Open source values: 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 demo using Apollo from Adobe Systems
This 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.