Tech is About Building Empires, and Open-Source Software is No Exception
The politics of open-source code are often overlooked or misunderstood, as a recent editorial in WIRED pointed out. Not liberal or conservative politics, but the politics that determine how open-source is used by one group of people to dominate other groups, and how those groups negotiate their differences.
Edward N. Luttwak wrote a short book in 1976 on the Roman Empire, in which he explained the difference between hegemonic and territorial empires.
Territorial imperialism entails the full occupation and ownership of what was once a foreign land.
Hegemonic imperialism is dominance by other means: creating dependence on trade and technology, building clientelistic relationships with the local elite, offering military protection from adversaries. (This article is about open-source code, I promise.)
State-based empires today all have territorial colonies fully integrated with the home country. They also all have hegemonic sway beyond their territories, areas that they dominate but do not occupy. For the US, Hawaii/Canada illustrate the territorial/hegemonic split. For Russia, it might be Siberia/Belarus.
Territorial empires are more expensive to maintain, but they allow you to exert more control. Hegemonic empires are less expensive, but prone to rebellion and independence movements. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)
When we talk about open-source, we usually talk about the contributors who write the code, their valiant efforts, and why don’t they get paid more. We talk about the goodness of all the free things they create, and why it is difficult to turn them into sustainable business models.
But that is only one way to look at open source, and for the purposes of this post, it is the wrong layer of abstraction.
Most widely used code ends up being part of a tech empire. Closed-source code is a territorial empire: Easy to control, expensive to maintain, impossible to lose to rebellion. Google’s search engine and Microsoft Word are closed-source. Outsiders don’t get to see how they work, let alone change that code or walk away with it.
Open-source is part of hegemonic empires: cheaper to dominate, harder to control, prone to rebellion. But in the sway of empires nonetheless.
The company exerts hegemonic sway over some important open-source projects: Android and Tensorflow, to name just two.
It does not share governance of those projects with other companies through a software foundation like Apache. Its goal is to persuade as many people as possible to depend on its open-source code, much as the U.S. tries to get other countries to depend on its fighter jets.
Companies that create and support open-source code often invite developers to use their tools for free, to come and “settle” their lands, much as the U.S. government and railroads did when luring homesteaders to the West with free acreage in the 19th century. They do not do this out of altruism.
Homesteading is a political act. It’s not the politics of the individual homesteaders that concern us here, but the grander politics of those who promote homesteading. The railroad men who made their fortunes, the politicians (like Lincoln) who served their constituencies, the statesmen whose goal was to colonize.
Homesteading is most meaningful, not on the level of the bold pioneer, but as a collective movement, like when a beehive splits in two. Homesteading is meaningful when you think about who fosters the movement: who is giving away land, and why.
When you homestead Twitter, you know you’re dependent on their platform. Twitter accounts create captive content that grows Twitters business. Those same dynamics apply to the open-source tooling that developers adopt. When they choose their free tools, they choose which platforms to be captured by, which will shape their thoughts and products in an almost Sapir-Whorfian sense.
We use the “free as in X” formula in different ways in software:
Some software is “free as in beer,” which means you don’t pay for it.
Other software is “free as in freedom,” which means you can do what you want with it.
Still other software is “free as in kittens,” which means it’s yours to maintain now, baby.
And finally, there’s something I’ll call “free as in acres.” Because the acres mean you’ll always depend on the railroad. A lot of open source code is that kind of free.
Every empire ultimately has to do with people, how they can be dominated, and enlisted to produce prosperity. That is also true of code, which is never independent of the people who build, maintain and use it. The code lives as a theory in the minds of its developers. Without them, it is nothing.
The tech industry builds empires of code and communities tied to that code: developers and users.
Each company does so by solving someone’s problems and then locking them into its solution. Y Combinator’s slogan “Make something people want,” is the first step. Creating a moat is the second.
The main way to create a moat is to “control the dominant platform,” a happy phrase that Charles Ferguson used in his account of building FrontPage in the 1990s. The dominant platform is the platform with the most people.
Facebook controls the dominant social media platform. Google controls the dominant search platform. Most of us, as technology users, come to depend on someone else’s code in the form of a product we can’t change, like Google’s search engine.
Open-source code is part of the platform that most developers use, in the way consumers depend on closed-source products with GUIs. Many of the platforms that involve developer tooling, or the code that software engineers use to build Web sites, data processing, or the next Facebook, are written in open-source.
Because software is eating the world, the world belongs to software developers. But who do software developers belong to? They belong to the companies that build software development tools, including those that back large open-source projects.
This is one of the reasons why Microsoft has pivoted to open source under Satya Nadella, and certainly explains its acquisition of Github. The world belongs to developers, so tech companies do their best own them. By giving those developers free software, they shape the choices developers face, and encourage their dependence on the railroad.
This matters because open-source can be used as a weapon of commerce and instrument of geopolitics.
As a weapon of commerce, Oracle sued Google for $8.8 billion in damages that stemmed from Google’s access to Oracle’s Java APIs. Google, whose mobile operating system Android is based on the Java programming language, which itself is open-source. Google has since moved to another platform.
For another example of domestic politics and open-source, look at what happened to Docker. It made a really great developer tool, and got eaten alive as soon as it moved into IT and sold to large accounts. It threatened other peoples’ empires.
As an instrument of geopolitics, Google shut off Android services that Huawei’s mobile phones depended on after the U.S. State Department put the Chinese company on its entity list, limited the technologies that it could buy from US companies. New Huawei phones cannot use Google services tied to Android, such as Maps or Google Assistant, and Huawei is now developing its own mobile operating system, HarmonyOS.
To be clear, switching operating systems requires an enormous amount of work, and there is a big opportunity cost to leaving the world’s dominant mobile OS.
U.S. companies have been incredibly effective at creating software platforms that cover the earth, both closed and open source. But the open-source world is shifting.
The Eclipse Foundation — one of three major open-source software foundations alongside Apache and Linux — is moving its headquarters to Belgium, that nation created to be neutral. Huawei became a strategic member of the Eclipse Foundation about a year ago.
Last year, Alibaba announced that it had the Berlin-based startup Data Artisans, whose primary product is an open-source data-streaming project called Apache Flink.
These companies are playing a big game, bigger than many policy makers understand, and on a scale that most developers don’t bother to think about.
So remember, next time you think about open source, your strategy, and which tools you’re going to adopt, ask yourself who’s giving away the code, and what they might want from you down the road. It might be free as in acres…
Nadia Eghbal’s recent book: Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software
And her earlier work: Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure
Beyond Open Source, by Drew Crawford
About me: I was CEO of a startup making open-source software for five years. And like every other startup on the planet, mine continues to depend on OSS. I now lead Pathmind, which helps companies optimize business and industrial processes with deep reinforcement learning.
This article is the first in a series about open-source code. The next will address how companies use open source as part of larger strategies to build their business.