Open source values: transparency

Open source values: transparency

Summary: Every political era brings with it a new dominant medium, whose values are internalized by the general public and shape the resulting debate. The TV values of the last generation are slowly passing from the scene. These are being replaced by the values of the Internet, and the most important, I feel, is a growing demand for transparency.

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TOPICS: Open Source, Browser
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Transparency demo using Apollo from Adobe SystemsThis is the first in a series of pieces I plan to write about the values driving open source, and by extension the Internet.

(To the right, a transparency demo concerning Apollo, a tool from Adobe. Its success may well be determined by how transparent Adobe is in releasing it, presenting it, enhancing it, and marketing it.)

Values are important, in a business sense. When your values and those of your customers are in sync, you have a great opportunity for growth. They're also important politically. They define the boundaries for internal debate, and establish markers for debate with opponents.

Transparency may be the most important open source value. Transparency is inherent in every release of open source code. The customers can see it, thus the vendor has no secrets.

But transparency also applies to a vendor's operations. Vendors which are opaque on their strategy gain fewer benefits from a release of code. The most successful open source vendors are transparent on their strategies, and the most successful open source customers are transparent in turn, being frank about their needs.

Transparency, the need for it, the desire for it, extends outward from there.

What we have seen in stories about Microsoft and SCO is a dislike of opacity on the part of the open source market, a demand that vendors act transparently if they want trust. The same, in reverse, has been true with Google and Sun. Their apparent transparency leads directly to customer trust, a stable base on which to build.

We see this also reflected in stories about licenses and patents. The GPL is at the bottom of the open source incline because its demands are transparent and mutual. Patents, which were designed to be transparent, have become opaque instead, gotcha games meant to seize profits from market innovators. Thus, they are widely disliked.

A search for greater transparency has defined the Internet governance stories I have covered for over a decade. Companies which are not transparent, such as Verisign, win distrust. Processes that are not transparent, such as those at ICANN, also win distrust. And distrust has real consequences.

What I have observed, in watching the Internet and open source evolve, is that this business expectation of transparency translates naturally into a political value.

Very little unites liberal and conservative bloggers, but one thing which does is this desire for transparency. We saw it in arguments over regulating bloggers, where right and left united, and then we saw it in the area of campaign finance, where both sides made the same essential demand, for transparency.

Every political era brings with it a new dominant medium, whose values are internalized by the general public and shape the resulting debate. The TV values of the last generation are slowly passing from the scene. These are being replaced by the values of the Internet, and the most important, I feel, is a growing demand for transparency.

Transparency works on a personal level, because you don't have to remember lies. It works on a programming level, building community around code and a stronger code base. It works on a business level, creating trust which leads to profit. And I predict it can work on a political level -- those who embrace transparency will gain power.

Topics: Open Source, Browser

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10 comments
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  • I Vote for Honesty Over Transparency

    The operative word should be "honesty".

    How many times have you seen ads, e.g., that are transparently dishonest? Doesn't "Transparent" mean that one can see through outward behavior into true and sometimes hidden motivations?

    Journalists and politicians are often transparently dishonest as well, and others (not to fault any one group), which illustrates that trust results only from being total honest and not simply being "transparent".
    lmenningen
    • No, there is more to transparency than honesty.

      You can be honest, but still not reveal everything. A person that keeps his code closed and does not divulge what he is doing, may be honest, but not transparent. As long as you do not lie about what you are doing, you do not have to be transparent to be honest.
      DonnieBoy
      • Honesty and transparency

        I think honesty can be an important business value which can and should be followed by vendors even if they are closed. We often call this "credibility" in business journalism.

        Transparency, on the other hand, is far less subjective. The code is either open or it's not. That's why we constantly argue here about licensing terms.
        DanaBlankenhorn
  • Trust, Honesty, Transparency: They go together

    Dana, I'm with you on this. (Thankfully, you didn't conduct a poll [;<).

    I don't think transparency is quite all that ubiquitous (try to find the source code for the Novell edition of OpenOffice.org), and I think there is more to transparency than the code. It is a modus operandi.

    It also requires trust to be transparent and to have trustworthiness as a consequence. I think that is a serious Zen-like notion: You must be willing to trust (your customers, your competitors, your partners) in order to become trustworthy. I think open-source development is a great place to develop and strengthen trustworthiness in a software producer.

    This leaves me with an ethical puzzle. In some sense, the reciprocity requirement of some open-source licenses is founded on distrust. I haven't gotten my head around that. I understand tit-for-tat is a way to build trust, and at the same time, the distrust in some licenses (and the manifestos that take up more words than the embedded grant of license itself) puzzles me.
    orcmid
    • Very funny censoring

      Hah, I said t*t-for-tat (with no vowels missing), a well-known expression in the English language (and used by Gorbachev a lot in the English translation of his book on perestroika and glasnost. It is also a term used for a successful solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma under conditions where the participants cannot defect. It goes along with Reagan's contribution, trust-but-verify. (Transparency contributes to the verifiability and demonstration of trustworthiness in this respect.)

      Of course, the ZDNet naughty-words robot knows nothing of context. Somehow, quid-pro-quo doesn't carry the same sense, nor does I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine. I guess we just have to deal with the impoverishment of language thanks to our over-sensitive electronic minders. Hmm.

      Fortunateley, the Encarta dictionary has not been censored and the expression (and its Old English origins) is there along with description of a small song bird.
      orcmid
    • You mean like the source code for OOo here?

      ftp://ftp.mirrorservice.org/sites/ftp.opensuse.org/pub/opensuse/distribution/10.3/repo/src-oss/suse/src
      odubtaig
      • No, I mean OpenOffice.org 2.1 Novell Edition

        There is a Novell edition of OO.o that runs on Windows (I don't think Suse RPMs are likely related to that.) I'm talking about where is the obligatory link to the source code in the distribution, where is the source code, and is there any place where people can contribute bugs, fixes, etc. Is there a CVS tree? That sort of thing. There are all of those for OpenOffice.org itself, but Novell has material that has not been contributed to that tree (and there is a spat going on about that).

        Everything in the Novell edition running binaries links to OpenOffice.org, but how can they support an edition that has code in it they don't have and might not even care about? Also, the licenses and third-party license acknowledgments seem to be the ones provided by Sun (with Suns Copyright notice on the LGPL2 license for the overall software) with no indication about the Novell bits.

        [By the way, even the main OO.o binary distribution is pretty obtuse about where the source code can be found. A link to OpenOffice.org is a bit broad.]
        orcmid
    • Well, if we went 100% with trust, you do not need any license at all, just

      put your code out there and "trust" everybody to do as you desire.

      But, I think it is much better to just put down what we mean by trust and transparency, and put it right in the license as to have no confusion. Then, the bad guys that might abuse us, are at least limited by the terms of the license.
      DonnieBoy
      • The bad guys that abuse us?

        "Then, the bad guys that might abuse us, are at least limited by the terms of the license."

        This is the problem I am referring to.

        I have no quarrel with what terms someone places in a license to their software, including any available source code. But starting from this position is neither transparent nor a foundation for building trust.
        orcmid
      • Axelrod and Cooperation

        Joshua Porter just put up a blog post that is more like what I mean about building trust (not the blind trust which seems to be assumed when the distrustful talk about trustworthiness). There are more ways to build trust than to be careless and blindly trusting. But we have to have some context on what it is we are trusting about and, most of all, what we want ourselves to be trustworthy for.

        The Porter post: http://bokardo.com/archives/ebay-design-provide-conditions-to-cooperate/
        orcmid