How much power and influence do Open Source foundations have?
... and how does that power impact us as users of Open Source software?
“I finally switched over to Linux full time. Yay! How much power and influence do open source foundations have and how much does it affect me as a consumer of open source software?" - Evan
First off, welcome to Club Linux, Evan! You'll find the waters here to be, overall, warm and relaxing.
As for the question of how much influence various foundations actually have in the Open Source, Free Software, and Linux world… well… that's a tricky question that will take us, meandering, through the wilderness.
And there are lots of landmines hidden just about everywhere.
The short, highly unsatisfactory, answer is that they have a huge amount of control and influence… influence that you, as a user of the software, will hopefully never have to see. Unfortunately their “invisible influence” is becoming increasingly visible. And influential.
When we talk about such foundations (and similar types of organizations), really, four of them jump immediately to mind:
Realistically, there are many others – The Document Foundation, The Apache Foundation, The GNOME Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation, etc.. Most of which tend to focus on a narrow set of projects and pieces of software. Essentially ways of organizing and funding their development, promotion, and support.
Those four (FSF, Linux Foundation, OSI, and SFC) have a huge amount of influence over the broader “open software” world. In various ways.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), in my mind, are the most direct and focused of those four. Their missions are easy to understand and very “to the point.” They tend to not get bogged down and side tracked – not always the case, but usually.
The FSF is, at their core, the publishers and maintainers of the Free Software Definition. All other work they do tends to focus on promoting the ideas behind Free Software, funding development, and pushing campaigns that they see as related to their core mission.
Example: They tend to fight rather vigorously against ideas like Digital Rights Management (DRM) and surveillance – among other campaigns.
In this way the FSF has a major impact in setting both tone and direction for many other organizations within the “open” world. Their voice is listened to, and their statements have an impact.
The Software Freedom Conservancy has a very similar focus: Promote, develop, support, and defend Free (Libre) Software. They also provide infrastructure and legal services for a huge number of Free Software projects. They also have a tendency to take active roles in legal issues they feel directly impact their ideology (Free Software, Privacy, etc.).
In those ways, the impact of the SFC is far reaching. If they were to disappear tomorrow, many projects would face tremendous difficulties in their day to day operations. The work they do cannot be understated. And, thus, the dependency many have on them is worth noting as well.
I tend to be a big fan of the SFC, and their work. However their power, and the weight of their voice, is sometimes used in ways that divide and attack portions of the Free Software world – such as when the SFC joined in the mob-like attacks on Richard Stallman during 2019. Worth noting: I have many criticisms of Stallman, and have voiced them over the years, but SFC's attacks on Stallman – considering the important role they play, and their close relationship with the FSF – were particularly cruel and harmful to both the community and the Free Software movement.
All that said, overall, I would say the work of both the FSF and SFC are clear, direct, and supportive of Free Software. Easy to understand and evaluate.
For both The Linux Foundation and the Open Source Initiative… things get much less clear. More… murky.
Let's start with The Linux Foundation (LF).
The LF's mission is stated as “building sustainable ecosystems around open source projects to accelerate technology development and industry adoption.”
This is something they absolutely, demonstrably, do. And, depending on how you measure things, with great success.
And we're not just talking about the Linux Kernel here – they employ the founder and maintainer of the Linux Kernel, Linus Torvalds, as well as others. The Linux Foundation is an association of corporations who fund initiatives and sub-foundations they have an interest in.
Kubernetes. Xen. Let's Encrypt. NodeJS. Tizen. The number of Linux Foundation projects is vast and growing.
Side note: The Linux Foundation suffers from a tremendous amount of “mission creep”. One glaring example is one of their newest business ventures: Vaccine Passport systems. What does that have to do with Linux? Your guess is as good as mine.
As of 2017, The Linux Foundation reported revenue north of $81 Million USD. Up roughly $20 Million from the year prior (2016). Which, in turn, was also up roughly $20 Million from the year before that (2015). To say The Linux Foundation is growing rapidly – both in terms of revenue and project control and scope – would be a vast understatement.
This income comes from a combination of member companies who pay the Linux Foundation for involvement in their work (such as paying to gain a voting seat on their board) and from donations by individuals.
Member companies include: Microsoft, Google, AT&T, IBM, Oracle, VMWare, Huawei, WeBank, Adobe, Airbus, ADP, American Express, Capital One, Comcast, FedEx, Goldman Sachs, Netflix, PayPal, and so many others. Almost too many to even comprehend.
Some of these companies have an obvious interest in the success of both Linux and related Open Source and Free Software projects. Others have a long-standing competition with Linux and Free Software. Others still… have a very unclear interest in such projects.
Interesting side note: When an individual makes a donation to the Linux Foundation… not one penny goes towards Linux development. According to The Linux Foundation… “100% of donations received go towards funding diversity programs.” Funding of things like Linux Kernel development actually comes through the corporate membership dues (at least that is my understanding).
The Board of the Linux Foundation is made up of representatives from Microsoft, Comcast, Huawei, Facebook, Google, and many others. These are (some of) the companies that have influence and voting control within The Linux Foundation.
What does that mean for the influence those companies have over Linux kernel development (and work on many other projects that the Linux Foundation runs)? That's a good question. And, honestly, I don't have a direct or clear answer to that.
Does is concern me? You be it does. As does the lack of transparency, overall.
One way the Linux Foundation has a direct impact is within the overall community of developers and enthusiasts (as well as folks who might work within the industry). When folks get banned from Linux Foundation run events and conferences (for what appear to be political motives), but refuse to talk with the press (or community) about it… that raises red flags.
Control over who can participate (both as a hobbyist and professionally) within the Linux and Open Source world is deeply concerning.
Which, finally, brings us to the Open Source Initiative (OSI).
The OSI has a very simple, very narrow, focus: To evaluate, and endorse, “Open Source” licenses that, it feels, meet the standards of the Open Source Definition (which they maintain).
The value here, is that a company (or project) can make sure that a license they select for any given piece of software is one that has been researched, evaluated, and will (hopefully) be acceptable to other companies and individuals working in the “Open Source” space. Logical. Reasonable. Limited.
Their annual budget is significantly smaller than the other organizations on this list (which makes sense, considering their scope) – about $200k. They do accept funding from companies (such as Microsoft), but (again) that funding is limited.
The influence that the OSI has is, for the most part, strictly limited to what licenses get listed on their approved list. If licenses get approved that cause potential difficulties – or encourage discrimination or limitations of usage, such as what is currently being proposed by some in the “Ethical Software Development” movement (which has the goal of forbidding people from using software… if those people are ones the author of the software disagrees with politically) – that could have potentially problematic impacts on both developers and end-users.
Though, honestly, if the OSI were to move down a path where they endorse problematic, restrictive, discriminatory licenses… the OSI simply will cease to be relevant or useful. Thus solving any problem that could arise by that sort of action.
So, there we have it. Foundations do, indeed, have a lot of influence over the FOSS world – and that influence appears to be increasing at a dramatic rate (at least in some cases). Some of that influence, demonstrably, brings about positive results. Other results are… less positive. But the level of influence is undeniable.
Now. How does any of this impact you, an end user of such software?
The reality is that – if you do not work within the software industry, or related industries – that influence isn't typically felt. The impact on you is farther “downstream.”
What does have a huge and noteworthy impact on end users are the goals and directions of some of the major open source focused companies – especially Red Hat. But that's a topic for a different day.