Fostering open source is in our national interest
Over 85% of India’s internet runs on free and open source software (FOSS). It is ubiquitous in our lives and serves as the backbone of operating systems, digital public infrastructure, communication platforms and the Internet. However, due to its decentralized nature, open source is underestimated and we are often unaware of its existence.
The recent log4j security vulnerability showed the extent of our reliance on FOSS. The White House National Security Council even had a meeting in January 2022 with tech giants and open source organizations to identify ways to prevent such incidents in the future. It’s no surprise that it takes a security breach that threatens the most powerful governments and corporations to make us reflect on the extent of our reliance on open source software.
Free and open source software is software whose source code is openly shared and whose use, copying, study and modification are free. As Richard Stallman says, “Think free, as in free speech, not free beer.” Open source principles can be applied in verticals such as software, hardware, content, algorithms, and standards. The gains from these various open source technologies far outweigh the costs associated with them, and they accrue to stakeholders across the market, society, individuals, and government categories. Some of the gains for different stakeholders are explored below.
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A recent EU-sponsored report found that companies located in the EU invested around €1 billion in free and open source software in 2018. The authors estimate that a 10% increase in contributions would lead to a increase from 0.4% to 0.6% of GDP and generate more than 600 ICT start-ups each year.
FOSS is closely related to software development and it is estimated that 97% of codebases contain free software. It helps companies gain access to high-quality code while avoiding vendor lock-in and reducing costs. There are different monetization models to build a business case around open source. These include providing paid services such as training and technical support, adopting a freemium model, and crowdfunding desired features.
Sharing non-differentiating features as open-source also has several advantages for businesses. When Google opened up its machine learning framework TensorFlow in late 2015, they benefited from the increased adoption of the framework leading to participatory innovation. It’s now the most ubiquitous AI platform, and Google benefits from the pool of talent in a niche technology.
Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia, is funded by donations and maintained by unpaid volunteers. The infrastructure that powers the information age relies on a foundation built on open source software such as Linux and Apache, among others. According to GitHub, India has the third highest number of active developers. The number of developers contributing to open-source is growing rapidly, and India is on its way to becoming one of the top contributors to FOSS.
A recent study reveals that people who contribute to open source projects are intrinsically motivated by feelings of altruism, enjoyment, or relatedness. Many contributors also seek the reputation and career advancement they get from working on open source projects. Although there are opportunities for funding, it often relies on donations based on the goodwill of others. This is
durable only for the most popular projects. The cost of maintenance is miniscule compared to the cost of damage incurred due to vulnerabilities such as log4j.
Some interesting aspects of FOSS can be seen on the popular open-source chess platform lichess.org. This is a free and participatory learning module funded by donations. Unlike other platforms, it has features like asking your opponent to pick up a move and giving your opponent extra time in a timed game. The non-zero-sum approach taken by open source principles impacts various aspects of open source products.
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From a government perspective, the economic motivations for promoting open source can be broadly categorized into cost savings, avoiding switching costs and network effects, underproduction due to weak incentives, and technological neutrality. These are particularly important in the Indian context. The government of Kerala was a pioneer by officially supporting FOSS in the state IT policy in 2001. Gradually, Linux and other FOSS have been adopted by various government departments and schools. The Kerala government has also set up an autonomous nodal agency (ICFOSS) to work on improving adoption and innovation around FOSS. It also works closely with FOSS communities such as SPACE to build an open digital infrastructure.
The desire for “digital sovereignty” unconstrained by state intervention, technological oligopoly and international geopolitics is also a major motivation for governments. The open nature of open-source means it is more customizable and available. This leads to reduced reliance on proprietary technologies from companies based elsewhere.
India needs to leverage technology to overcome development challenges, and the various benefits of open source make it a promising option. However, due to its nature,
source suffers from market failures. The market does not provide enough incentive for creators to continue to develop and maintain open source projects. A comprehensive strategy to foster and promote the adoption of open source technologies is needed for India.
(Bharath Reddy is Program Director for the Technology and Policy Program at the Takshashila Institution)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.