Culture / Development / Open Source

The Linux Foundation and Its Critics

5 May 2017 12:40pm, by

Outsiders often assume that the Linux Foundation is the official face of Linux. However, within the open source community, the outlook can be different. Repeatedly, the Linux Foundation has been accused of being a corporate organization that is out of sync with the community and its standards for licensing and transparency. The critics make a vehement case, although whether it is an accurate one is another question altogether.

The Linux Foundation is one of the fastest growing organizations in the open source community. Its goals are based in the ideals that open source is sustainable. But it is one sliver of the open source world, which spans a wide spectrum of communities. Many have roots in the free software movement, and may be suspicious towards corporate participation.

Part of the criticism may be due to the Foundation’s sudden appearance in 2007, when the Open Source Development Labs merged with the Free Standards Group and bought the URL from what is now Geeknet, which was using it for a news site. The Foundation’s position was self-appointed, and some saw it as pushing aside existing organizations such as the Free Software Foundation.

Probably, too, the Foundation has inherited the community’s longstanding distrust of corporations. Although corporations long ago became part of the uneasy alliance that is responsible for open source’s success, suspicions linger. The suspicion that corporations support open source for their own short-term interests while ignoring the needs of the community remains widespread even today, and that suspicion may have attached itself to the Linux Foundation for no better reason than because it is perceived as an organization for corporations.

This attitude gained new strength in November 2016, when the Foundation accepted Microsoft as a Platinum member and declared that the Microsoft, whose former CEO Steve Ballmer had once called Linux a “cancer” and “communism,” had become a supporter of open source. Although Microsoft had been contributing to Linux for several years, the news was greeted with suspicion — to say nothing of warnings on countless blogs and mailing lists fact that Microsoft was only interested in making open source compatible with its own proprietary software.

One commenter on Foss Force’s recent attack on the Foundation (see below) went so far as to say that accepting Microsoft as a member was “a perfect way to ensure that, even if Linux has ‘won’ in every other market, the Desktop will remain Microsoft’s. If you like Embrace Linux, Extend the useful parts to Windows (hello Bash on Windows) to Extinguish any chance of the Linux desktop ever gaining a foothold.”

In other words, far from being the voice of Linux, this commenter believed that the Foundation was not only actively stifling it on the desktop but collaborating with the enemies of open source. Nor is she the only one to entertain this view.

The Critics

Whatever the origins of the criticism, it remains widespread. For example, in January 2016, well-known developer Matthew Garrett criticized the Foundation for eliminating voting rights for individual members and making at-large members of its board of directors optional. Garrett speculated that these changes were designed to keep Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy from running for the board because her support of the GNU General License (GPL) disagreed with the Foundation’s supposed preference for other licenses.

In a now unavailable response, Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin argued that at-large members continued to sit on the board, as well as one director appointed by kernel developers — all of which remains true today.

Yet although Garrett’s criticisms were largely unsupported, they were repeated uncritically, including on the popular FOSS Force site, under the headline “Linux Foundation sells out.” The article attracted another series of criticisms altogether: that the Foundation had no interest in desktop Linux and was no more than “another corporate power play,” and that the community needed to fight the “hypocrisy” of corporations and ensure that they never controlled the direction of open source development.

The issue soon faded, but it was recently revived when FOSS Force listed criticisms of the Foundation under the headline “The Linux Foundation: Not a Friend of Desktop Linux, the GPL, or Openness.” The article was a response to an article on the Foundation website that echoed Microsoft’s past criticisms, describing copyleft licenses like the GPL that require derivative works to use the same license as “viral.” The article was soon taken down, but not before the FOSS Force opinion piece resulted in over fifty comments.

As George Orwell once observed, the rich cannot have street lights without everyone else having them as well.

“Folks please spread this article far and wide, commented Jon Phillips, “and perhaps suggest to your friends in the Linux desktop world that their charity is best directed elsewhere than the Linux Foundation.” Many agreed, repeatedly describing the Foundation as a tool for corporate interests.

Not all members of the community regard the Linux Foundation as an enemy. In fact, several commenters on FOSS Force’s criticisms attempted to defend the Foundation. Similarly, Matt Assay on TechRepublic dismissed the criticisms as a throwback to “the inane religious debates of the early open source,” adding that the old “ridiculous name calling and finger pointing is alive and well.”

However, the efforts to defend the Foundation were rapidly dismissed when they were not ignored altogether. Clearly, many in the community regard the Foundation as hostile to their interests, and nothing like the unifying institution that it was intended to be.

Living with the Critics

These criticisms generally go unanswered by the Linux Foundation. At times, controversial statements are simply removed from the Foundation website, a tactic that critics label a lack of transparency. However, Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin has a different perspective.

While not denying that “we certainly have and will make mistakes,” Zemlin observes that “criticism is part and parcel of the anti-establishment sensibility that makes open source communities great. Anyone who has been around open source for a while knows that responding to every criticism could essentially become a full-time job. [Besides,] we do think our work stands for itself.”

Zemlin’s characterization of community criticism seems especially apt because such criticism often consists of half-truths at best. For one thing, even if the Foundation is oriented towards corporations, that does not mean that it does not serve individuals as well. As George Orwell once observed, the rich cannot have street lights without everyone else having them as well. In the same way, the Foundation’s creation of the Core Infrastructure Initiative may benefit corporations the most, but all Linux users — not just corporations — benefit when projects such as openSSH are funded and malware such as Heartbleed are quickly patched.

Equally importantly, while the board of directors is dominated by corporations, critics often overlook the fact that the Technical Advisory Board has a majority of unaffiliated developers from the community or the Linux Foundation itself. According to Zemlin, “corporations primarily participate in our projects by paying the salaries of thousands of full-time developers who work on code in Linux or many of our other projects,” as well as conferences and other special events.

If anything, Zemlin prefers to emphasize developers over corporations. “The technical roles in our projects are separate from corporations,” he said. “No one’s commits are tagged with their corporate identity: code talks loudest in Linux Foundation projects. Developers in our projects can move from one firm to another and their role in the projects will remain unchanged. Subsequent commercial or government adoption of that code creates value, which in turn can be reinvested in a project. This virtuous cycle benefits all, and is the goal of any of our projects.”

In other words, the Foundation mediates between corporations and developers. Unofficially, I have heard several times that open source projects that would not take money directly from corporations will take grants from the Foundation because it is perceived as an unaligned third party.

Nor, for all the naive cynicism of much of the criticism, is there so much as a hint that corporations have ever influenced the course of open source development in the Linux kernel, or in any project sponsored by the Foundation. Similarly, contrary to the allegations of bias against the GPL, the just-released OpenChain 1.1 specification is scrupulously neutral in its explanation of free licenses. In a community that thrives on gossip as much as open source does, the idea that corporate interference could remain undetected for more than half a day seems too unlikely to seriously worry about.

In any event, the idea that the Foundation does nothing for individuals or the community reflects the emphasis of stories in the media more than the services actually offered by the Foundation.

“Any individual can participate in any Linux Foundation project,” said Zemlin. “you can come to an event, join a mailing list, report a bug, become a committer, volunteer for our diversity programs, participate in many of our legal forums, and more. This is something we actively encourage by providing travel funding — last year for 150 community members — scholarship programs, and mentorship to hundreds of individuals around the world.”

Other community-oriented services offered by the Foundation include as ally training to encourage the participation of women, e-training courses in open source essentials, and over five hundred training scholarships to date. Often, such programs are designed and coordinated with the help of other non-profits such as Women in Big Data, Blacks in Technology, and the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

To prove his point, Zemlin offers the example of Zachary Dupoint, a grade school students whom the Foundation flew to an event to meet Linux founder Linus Torvalds. Similarly, the Foundation sponsored seventeen-year-old Finnish developer Lucas Käldström to attend several conferences. Such examples go a long way to belie the idea that the Foundation

Rather than focusing on individuals or corporations at the expense of each other, Zemlin stated that, “Our hope is to create sustainable ecosystems around the projects that we host that solve big problems. Whether it is Let’s Encrypt, which is now the world’s largest free certificate authority, or our Hyperledger project, which is being used to provide low-cost ways for citizens in Cambodia to send and receive money. NASA uses Node.js to keep rocket scientists safe, and, of course, Linux is the largest and most successful collective development project in the world.”

Zemlin has frequently spoken of developers as poets. By contrast, he describes those employed by the Linux Foundation as “the janitors, the roadies, and the support staff to the incredible work that developers in our communities produce.” While behind-the-scenes corporate influence cannot be ruled out, the Foundation’s efforts to support individuals indicates that such remarks are more than hyperbole or PR. If these efforts go unremarked, the reason may be that the projects Zemlin mentions have their own websites, and their home pages gave no indication of their affiliation with the Foundation.

Striking a Balance

None of this is to say that the Linux Foundation is beyond criticism. Activists would no prefer greater efforts community-based members and women on its board and its list of employees. Similarly, the Foundation could perhaps make greater efforts to include more community members in decision making — although, when Benevolent Dictators For Life are tolerated in projects like Ubuntu, criticizing the Foundation for its decision-making structure is more than a little hypocritical. Further, according to a Foundation spokesperson, fully half, and likely a bit more, of Foundation employees are women.

Still, the idea that the Foundation represents only corporations remains a distorted one. On examination, the picture that emerges is of an organization that does its best to maintain a balance between business and private interests. The fact that it stumbles occasionally should not distract onlookers from its role in furthering the cause of open source for everyone.

Feature image via Pixabay.

A newsletter digest of the week’s most important stories & analyses.