some community marketing efforts.)

Granted, remarkable marketing of free/open products might be as different from marketing of proprietary/closed products as engineering/provisioning of same can be different, and public policy advocacy might be a disproportionate part of remarkable free/open marketing. But lack of direct competition in the non-policy market seems to make free/open policy advocacy much harder — anyone can see when an abstract policy mandating some form of open concretely means adopting software or some other product that few people are already using (consider how much value of software and other knowledge products is driven by network effects) — a tough sell.

Producing Open Source Software (2005) gathers lots of wisdom and a 2nd edition is due this year. I suspect we’re at about 1995 for a hypothetical Marketing Open Source Software (and other open stuff) — not much wisdom to gather, and lots of doubt about whether out-marketing proprietary/closed vendors is even feasible.

Empathy for the Gooseberry

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

You’ve almost certainly seen at least snippets of the Blender Foundation’s four short animated films Elephants Dream (2006), Big Buck Bunny (2008), Sintel (2010) and Tears of Steel (2012; my blog post riffing on a memorable scene) — because they’re high quality and freely licensed for any use (CC-BY) they’re frequently used in demos.

Now Blender Foundation (who primarily make the free software Blender 3D modeling, animation, video editing, and more program; they use open movie projects to push the software forward) is working on a feature-length animated film, Gooseberry, which would mark a new milestone (Sita Sings the Blues will surely remain the best feature length free film of any sort, but was made with non-free software and is 2D).

They have an ambitious crowdfunding goal of €500,000 to support the project. I pledged and hope you’ll join me. A few interesting bits from the campaign FAQ:

What quality can we expect? Like, compared to Sintel, or a Pixar movie?

As magic number for budget calculations, I use the “Months of work per minute of film”. This is including writing, coders, art, production.

For Big Buck Bunny that was 6. For Sintel it was 10. For Gooseberry we daringly want to go to 15 even. For a Disney or Pixar film, this number is easily 300 to 500. Go figure! But our film will be better than Sintel or BBB for sure.

What is this “exploitation window”

Even though everything will be free/open source, we will reserve for the final movie (renders, final edit, grade) a short period of exploitation. That ‘window’ is 3 months, starting at the official premiere (our own, or on film festival). Film distributors can pay us for the exclusive rights to show the film in theaters during that period. Or TV stations, or Netflix! After that, all gates go open and we release it as CC-BY for everyone.

I can’t complain about the non-free “exploitation window”, as there’s zero infrastructure for marketing and distributing free-as-in-freedom films; in the short term, the window might get the film to a wider audience and thus build its cultural relevance and value as a free film after the window. The existence of free and culturally relevant films will be a huge help to any eventual such marketing and distribution infrastructure, so best of luck to the Gooseberry team in all respects.

There’s another short made with Blender in progress called Wires For Empathy:

A 3D animated short film based in free/libre software, Tube is also a new experiment in distributed collaboration. It plays on the ancient Gilgamesh poem, in a variant of the hero’s progress that becomes the animation’s own frames.

The trailer looks great:

Sympathy for the Strawberry is not one of my favorite Sonic Youth tracks, but the above titles made me think of it. I would heavily contribute to a crowdfunded free-as-in-freedom album by a reunited band sans Thurston Moore, call it Free Sonic Youth. Which part (free or Thurston-free) is most unlikely?

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.