Open Source Activist

For a long time I would never self-identify as an activist. I had a very stereotypical view of activists. They were older, hairy, most often found wearing some sort of logo or tie-died T-shirt, and had questionable hygiene habits.

But as I got older, I found this wasn’t true. I was as likely to find an activist wearing a suit as sandals. But one thing I did notice about every one of them is that each had, through some way or another, come upon some hard won knowledge; knowledge that was self-evident to them but oblivious to the rest of us, and thus they tasked themselves trying to get that message across. Every great idea seems crazy at first.

My own journey began back in 2001 when I took a job with a company in Cary that made network management software. The fact that I started on September 10th didn’t bode well. While the first Internet bubble was pretty much over at that point, 9/11 was the nail in the coffin.

But they had an interesting idea, one that seemed crazy: why don’t we make software and then give the code away for free? Perhaps we can encourage others to contribute to the code and, together, build something better and stronger than we could on our own.

On paper I could see how this could work. It was called “open source software” and just down the street a little company called Red Hat was making a go of it, but I didn’t really believe it in my heart. The job was a paycheck and something I found interesting, but nothing more.

Nine months later that company decided to stop publishing under the open source model. By that time I had started to see the potential and I wasn’t willing to stop, so I left them to start my own business built around open source.

If I had tried to start a “proprietary” software company on my own, I would have failed. I just didn’t have the resources. But through open source a small community of people helped me continue on and even grow. Now we have customers in 26 countries and offices in two of them. Along the way I’ve become an open source activist.

First, from a business aspect, running open source software simply makes sense. Commercial software vendors are fickle. What happens if you build your business on commercial software and then something happens to your vendor? Perhaps they increase prices, or go out of business entirely. You are now stuck with software that you can’t change and you can’t grow. The software also tends to be expensive, and my favorite part is that these companies tend to charge you for “support”, i.e. bug fixes. In other words, you pay a lot of money for software that is supposed to do some task, but due to a bug it doesn’t, so you have to pay extra to get it to do what they said it would do in the first place. Open source eliminate those issues. Bug fixes come naturally and if a project should end you still have access to the code and can continue on.

Back in 1978 when I got my first computer, almost all software was open source. Well, that’s not technically true, open source software expressly allows you to change it and distribute it, but I most often got new software by typing it in manually out of a computer magazine. That way I was able to see the code and quite frequently had to fix errors in either my transcription or in the original author’s code. But then people realized that there was a lot of money to be made in software, and it started to become property. Bill Gates wrote a famous letter to hobbyists where he called them all thieves for stealing his software, and thus the great lobbying effort began to lock down software to make it the exclusive domain of a few. Of course, no “good” software could be written for free, right?

It’s taken us a long time but I think we can dispel that notion. If you use a smartphone, a good portion of the software that makes it work is open source. Almost every major website you visit, from Google to Facebook to Amazon, is run on open source software. But if open source software is so successful, why should you care about it? Why am I taking the time to write this up (in spite of the fact that I love to hear myself talk)?

A couple of years ago my wife and I were able to visit Budapest (my family name is Hungarian). We were having dinner one night with a local, and I mentioned a certain building on the main street called “The House of Terror”. I told him that I knew a tourist trap when I saw one and I was definitely going to avoid that place.

“No”, he said, “You must go.”

The House of Terror is the building that housed the secret police under the Order of the White Cross (the Nazis) and later the Soviets. It is one part museum, one part art installation, and one part memorial.

When you walk in, there is a huge military tank in the lobby to give you some idea of the scale that the populace faced when dealing with the government. You work your way up through rooms that illustrate the surveillance state and how people were monitored (mainly phone calls and mail) and steps they took to fight back. There are rooms dedicated to the puppet trials that were held to unjustly incarcerate people, and in one room the carpet is a map of Europe with the detention camps marked on it – each one with a little cone shaped table on which you can find objects retrieved from that particular camp.

Hungary is still dealing with the fact that very few of the people on the wrong side of that system were brought to justice, so I frantically scrolled through the list of the names of those people hoping that I wouldn’t see “Balog” listed among them.

Finally, you take a long, slow elevator ride to the basement, where you find the torture cells and the gallows where over 600 people were hanged.

There is one cell that you can only stand upright inside, where your nose would touch the door when it was closed. In another you could only crouch, and they would fill it with  6 inches of water to add do the discomfort. In one room they played a video where female survivors told stories of the psychological torture they endured at the hands of one particular commandant, and then they bring in that commandant, a well dressed and coiffed older woman who is incredulous, saying they should be thanking her for the kindness she showed them.

I was bawling.

And I did finally find a Balog on a list. A relative of mine, Lazlo Balogh, was killed in that building and his name placed on a list of the dead.

That got me thinking about the dangers of too much information in the hands of any government, and when I got back into the US two news items drove it home. First, Apple announced its iCloud service. Not only should you put your e-mail into their hands, but all of your documents, your pictures, and your calendar showing who you meet with and when. Second, some congressman named Anthony Weiner (I kid you not) was caught twitpic-ing pictures of his junk around the Internet. Thus the guy who is supposed to stop companies like Apple from doing bad things with your data simply doesn’t get it.

At that point in time I made the pledge to quit using Apple products and to run my life as much as possible on open source software, and I was once a huge Apple fanboy. The need to take control over my personal information has become a calling, as well as the desire to educate others on the dangers of choosing convenience over caution. When it comes to Apple some of my friends compare me to a reformed alcoholic who uses every opportunity to preach abstinance.

Every activist thinks their issue is one of life or death, but in the case of my fellow open source activist Karen Sandler, it could be. She has an implanted pace maker, and it has been shown that the software in various medical devices can be vulnerable to hacking, to the point of resulting in death for the user. Yet the software lobby is so strong that efforts to require such critical software to be opened have been blocked. Do you really want to drive a car where the brakes could stop working just because some bored teenager would think it fun to watch you crash? It could happen today, and in the future, when these systems become more complex and more embedded, it will happen often unless we force the manufacturers to let us at least see the software and check it for vulnerabilities.

In that great documentary film, “The Matrix”, a character states “it is one thing to know the path, but another thing to walk the path”. In many cases activists have not only walked the path, quite often they made it and placed signposts along the way. Even if you don’t self-identify as an activist, you should try to walk a few of those paths.

I did, and it made all the difference.


Tarus is the founder of OpenNMS, an open source network monitoring software company.¬† His thinking has had a profound impact on me over the years, and he is one of the reasons Piedmont Biofuels has been a contributor to “open biodiesel.”

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