Peer Participation and Software, What Mozilla Has to Teach Government, David R Booth, The MIT Press, 2010
By RICHARD POYNDER
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
and they sparked the open source revolution.
welter of other free and open movements followed, including Creative Commons, Free Culture, Open Access, and Open Data.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
thesis is a fascinating one. But does he overplay the significance of what he
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
incidents led critics to question whether the Obama campaign was indeed "open
source” in the manner of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential
as described by campaign manager Joe Trippi in his book The Revolution will not be Televised.
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.
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
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.