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Open Source / Software Development / Tech Life

Linux Foundation Study Assesses ‘Outsized’ U.S. Influence on Open Source

A recent Linux Foundation study offers ways to avoid impediments to open source sharing and transparency due to techno-nationalism and other factors.
Feb 6th, 2023 7:43am by
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This post has been updated with additional input from The Linux Foundation.

While the open source has always been about sharing the code for one and all, this ideal has been increasingly at odds with a range of factors, including software fragmentation, politicization, weaponization, and a creeping techno-nationalism, which all can negatively impact open source’s vital collaborative framework.

Addressing these issues is a new report from the Linux Foundation, “Enabling Global Collaboration: How Open Source Leaders are Confronting the Challenges of Fragmentation,” authored by Anthony D. Williams, founder and president of the research firm the DEEP Centre.

The report was sponsored by Futurewei, Huawei’s U.S.-based research and development arm, and is a product of the Linux Foundation Research, founded in 2021.

Fragmentation is happening in the open source community from a variety of reasons, the Linux Foundation contends.

One potential culprit: Governmental techno-nationalism, which can block the transfer of critical innovations across boarders with protectionist measures, which has happened with both China and the U.S.. Likewise, the war between Russia and Ukraine has jeopardized software supply chains.

But fragmentation can also come from lack of standardization, or the proliferation of too many domain-specific systems (see the Internet of Things). And, of course, it can come from cultural differences and language barriers as well.

The study is “a thoughtful discussion of how the open source community can continue to thrive and continue its massively impressive growth,” wrote Hilary Carter, Linux Foundation senior vice president of research and communications, in a written statement to The New Stack.

Back in the USA

In the report, the U.S. is singled out regarding interference and limitations that can happen with open source sharing and development, though more at a corporate, rather than governmental level.

“Although the open source community is increasingly international, several leaders argue that organizations headquartered in the United States have outsized influence in shaping most open source projects,” Williams writes.

This report is not specifically a critical study of the outsized influence of U.S. open source,  Carter cautioned, but rather an assessment of whether or fragmentation in open source exists as a whole.

That said, “The U.S. is home to the world’s largest economy, which gives it huge influence on all kinds of industries,” Carter noted. “Open source leaders are paying attention to this.”

Certainly, the U.S. government is paying attention to the global flow of technology. Last week, reports surfaced about how the Biden Administration is considering tightening bans by U.S. suppliers to provide chips to Huawei, a Chinese-based multinational company, for mobile phones.

In this report, China is used as an example of the growing global nature of open source.

The study’s author writes that China “has become a significant consumer of and contributor to open source technologies,” according to the report. Nearly 90% of Chinese firms use open source technologies, and Chinese users are also the second most prolific group on GitHub after users from the United States.

“With China intent on boosting its software prowess, Chinese participation in open source will increase dramatically in the years ahead. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has expressed concerns about its domestic software industry’s international competitiveness and sees deeper participation in international open source projects as a means to place itself on an equal footing with global players.”

Methodology Questions

The key findings Williams communicated are:

  • Fragmentation is a double-edged sword. “Fragmentation challenges occur in developing open source solutions, but a decentralized ecosystem will always have some duplication and fragmentation,” Williams wrote. “Inefficient allocation of resources may occur, but efforts to reduce fragmentation could stifle competition and innovation and kill “the open source goose that laid the golden egg.”
  • Fragmentation can increase costs and complexity for consumers and vendors of open source solutions.
  • The open source community is increasingly global, but language, culture, and geopolitics remain barriers to participation.
  • Techno-nationalism threatens open source collaboration.
  • Foundations can help align open source projects with similar objectives without “picking winners.”

Fifteen of the study’s participants were quoted in the final report, the total number of participants was not disclosed. The report’s findings and recommendations are based on input that the study’s participants gave who the Linux Foundation says represent a cross-section of foundation leaders, member companies and end users. Their titles ranged from executive directors, C-level executives, community leaders, architects and engineers, the Linux Foundation states.

One immediate remedy for fragmentation comes in the form of fostering diversity, the foundation recommends.  The report notes that “there is considerable confidence in the ecosystem’s capacity to foster global inclusion.”

Carter notes that, for open source to succeed, “all industries, including the broader software and technology industries, need to pay attention to fostering diversity and inclusion.”

TNS Editor Joab Jackson contributed to this report.

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