Open source software developers face greater risks today than they ever have, to the point where the constraints inherent in proprietary software now represent a risk to democracy.
"News and political discourse are mediated by software, and they're going to be more mediated in Apple TV than they are today in your computer. And we trust an astonishingly few companies to be the intermediaries between information and the user," said Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, at the Linux.conf.au 2012 conference in Ballarat yesterday.
"People love their iPhones, because their iPhones enable them in so many ways, [but] they don't always understand that their iPhones also constrain them," he said.
"People are increasingly slaves of their tools ...Part of their function is to not do what they want when their action might reduce the profit of Apple or a media company, or upset a cellular carrier, a government or even when some action is the wrong choice for the computer-naive user — for example, running [Adobe] Flash on an iPhone."
"Open source is the only credible producer of software and now hardware that isn't bound to a single company's economic interest," Perens said.
Despite open software's popularity in some sectors of the community, and the success of some projects, the movement as a whole has failed to defend its own future against the threat of laws designed to regulate the flow of information, such as the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and, before it, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
In part, that's because many open-source developers have an attitude problem, says Perens. "Let's face it; most of us don't even like users. We call them 'lusers'. We make the software for ourselves and the other developers. Why should we like them?"
Nothing is more annoying, said Perens, than the complaining user who says that the software stinks, when he's never contributed anything himself.
"We haven't yet developed any sympathy for users that is manifested by companies like Apple ...A good many of us, unfortunately, match the stereotype of socially impaired programmers."
Perens cited the Mozilla Foundation, creators of the Firefox web browser, and Wikipedia as examples of open-source projects that showed the "tremendous self-discipline" needed to appeal to ordinary users.
"Wikipedia [is] intrinsically more accessible to the common person than most of the things that we do ...When our work gratified only ourselves and our community, it's self-limiting,"
Perens said that the open-source movement's goal should be to establish a continuing legal freedom to create, modify and distribute open-source hardware and software.
"It's a simple goal. Open source should be legal. We're at risk from laws that weren't directed at us when we weren't economically significant, for example, software patenting; we've been really lucky with that, because at least in the [United] States it could have shut us down, and it hasn't been used that way," he said.
"We need to be able to make changes if we're going to be able to help ourselves ...We have no reason to trust companies or governments to do this job for us."
For more from Linux.conf.au, listen to our complete round-up of day one.