Facebook, an open source company?

In today’s world, communication and branding matter almost as much in business as they do in conveying ideas and ethics. Which is why I often wonder, what the people using the term “Open Source” are doing against this:

Is Facebook The World’s Largest Open Source Company?

Yes, says Matt Asay–who claimed that for Free Software/Open Source to succeed in business, “it may need a little help from proprietary software.”

So, one must wonder…

What makes Facebook an Open Source company?

I hope that, at this point, we can drop the notion of Free Software; because free software focuses on the users’ rights to be in control of the technology that affects them. If there’s anyone in control of Facebook, it’s Mark Zuckerberg, certainly not the users. ↓↓↓

  • Even though open source software and free software designate the exact same category of software, and the community of people who develop free and open source software is not as divided as some might think, there’s no denying that the terms convey different meaning, have a different emphasis.

    Actually, it’s not entirely clear to me what the term Open Source conveys any more. What hasn’t helped at all, is the belief that “the Internet”, as Morozov would put it, can been used as the driver for solving everything in all areas; and that the same is true of Open Source. Open Source bears some of the same hype that “the Internet” does. Think open data, open access, open innovation1, open government, open science, etc.

What “open” even means is relatively ambiguous. Ambiguous enough that Facebook can claim as far as 2006 to be about a “spirit of openness.”

That reminds me of an internal European Commission draft that was leaked on which I worked with Karsten at the FSFE in 2009:

“Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the”not invented here” syndrome, lie at the other end.

The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum.”

With this kind of nonsense, you can say anything. I was trying to put it into words. I remember Georg put it brilliantly: to say that proprietary software lies at one end of the openness continuum equals to saying that North-Korea lies at one end of the democratic continuum.

Maybe all this is possible, because in this context, open is meant to refer explicitly to free software/open source software. But that’s missing the point of what free software actually is about, and about how you categorise free software.

Proprietary software isn’t at the end of the free software continuum, it’s antagonistic to free software. They’re opposite. You can’t have both; it’s either something’s been distributed to the users of the program with a license that grants them the four essential rights to use, share, study and improve the program; or it’s not.

Now, let’s go back to Facebook. Without thinking clearly, sure, Facebook could end up inside the “openness continuum” of whatever.

But before saying that Facebook is an open source company, one must ask: is Facebook a software company to begin with? And if not, then what is Facebook doing that has to do with open source at all?

Look closely, and you’ll realise that all that Facebook’s releasing as free software/open source is not related to the core of the service they’re providing their users with over at facebook.com.

Sure, it’s publishing some of its in-house developed software, for data centers, database, etc. In that sense, it’s quite clearly in accordance to the current mantra, “open source (almost) everything” in which the part that’s left off is actually the most important part.

But that’s not enough to call yourself an “open source company.” Or does that mean that all manufacturers embedding a linux kernel in their device are open source companies as soon as they release sources of their modifications to the kernel? Of course not!

What makes a Free Software company, then?

usage of and contribution to Free Software are not differentiators for what makes a Free Software company. The critical differentiator is provision of Free Software downstream to customers. In other words: Free Software companies are companies that have adopted business models in which the revenue streams are not tied to proprietary software model licensing conditions.

Georg published an article in 2008 precisely about this issue.