(… as a Free Internet)


Hey, the Internet is “free”.  I can publish any stupid web page I like, say anything I want on my blog, or as comments on other peoples’ blogs, or …

But I didn’t mean it in that way.

Well of course, you say, There ain’t no such thing as a FREE internet.  I spend $20 ($50, $100, however much) each month with ComCast (Verizon, AT&T, whatever ISP) to get online.

Um, not quite that, either.

A year ago, Andrew Binstock, the last Editor in Chief of Dr. Dobbs’ Journal, wrote an essay explaining that there was an “fundamental conflict” at the heart of open source software development.  His thesis claims this unavoidable conflict is between “the opposing forces of building community vs. deriving a sustainable level of revenue from an open-source project.”  Andrew says that in the absence of the GPL or another ‘copyleft’ license requiring developers to contribute their changes back to the community, major companies (Google and Cisco are a couple of the examples he cites) use open source software, improve upon it for their own needs, but never give back to the original maintainers’ community, either in code or time or, most importantly, financial resources.

In a limited way, he’s right.  It is reasonable to argue that the Heartbleed and Shellshock bugs of the recent past were due to lack of sustained attention.  The stalwart few who have shouldered the responsibility for these critical pieces of the Internet’s infrastructure cannot afford to devote enough time and attention to them.  We also know that there are other pieces, equally vital, that could be just as dangerously flawed.  This is not an indictment of OSS or the methodologies by which open source software is developed; the monthly patch lists from Microsoft, Adobe and other closed-source vendors belie the claim that The Cathedral can do any better than The Bazaar.

But you still have to test and maintain OSS software.  And the people who do it still have to eat, and pay mortgages, and spend real money on the rest of their lives – even if they are willing to give their work away.  We – all of us, in the current Internet-dependent world – we can’t go on trusting upon the “kindness of strangers” to hold up the sky.  We need a permanent, reliable way to fund the continuing support of the software infrastructure of the Internet.

And I think I’ve found it.  The Internet Civil Engineering Institute was founded for exactly this purpose.  They will identify the things that need fixing, the people who can fix them, and take the monies they collect to pay the latter to do the former.  ICEI is soliciting donations from everyone, large and small.  Fine, you say, let Google and Cisco and all those other fat cats pay up for a change!  But do you want any one company to be able to control all the code?  Precisely because it was created in an open, shared, non-commercial way do we have the free (as in speech) Internet we have.  But somebody’s got to pay for the beer – it’s not free.

The other week, I mailed ICEI a $100 check.  It won’t be my last.  If they had a method like Gittip so that I could set up a regular donation, I would do it immediately.


Maybe you should do the same.


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One Response to TANSTAAFI

  1. Brian J. Kratzer says:

    I’m just an “end user” of everyone’s hard work and dedication, but I plan to start sending something when I am able.

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