Slashdot and the Street July 5, 2005

The Open Source and Anti-Globalization Movements: A Comparison

There are two grassroots groups getting headlines and causing consternation among CEOs and government leaders these days - the Open Source technology movement and the anti-globalization movement. They seem to be very different groups, but lately I have begun to wonder if they influence each other, or if there is some confluence of factors in the world today that are giving rise to these very different but in many ways quite similar ideas.

First, let’s look at Open Source. I’m using this term as a catch-all that includes everything from free/open source software, to Creative Commons and the work of the EFF. I’m including Open Source Culture and Free Culture in this category (that way no-one is happy). I’m not interested here in the semantic differences between these groups, rather that the ideas espoused my their members are part of significant discourse at all.

Many of the ideas that come out of these movements - the notion of freely sharing ideas and technologies or that it is more important to support innovation than it is to make money - tend to fly in the face of the idea of a completely unfettered market. This free market is the basis of the capitalist ideal that is the current dominant economic perspective. Certainly, many of the people and organizations involved in the Open Source movement are in business and would probably be quite put out to be described as anti-capitalist. However, the version of capitalism that is practiced by most large corporations is completely at odds with the idea that you would ever freely give anything to anyone. In a world where corporations try to patent ideas like internet cookies, the notion that real published authors would offer e-books for free download from their websites is anathema.

A prime example of this friction is the dispute between the entertainment industry and some members of the technology community over Digital Rights Management and limitations on the use of technology. A look at the hot cases over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows a list of big companies taking on independent programmers and writers as corporations try to asset their “right” to dominate the market with proprietary technologies. While the details of these cases vary, I believe the gist is the same: companies want to restrict what can be done with their products after the consumer has purchased the product. There is an interesting result here, since many of the consumers of technology products are technology makers as well. When you start telling engineers and other tinkerers that they are not allowed to take apart the toys they paid good money for, you’re starting a fight, which is a big part of the open source argument.

These concepts are very similar to the ideas that form the basis of the political anti-globalization movements. And again, there are many disparate groups that fall under the umbrella of “anti-globalization”. At one end are anarchic anti-capitalists and at the other end are business-people who simply believe that large multinational corporations need to be more closely regulated. While anti-globalization activists generally talk about the things they don’t like, some positive ideas are pretty common, such as supporting fair trade policies and community decision making.

There are a few obvious examples of the combination of the technological and the political. The Brazilian government’s recent advocacy of open source software springs to minds, as does Bill Gates’ now-infamous reference to copyright-reform advocates as communists. Over all, however, the open sourcers are not necessarily the same people rallying outside World Trade Organization meetings.

So, if these movements are not made up of the same people, do they influence each other and why have they become more prevalent at the same time? I believe that while both movements do have affirmative campaigns, the majority of people who join these groups are simply reacting to what they perceive as violations of their basic rights.

People are finding common ground with open source or anti-globalization in response to a particular event or opinion. Many of the people who form the grassroots of copyright reform do so because as consumers they feel immediately threatened by increasing restrictions on the way they use the media they have purchased. The mainstream of anti-globalization opposes specific practices - sweatshop labour, outsourcing of jobs, the corporatization of education.

And it is in the very things that people are railing against that I believe we find the true common ground between the technologists and the politico-economic. All of these groups are ultimately fighting “corporatocracy” - rule by corporations. As big business begins to control more and more of the workings of everyday life, many ordinary people have begun to rebel in ways that resonate with them. People in the technology industry and consumers of high tech goods have fought back - some by pirating software, some by sending a donation to the EFF. People who are more politically active march outside G8 meetings, write letters to their government representatives or buy sweatshop-free clothes.

While the activists and their tools are different and the organizations focus on separate issues, once one looks deeper, there is a clear connection between the roots of both open source and anti-globalization movements. Interestingly, it is a reaction against unfettered capitalism and the pure pursuit of profit. As critics simplistically slap labels like communist on those who oppose the wholesale corporatization of life, people who believe in the power of community over the power of corporations are fighting back - on Slashdot and on the street.


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