The “Open Ratchet”

Hot headed ranting coupled with the cynical manipulation of key words always seemed to be the exclusive domain of extremist political groups, at least until recently.

It has been a curious month of rants about the UK government’s open standards consultation. One would be forgiven for believing that the world was about to end if you happened to take as your sole source of input the outpourings of one particular British journalist. Thankfully, most of us check our sources and facts and tend to be wary of postings that are thin on facts and rich with innuendo and personal attacks. In fact, I won’t even deign to reference the journalist in question here as further hits or references to his pieces will only be interpreted as good news for that mag’s advertisers.

I want instead – on this last day of the UK government’s consultation on open standards – to highlight a worrying “lock in” phenomenon that masquerades as the best of “open”.

I’ve written before about the phenomenon of “hoorah words” (“democrcay” – hoorah!; “freedom” – horrah!; “open” – hoorah!) but in this post, I am looking at something more worrying: worrying because it has all the hallmarks of the Boiled Frog Syndrome: you don’t see what’s happening to you….and worse, (sorry to mix metaphors) is like a ratchet, it is difficult to move back down once locked in to one level.

What I’ve dubbed as “The Open Ratchet” goes something like this:

“You support open standards of course?” “Of course I do!”.

“And of course, open standards must be open for anyone to use” “D’uh, yeah!”.

“In order for them to be open for anyone to use they should ideally be royalty free” “I don’t know….that sounds like a good idea, so…I guess so…”<click>

“..and Open standards must be implementable using open source” “Makes sense….sure…”<click>

“And of course, all open source is royalty free” “Of course it is!”<click>

“So, open source ought to be preferred when using open standards” “Ummm, I guess that follows….”<click>

“Unless you can prove benefits otherwise, you should therefore prefer open source” “I’m sure I’ve missed something…but, okaaaaaay….”<click>

“So, it follows that only open source can truly implement open standards” “…..wha..?…”<click>

“Of course, open source comes in many flavours and the most popular and widely supported is GPL” “I’m not really cognizant of the intricacies of open source licensing…but you know your stuff, soI guess I can’t disagree…”<click>

“To ensure that implementations of all open standards also remain open source, of course we recommend GPLv3…” <CLICK>

Now, you and I and many technically minded standards buffs out there can hear the <click> of the ratchet each time and see where it might be leading but most policy makers will not – and that is the insidiousness of the approach.

In discussions with different policy makers in the last year, talking about open standards, one phenomenon has keeps popping up: they talk about open standards and open source in the same breath as if they were two aspects of the same. And when you ask further, it seems that the two issues have been presented as such to them, the policy makers, by….supporters of GPLv3 no less. What a surprise.

Now, it may serve open source’s ends to hang on the coat-tails of open standards but I don’t see that the reverse is automatically true. Just because one small and very vocal group insist that there is a connection and insist on applying the Open Ratchet does not a global truth make. Open standards have been happily implemented for decades using all sorts of business models – and that this suits the open source community, fine. Open standards are designed to be implementable by anyone but it doesn’t foolow that this means it’s a free lunch for everyone.

(BTW, and a curious issue aside: why, in a world surrounded by patents and rights-licensing in so many areas of our lives, does the extremist wing of open source advocates insist that software is somehow miraculously different from every other patentable invention? I don’t see an “Open Coffee Foundation” spontaneously arising from moral outrage and protesting for the right to invent and market free coffee capsules as an alternative to Nestle’s monopoly….sorry, did I spoil your espresso?)

But to claim that, because it suits one business model, everyone using open standards should automatically conform also with the most extreme and exclusive form of the open source business model is just preposterous.

I’m all for a wide-ranging debate on the role of open standards and argue vociferously for their increased adoption and – orthogonally – I express doubts about open source being a viable and honest business model.

But I do object to attempts to demonize anyone who tries to keep the debates separate or castigate anyone daring to criticize a single precept of the open source movement as therefore being against open standards. I was all too familiar with this tactic in my student days by supporters of the Spartacist League (goodness, anyone else remember them?) and other Trotskist groups. They too were loud, obnoxious and reeked of moral superiority. If you tried to argue rationally, they would abuse you and divert. If you didn’t argue with them, they would walk away and claim victory.

It would be a crying shame to see IT policy go the same way, with policy makers bullied into positions that they really haven’t had an opportunity to discuss openly and level-headedly and facing castigation if they dare to raise a nuanced opinion. Although not a strong open source advocate myself (and, yes, I have worked on and supported many open source projects, just in case you ask), I still work closely with many who are and I welcome the opporutnities to work together on a many projects. They would be the first to admit that open source and open standards are different concerns and be proud to advocate open source as a distinct and valued business model. But unless they face down the loud mouths in their community, and give voice to the broader, more representative interests supporting open source, the extremists will claim victory.

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