Considering an Open Future

Presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas) became the “Internet” candidate this month when 36,672 people contributed more than US$4 million online to his campaign in a single 24-hour period. This impressive feat demonstrates the power of an open source culture, a lesson that should not be lost when it comes to other important issues.

The campaign to raise money for Rep. Paul was open source in a number of ways. First, it was a decentralized effort, promoted by people all over the country simultaneously. Indeed, Paul’s campaign was so hands-off that the candidate told The New York Times that he “had nothing to do with it.” It was two independent people who started the ball rolling.

James Sugra posted an online video proposing a big day of fund-raising for Paul, and Trevor Lyman separately created a site,, that featured the video. Lyman’s site is now planning another big day on Dec. 16, the anniversary of the Boston Tea party.

On that day, Paul’s open source campaigners are hoping to encourage 100,000 people to donate $100 each.

Sharing More, Not Less

Choosing a historical day may not be a particularly new fundraising tactic, but the additional open source cultural spin is that the site is automatically updating how many people have pledged so far. This transparency complements the home page of Ron Paul’s Web site, which constantly pops up names of his campaign donors. Those revelations stand in direct contrast to traditional campaigns, which tend to be silent and proprietary about who is donating.

Paul’s “donation feed” is reminiscent of the somewhat addictive “newsfeed” on social networking site Facebook, and it appears to have the effect of increasing donations. In a society where privacy is shrinking, it seems many embrace the idea of sharing more information, not less. Paul’s supporters are not alone in their recognition of the power of a voluntary open source culture.

Internet search giant, Google, announced this week that it is offering $10 million in prizes for people who build the best software for Android, the company’s new open platform for mobile devices. This move shows that Google knows its tech history. Back in 1985, Apple made a huge mistake of saying no to a young Bill Gates who wanted the company to open up its proprietary architecture to developers. We all know how that ended, and now a similar story is likely to play out if the big phone companies stay closed while Google opens things up.

Don’t Force It Open

This reality, unfortunately, has led many to the erroneous conclusion that since openness is good, the government should force it, no matter what the cost. However, government force rarely leads to the open societies people seek. Take Net neutrality advocates, for example.

They are so concerned that network operators are going to discriminate against users that they are willing to let government set rules that would freeze the Net’s architecture in time. This would bring the Net to its proverbial knees and basically ensure the death of openness through strangulation by red tape.

Some Net neutrality supporters, fortunately, are involved in voluntary open source groups that may truly help prevent discrimination. Lauren Weinstein’s Network Neutrality Squad looks promising as it is an “open membership, open source effort, enlisting the Internet’s users to help keep the Internet’s operations fair and unhindered from unreasonable restrictions.” That’s a great idea — the Internet needs watchdogs and these are capable people. That is not where the possibilities end for an open future.

Fighting in the Open

At a Foresight Institute “unconference” earlier this month, Christine Peterson, the group’s founder and vice president, suggested a new goal for the open source community: fighting terrorism. So much of what the United States does to fight terrorism is centralized and proprietary, while the terrorists tend to be decentralized and less proprietary. What if America decided to go down a different route? What if ordinary people who wanted to help could get involved and make a difference, she asked. That would be the open source model, and it may have significant benefits.

The success of Ron Paul’s supporters in raising money through an open source culture should give leaders in every area pause to think about how they might be able to utilize the same voluntary forces. It’s possible that an open future is the best path.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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