Computer Crime Research Center

The Great Software Debate: Technology and Ideology

Date: August 02, 2004
Source: Open Society Institute
By: Jonathan Peizer

... resources there to program or deploy the application?
Are the necessary resources there to maintain the application?
Are the necessary training and documentation resources available to satisfy project requirements?
Is the hardware available and appropriate to meet the needs of the software application?
Is there a facility to convert data?
Are the necessary integration points there if the application must interface with other applications?
What is the evolutionary trajectory of the software I choose?
Answering these questions may lead me to select applications built on particular development ideologies. However, the selection process is based purely on an objective set of operational criteria to deliver the most effective solution to satisfy a stated need.

When I work with the NGO community, I know price is a very sensitive factor that can influence the selection of applications. However, I also know that ease of installation and use and continued high touch support are also important factors to take into consideration when satisfying this sector. I know that when applications don't work in this environment and there is no support around to provide basic assistance, people become very reticent to use the technology again; much more so than in the commercial context. I weigh these and other factors in making final technology selection decisions as any good project manager would.

I can think of three good reasons why not to select software based primarily on an ideological preference:

A software implementation is a costly and complex affair that involves a sophisticated behavioral interplay between people and technology. Often it means changing the way departments or whole institutions do things as they adapt to often less than intuitive automated processes. Most people are naturally resistant to these changes. Technologists who manage software implementations will tell you that there are many pitfalls to watch out for even in the best of circumstances. Choosing an application for any reason other than how it meets specified business requirements is a tremendous gamble.

If you were to build a house, would you select your tools of choice based on the alloys they were built with? Their craftsmanship? Their cost? The method that went into forging them? Most probably your primary consideration would be to select the right tools necessary to complete the building project. Craftsmanship, cost, alloys and method of creation might all be considerations, but these factors would be weighted based on how they contributed to the tool's success in helping you complete your building project. As attractive as it might be, you would not use a hammer forged on Thor's anvil if what you needed was a screwdriver from The Home Depot.

Many organizations find open source versus commercial applications more attractive because they are free to use. Often there is never any real plan to actually tinker with the application code to modify how it works - a major benefit of open source products. Technical resource limitations in order to develop a product further are already major obstacles in the non-profit environment. If cost of purchase is the main motivation, let the buyer beware. The real costs of any application deployment outside of initial purchase relate to installation, training, data conversion, ongoing maintenance, support and new version upgrades. These must all be taken into consideration if using commercial or open source applications. What is free now may also have a cost later. The once free, open source, Star Office revision now has a price attached to it. This often happens as an application gains significant market share and there is a need to better support its continued development for the user market in an organized and timely fashion.
I am also not convinced that the "social value" case that some argue for open source software is compelling enough to influence a selection decision, (e.g. that because open source is free and open to redesign, non-profits end up with access to richer, less costly and more reliable applications, freeing themselves up to spend their limited resources elsewhere). In fact, I could argue just the opposite. Consider this:

The social benefit of most open source applications is primarily in their free use and less so in their extensibility. The benefit of free, modifiable code would constitute a far more significant social benefit if most non-profits took advantage of it, but most cannot because of resource constraints. There are also training and documentation costs associated with any new and significant software modification. Commercial software is typically closed and de facto has an expense connected with its purchase. However, it is often deeply discounted for the non-profit and educational environments, although not all over the world as it should be.

Commercial software developers that discount for their non-profit customer base may create far more social value if they also convert some of their commercial sales revenue directly to philanthropic purposes. I deal with philanthropic institutions on a regular basis. Some are funded by significant commercial software profits and are contributing to the global fight against aids, the reform of micro lending and economic development, training and education, library support, children's programs, media development and a plethora of other social value activities. The Gates Foundation has the largest endowment of any US foundation dwarfing the Ford, Rockefeller, Macarthur endowments and my own institution's yearly allocations. It must allocate at least 5% of that endowment (about one billion dollars) of grant funding annually. One cannot separate the direct correlation between revenue generated from commercial software and the work of the Gates Foundation, the Microsoft Community Affairs Department, the Time-Warner AOL Foundation, The Real Foundation and Glaser Family Fund, The Paul Allen Foundation, etc. I am familiar with all these institutions, the quality of their work and the dedication of the people who are committed to the value proposition of assisting civil society. It is disingenuous to compare the social value of both commercial and open source applications without recognizing this other dimension of social benefit that accrues from commercial application development.

Applying ideology to the selection process in either a commercial or open source context is a tricky business. Personally, I have worked with and supported a mixed environment of commercial and open source applications for years. Let software developers choose the ideology they are most comfortable developing applications in. When it comes to selecting an application to meet a particular user need, always select the application based solely on the operational criteria that best satisfies the need.

Ideology of Use: What is the technology ultimately used for?

The deployment of any technology is by far the most interesting ideological concern but often the one least focused upon. Most software is built to solve a particular problem or to create a new functionality. All technology development is informed by values. However, a technology tool, once developed, can be applied in many ways that reinforce the original intention, run counter to it or spur new possibilities never thought of by the developer. Ideological debates around technology development and selection are easier to have because the issues are far more limited, and revolve around technology choices and objective operational requirements. The genie is let out of the bottle only once a technology, any technology, is deployed. The ideology of use poses far more serious ethical issues than the development and selection ideologies previously discussed. Here are five examples in the current global context:

Case #1 Ideology and Terms of Use: What if I have a technology that allows me to encrypt hidden messages in a digital image and then pass them to an intended recipient who has the key to unlock the message? This application can be used by the Otpor Student movement in Serbia to clandestinely pass information between members in its bid to change the autocratic Milosovic Government by democratic means, or it can be used by Al Qaeda to communicate its next major terrorist attacks against an innocent target. Should the usage of such tools be somehow regulated?

And what if they are regulated? Some years ago, then-Russian President Yeltsin issued a decree that the keys to all encryption designed into software and distributed in Russia must be provided to the FSB, (the Russian successor of the KGB). That would cover the example above but it would also cover a securely encrypted, open source, human rights application. A Chechen NGO in Russia using such an application to track human rights abuses would not necessarily be as fully protected by the laws in that country as a similar organization tracking abuses against Islamic citizens in the US. However what if this application did fall into the wrong hands and was used by a Chechen terrorist organization?

Here the ethical dilemma takes on an interesting twist. Reporting the encryption keys to the appropriate authorities could put a legitimate human rights organization in jeopardy given the anti-terrorist, anti-Chechen environment. However, not reporting the keys might allow the application to fall into the wrong hands, allowing secure encrypted communications in a country where it is clearly illegal without the government having a key. What is the responsibility of the developer who makes a secure application freely available in SourceForge, (the online open source software repository)?

Hacktivismo has taken a crack at this type of ethical dilemma...

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