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Peer Participation and Software, What Mozilla Has to Teach Government, David R Booth, The MIT Press, 2010

By RICHARD POYNDER

Readers of Information Today will be familiar with the Free and Open Source software movements, the seeds of which were sown by Richard Stallman when he created the Free Software Foundation in 1985. Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens later built on this with the launch of the Open Source Initiative, and they sparked the open source revolution.

A welter of other free and open movements followed, including Creative Commons, Free Culture, Open Access, and Open Data.

What surprised observers the most is that open source self-organisation not only avoids anarchy but is often more effective than the traditional hierarchical approaches. Since open source affects how communities organise themselves, it is ultimately “a political story”, according to Steven Weber in his 2005 book The Success of Open Source. And it is this political story that David Booth explores in Peer Participation and Software: What Mozilla Has to Teach Government.

The scholarly publishing and library communities mainly focus on the licensing and business issues arising from open source and related movements and give little thought to the novel way in which they are organised.

However, some observers argue that the way these movements self-organise raises interesting political issues. As Raymond pointed out in his 1999 book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the way Linux creator Linus Torvalds managed the hundreds of volunteers who created the Linux kernel was not just novel, but it flew in the face of accepted wisdom.

For instance, Torvald’s globally distributed volunteer army eschewed the hierarchical command-and-control approach assumed essential for software development (and enunciated in Brooks's Law [adding more people late in a software project only delays it further]). The coders also spurned traditional software copyrights and demanded no financial remuneration.

The Linux model is adopted in one form or another by most open source projects, as well as by collaborative initiatives like Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project. Today there are even open source hardware projects like Arduino, Bug Labs and Adafruit.

Development and Government

In Peer Participation and Software, Booth looks at how the Mozilla Foundation manages the development of the open source web browser Firefox, and then seeks parallels in President Barack Obama’s attempts to persuade citizens to participate in the process of government.

Booth's analysis is interesting in a number of respects, not least because he reveals that (with all due respect to Raymond) Firefox is not the product of a chaotic bazaar, or indeed a hierarchy-free process. In reality, says Booth, Mozilla operates a “hierarchical meritocracy” — a meritocracy “predicated on the utility of the developer's contributions and his resultant visibility and effectiveness within the online community.”

To become a member of the Firefox developer community, developers must first demonstrate they can write effective code. Having done so, they can acquire increasing responsibility in the community and a concomitant rank. These ranks include “module owner”, “committer”, “voucher”, “super-reviewer”, and “release driver”. In addition, non-technical volunteers can promote and evangelise Firefox.

With 350 million Firefox users, not everyone can participate. However, the process works because only a small minority ever volunteer, according to Booth. “[W]e estimate that one thousand individual programmers help to develop and maintain the Firefox browser,” he writes.

One important characteristic of open source communities is that they are, in the words of Christopher Kelty, "recursive publics". Unlike interest groups, corporations and professions, Kelty argues that recursive public are “publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals."

Booth then moves on to what he calls the "parallels between the technology used to create Firefox and the technological innovations used by the Obama administration to solicit public participation in a variety of programs."

Booth starts with Obama’s election campaign. Rather than try to control things, he says, the campaign adopted an open source approach. It encouraged supporters to organise ground operations independently of campaign HQ and to use social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to help make the campaign their own.

During the transition period Obama also invited citizens to submit policy suggestions through the Citizen's Briefing Book (CBB). And in office, Obama introduced social networking tools to www.whitehouse.gov, including a blog, YouTube, and Twitter.

Booth also describes ways in which the U.S. government encourages citizens to participate in an open source manner. For instance, the “peer-to-patent” project run by the U.S. Patents & Trademarks Office (USPTO) invites citizens to submit prior art and commentary on patent applications.

Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) “protect the environment” scheme encourages citizens to suggest strategies for saving energy and to volunteer to monitor the quality of water in estuaries, lakes, streams, and wetlands in their local communities.

Open Source or Not

Booth’s thesis is a fascinating one. But does he overplay the significance of what he describes? While he maintains that the Obama campaign did not seek to control events, some would disagree. For instance, when Obama supporter Joe Anthony recruited 160,000 "friends of Obama" using MySpace on his own initiative, the campaign seized the account and dismissed Anthony.

Such incidents led critics to question whether the Obama campaign was indeed "open source” in the manner of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential election, as described by campaign manager Joe Trippi in his book The Revolution will not be Televised

In office, some have accused Obama of reneging on his pre-election promise to be more transparent — for instance, failing to make the negotiations over the health care bill available on C-SPAN. And the USPTO and EPA initiatives can hardly be hardly be said to be creating recursive publics.

In fairness, Booth does not claim Obama is practising open government today. For instance, he concedes that the CBB was "designed more as a national poll than a conduit through which private citizens could participate in policymaking”. Rather, he says, Obama’s plans are a "work in progress".

Certainly, there is no doubt that Open Source has something to teach governments. But is Mozilla the right model? As Booth points out, it has limitations in assuming that a minority of people will participate. "Group-based participation systems, while potentially more manageable and useful, could also impede the individual First Amendment right to participate.”

Nevertheless, Peer Participation and Software should begin a valuable debate.

This review has been reprinted in its entirety from the December, 2010 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055. 609/654-6266, http://www.infotoday.com.

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