Open Source Software Development as a Model for Internet Governance

TitleOpen Source Software Development as a Model for Internet Governance
Publication TypeMiscellaneous
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsMalcolm, J

Internet governance and open source software development alike are most effectively achieved through a balance of decentralisation and control. For Internet governance, this is found in governance by network, in which governmental and private stakeholders, and the hierarchical and decentralised mechanisms of governance they respectively favour, are brought together. However if the stakeholders' power is unequal, so will be the balance of the network. The case of open source software development provides the key to ensuring that stakeholders are not oppressed in a network unbalanced by hierarchical power. This relies on the phenomenon of exit-based empowerment that flows from the open source software licence. However, it can be extended to the design of governance networks given certain idealising assumptions, and even when these do not hold, useful lessons for the future reform of Internet governance arrangements remain.

Full Text

Open Source Software Development as a Model for
Internet Governance
Jeremy Malcolm <>

Internet governance and open source software development alike are
most effectively achieved through a balance of decentralisation and
control. For Internet governance, this is found in governance by
network, in which governmental and private stakeholders, and the
hierarchical and decentralised mechanisms of governance they
respectively favour, are brought together. However if the
stakeholders' power is unequal, so will be the balance of the
network. The case of open source software development provides the
key to ensuring that stakeholders are not oppressed in a network
unbalanced by hierarchical power. This relies on the phenomenon of
exit-based empowerment that flows from the open source software
licence. However, it can be extended to the design of governance
networks given certain idealising assumptions, and even when these
do not hold, useful lessons for the future reform of Internet
governance arrangements remain.

The evolution of governance arrangements for the Internet has
exhibited a growing tension between the forces of anarchy and
hierarchical control. Thus whereas Bruce Sterling described the
Internet in 1993 as "a rare example of a true, modern, functional
anarchy,"[1] some ten years later
the World Summit on the Information Society matter-of-factly
declared that "Policy authority for Internet-related public policy
issues is the sovereign right of States."[2] The same tension between anarchy and control has
been observed in the governance of open source software
projects.[3] This paper will
investigate whether this link is purely coincidental, or whether
there is an underlying commonality between Internet governance and
open source software development which might be instructive to
scholars of the former.

As a preliminary matter, "anarchy" is not the most useful
description for the decentralised collective ordering that
characterises non-hierarchical Internet governance. A more accurate
term would be governance by network, which connotes a form of
governance in which authority is shared between multiple
independent actors across government, the private sector and civil
society, and which is epitomised by many of the emergent forms of
governance found on the Internet.[4]
Governance by network brings together the other mechanisms of
governance that stakeholders might individually employ—such
as the use of rules, norms, markets and architecture or
"code"—and draws upon the composite legitimacy of all the
stakeholders who employ them.[5]
Hierarchies and networks
The term "network" also suggests an analogy to a computer
network, which illustrates the relationship between the
hierarchical and decentralised models of governance rather well.
Taking the Internet itself as an example, the topology of its
predecessor, the ARPANET, did not impose any strict hierarchy
between the earliest nodes of the network. This is because
ARPANET's switching technology—that is, the way in which
communications were directed from sender to
recipient—utilised "packets" of data, rather than a dedicated
circuit established between sender and recipient, as for example in
the case of the telephone network. In such a packet-switched
network, every node in the network is a peer to every other node,
carrying equal responsibility for passing a packet towards its
Over the succeeding years ARPANET expanded by interconnecting
with other wide area computer networks such as CSNET, a network of
the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 1983 the military nodes
of ARPANET were split off from the network, with the balance
eventually being assumed into a new network NSFNET, established in
1986 by the NSF. At this point, the young Internet had been
rearranged in a hierarchical or tree structure, whereby networks
connecting to it were required to establish direct links to the
NSFNET backbone network (or if they were too small to justify a
direct link, to connect to larger networks that were in turn
connected to the NSFNET backbone).[7] It was this backbone network that assumed
responsibility for routing packets from source to destination.

The modern day Internet on the other hand has reverted to a more
sophisticated version of the flat topology of ARPANET. This was
accomplished with the introduction in 1994 of a new routing
protocol for the Internet, the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), which
enabled the routing function to once again be decentralised. This
allowed any node on the network to communicate with any other node
across a multiplicity of possible paths, none of which need include
any given central point.
The relevance of this analogy is that precisely the same
progression from decentralisation to hierarchy and back again can
be seen in the evolution of governance of the Internet. In the
early Internet, the decentralised paradigm dominated at all layers
of governance. Relating these to the relevant layers of the
Internet's network stack, these included the use of interconnection
agreements between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) at the network
layer (an example of governance through markets), the application
of specifications developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force
(IETF) at the transport layer (utilising governance by
architecture), and compliance with AUPs (Acceptable Use Policies)
and netiquette at the application layer (demonstrating governance
by norms).[8]
But as the Internet has grown from its humble beginnings as an
academic and technical network into (as it was described at WSIS)
"a global facility available to the public,"[9] so the use of hierarchical mechanisms of
governance has assumed greater prominence. This has included
regulation at the international level (such as the Council of
Europe's Cybercrime Convention[10]
and the updating of the WIPO intellectual property
regime[11]) and the domestic
level (such as legislation addressing spam, obscenity and online
gambling).[12] However it has
also been seen in ICANN's oligarchical regime for the management
of the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) and IP
addressing,[13] over which the
United States government has asserted control.[14]

Since WSIS however, and particularly since the report of its
multi-stakeholder Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) in
2005,[15] the tension between
hierarchy and decentralisation in Internet governance has come to
the forefront, with the proclamation in 2003 that Internet
governance "is a joint effort which requires cooperation and
partnership among all stakeholders,"[16] and the agreement in 2005 to form the Internet
Governance Forum as a "new forum for multi-stakeholder policy
dialogue."[17] Conceptually,
multi-stakeholder governance through a network such as the IGF
could become the BGP of Internet governance, once again allowing
any stakeholder seeking to collaborate upon development of public
policy for the Internet to do so on an equal footing without the
intermediation of hierarchical authority.[18]
However as noted above, WSIS reserved a pre-eminent role in
policy development to governments, and the IGF's United
Nations-appointed Secretariat and Advisory Group have taken a very
constrictive view of the independent role of the other stakeholders
in that process. For example, the Advisory Group's Chairman Nitin
Desai has stressed on numerous occasions that the IGF is "not a
decision-making body. We have no members so we have no power to
make decision."[19] Neither have
those with existing political and economic power in the Internet
governance regime—notably the United States and its allies
and the Internet technical community and private sector -- been
content to idly sit back and allow other stakeholders to take their
places as peers in this new governance network.[20]

The result has been that the IGF's mandate from WSIS, that
appears to require all stakeholders to (inter alia)
collaborate on the development of public policy recommendations
where appropriate,[21] has in
practice been significantly constrained. Whilst in the longer term
this may prove to be simply a stage in the development of a fuller
expression of multi-stakeholder governance, for now it remains that
whilst the IGF may have the form of an open, multi-stakeholder
governance network, its role, structure and processes have largely
been shaped through the hierarchical authority of the most powerful
stakeholders of the Internet governance regime and the
international system.
This may in fact be unavoidable, since there is evidence that
oligarchy is the natural state of any governence institution or
network, no matter how democratically it may be structured at
first. Thus Michels' "iron law of oligarchy" provides that in any
small group that there is a tendency for power to be concentrated
in the hands of an elite who have both the will and the means to
organise others.[22]
Neither is this outcome even, necessarily, a bad thing, provided
that it does not result in the oppression of the group's members.
There is certainly no a priori reason why it should do so,
since it is quite possible for a hierarchically-directed governance
network to act primarily in its stakeholders' best interests
(though its success in doing so is rarely likely to be capable of
objective determination, without some mechanism by which for the
stakeholders to express their consent). Indeed, it can even be
argued that where the conditions are right, the network must
act benevolently rather than in an authoritarian manner. The case
of open source software development will illustrate why.

Introducing open source software
Although the burgeoning success of open source software and the
philosophy underpinning it has been often described as the "open
source revolution,"[23] open
source software is actually nothing new; in fact is is older than
proprietary software. Levy describes how even in the late 1950s and
early 1960s, software for the first generation of minicomputers was
made available "for anyone to access, look at, and rewrite as they
saw fit."[24]
Another common observation is that it is no coincidence that the
rise of open source software has coincided with that of the
Internet.[25] As never before, the
Internet facilitated the development of open source software en
masse by geographically distributed groups of hackers. But the
relationship goes back still further, as the technical
infrastructure of the Internet was itself largely built on open
source software—even before it was known by that name. Prior
to the term "open source" being coined in 1998,[26] it was commonly known simply as "free
software" (and is still so known by many, notably including the
Free Software Foundation).[27]

However, the software is free in more than one sense. Free or
open source software (both appellations being encompassed by the
acronym FOSS or F/OSS; FLOSS is also sometimes seen, adding the
French libre), is in the FSF's words not only free in the
sense of "free beer," but also in the sense of "freedom,"

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to
    your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition
    for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your
    neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your
    improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits
    (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for

Although it is not required in order to satisfy these criteria,
certain open source software licences, most notably the GNU General
Public License (GPL) which is used by a majority of all open source
software,[29] require any work
copied or derived from software covered by the GPL to be
distributed under the same licence terms. This characteristic is
referred to by the FSF as "copyleft," as a play on "copyright," in
that it requires those who base their own works on
copyleft-licensed software to forgo the exclusive rights that
copyright law gives them to copy and modify their works, and to
share those rights freely with the community.

Thus, despite the subversive design of copyleft licences in
particular, open source software licences draw their power from
copyright law just as proprietary software licences do. The only
significant legal difference between the two is that since there is
no consideration passing from the licensee of open source software,
there is no contractual relationship between licensee and licensor,
and the licensor therefore cannot extract anything further from the
licensee than copyright law allows.[30]
The open source development methodology
More significant than the freedoms associated with open source
software are the larger cultural and organisational consequences to
which their exercise gives rise. These include the widespread
voluntary service that members of the open source community provide
in coding and documenting the software projects to which they
contribute,[31] and the typical
high quality, timeliness and innovation of their output.[32]
Eric Raymond, a hacker himself, has famously described the
difference between the development methodology for proprietary
software and that for open source software as that between "the
cathedral and the bazaar," in his essay of that name. To be built
like a cathedral, in that context, is to be "carefully crafted by
individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid
isolation, with no beta to be released before its time," whereas
the bazaar style of development was epitomised by the Linux kernel
development process, which

seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing
agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive
sites, who'd take submissions from anyone) out of which a
coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a
succession of miracles.[33]

The same phenomenon has begun to propagate beyond software
development into other fields. It can be observed in the hours that
hundreds of contributors devote each week to the Wikipedia project,
producing the most comprehensive encyclopædia ever written.
The licensing model employed by Wikipedia is equivalent to that of
open source software, although the material licensed may be more
accurately described as "open content," and the license employed is
not the GPL but the GNU Free Documentation License
There are, of course, other open content licences. Creative
Commons is a project to draft and promote licences suitable for the
release of all manner of literary, musical, artistic and dramatic
works as open content.[35] The
Creative Commons Web site makes some of this content available,
though Creative Commons licensed content is also found on many
other sites including the Internet Archive[36] and the OpenCourseWare project,[37] inaugurated by MIT and since extended to
other institutions[38] for the
publication of course materials.

The success of the open source development methodology is often
explained by economic sociologists in terms of the low transaction
costs associated with communication between developers,[39] and the network effects which
increase the value of the open source "commons" to all as more
people become involved.[40]
Although puzzled as to what individual incentives developers have
to voluntarily build up this open source commons,[41] they posit that it is a barter or gift
exchange system in which developers exchange their labour for
such goods as feedback from users and an enhanced reputation
amongst their peers,[42] or
that it is a means of improving their future employment
To developers such as Raymond the question is less of a mystery:
they do it because it is fun.[44]

Power and fun
Linus Torvalds, original author of the Linux operating system
kernel, concurs with this view in his autobiography (which is
suitably enough titled Just For Fun),[45] as does Levy in his history of the hacker
community.[46] As we have seen,
software development is only one instance of the open source
methodology, but the fun continues amongst publishers of other
forms of open content: Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia for example
unpretentiously states, "The goal of Wikipedia is fun for the
It can also extend to projects small enough to be pursued by a
single developer. Whilst these might not be thought of as
organisations, lacking a community of developers, they are still
aimed at a community of users or readers[48] and thus fulfil similar social needs as more
structured virtual communities.[49] Take the example of blogs ("Web logs");
self-published online journals numbering over 100 million as at
2007.[50] Tim Wu observes that "in
general, bloggers writing for fun -- or out of single-minded
obsession—can thump reporters trying to get home by

But what underlies the fun? It might be argued that it is
inherent in the creative process, but that begs the question, what
underlies that?
At least to some extent, the answer is empowerment: the power to
independently create or achieve something one perceives to be of
value. The desire for such power is known by psychologists as a
mastery, competence or achievement motive,[52] and Maslow placed it at the pinnacle of his
hierarchy of human needs, naming it the need for
Sociologists as far back as Weber came to the same realisation that
increasing the bureaucratic rationalisation of work could be
dehumanising; Weber describing this trend as an "iron cage" in
which humanity was destined to be trapped.[54] Scholars of organisational behaviour have
inherited this insight, and proposed strategies by which employees
can be empowered (and thus made happier and more productive) by
increasing their autonomy at work.[55]
Although the emergence of the open source methodology has been
quite orthogonal to this scholarship, it is an exemplar of its
programme in the extent to which it empowers the members of the
open source community to pursue their own objectives, in their own
way, in a manner that is not possible within a hierarchical

It follows that the licence under which open source software is
released, as important as it may be to the success of the software
and to the movement as a whole, is not the most critical factor in
its success as a software development methodology; rather, it is
the empowerment of its contributors that is central. The licence is
simply the means by which hackers (in the broadest
sense)[57] have
institutionalised the ethic that "all information should be
free"[58] in law in respect of
open source software and open content, as they embedded it in
the architecture of the Internet in respect of data
On this basis, the egalitarianism of the open source software
development model can be seen as reflecting that of the Internet
itself. Both are models of anarchistic ordering largely of hackers'
own creation.[59] Thus as already
observed it is no coincidence that the Internet is an enabling
force for the open source paradigm, levelling the playing field
between media juggernauts and software powerhouses, and teenagers
writing or coding in their attic.[60] Freed of the hegemony of hierarchy, hackers and
others pursing their need for self-actualisation become more
empowered, fulfilled and happy.
The Benevolent Dictatorship for Life

The only problem with this picture is that the common conception
of most open source software projects as being anarchistic is
actually a myth. In most open source software development projects,
anarchy is balanced with hierarchical control.[61]
It is in fact common for open source software development
projects to be governed by a "benevolent dictator for life" (or
BDFL).[62] These are found in
projects ranging from the Linux operating system kernel itself, of
which Linus Torvalds is the BDFL,[63] Linux-based operating system distributions such
as Ubuntu led by Mark Shuttleworth,[64] application software such as the Samba
networking suite coordinated by Andrew Tridgell,[65] and programming languages such as
Perl,[66] PHP[67] and Python[68] in which Larry Wall, Rasmus Lerdorf and Guido
van Rossum respectively act as project leaders in

The position of BDFL normally falls to the developer who
initiated a project, though in the case of multiple original core
developers, the phenomenon of a benevolent oligarchy for life is
not unknown (for example Matt Mullenweg and Ryan Boren for the
WordPress blog engine).[69]
In the case of the Linux kernel, Torvalds who is perhaps the
archetype of a BDFL, possesses ultimate authority to decide which
contributions ("patches") to the Linux operating system kernel
should be accepted and which should be refused. Torvalds no longer
personally manages the whole of the kernel and has delegated
authority to a number of trusted associates to manage particular
subsystems and hardware architectures, but it remains his authority
to appoint these so-called "lieutenants" and to supervise their
work. A document distributed with the Linux kernel source code that
is subtitled "Care And Operation Of Your Linus Torvalds" describes
him as "the final arbiter of all changes accepted into the Linux
Thus contrary to what might be assumed from Raymond's claim
about "the Linux archive sites, who'd take submissions from
anyone," the Linux kernel development process is neither
anarchistic nor consensual: if Torvalds does not like a patch, it
does not go in to the kernel.[71]
This has often antagonised other kernel developers, one of them
commencing a long-running thread on the kernel development mailing
list by saying:

Linus doesn't scale, and his current way of coping is
to silently drop the vast majority of patches submitted to him onto
the floor. Most of the time there is no judgement involved when
this code gets dropped. Patches that fix compile errors get
dropped. Code from subsystem maintainers that Linus himself
designated gets dropped. A build of the tree now spits out numerous
easily fixable warnings, when at one time it was warning-free.
Finished code regularly goes unintegrated for months at a time,
being repeatedly resynced and re-diffed against new trees until the
code's maintainer gets sick of it. This is extremely frustrating to
developers, users, and vendors, and is burning out the maintainers.
It is a huge source of unnecessary work. The situation needs to be
resolved. Fast.[72]

Torvalds' initially unapologetic response[73] recalls another classic example of his sardonic
view of his position as BDFL, when announcing the selection of a
penguin logo for Linux. Acknowledging the comments of those who had
expressed reservations about it, Torvalds concluded with the quip,
"If you still don't like it, that's ok: that's why I'm boss. I
simply know better than you do."[74]
Mozilla and
The Mozilla[75] and[76] projects,
amongst the most successful and highest-profile of all open source
projects, provide a slightly different example of hierarchical
ordering in open source software development.[77] In these cases, the authority is not that of an
individual, but a corporation: originally Netscape Communications
in the case of Mozilla, and Sun Microsystems in the case of

As well as leading development, Netscape originally held the
"Mozilla" trade mark (as Linus Torvalds does for "Linux" in various
jurisdictions[78]), and until 2001
required modifications to its source code to be licensed under
terms that exclusively exempted it from the copyleft provisions
applicable to other users.[79]
Similarly, Sun required (and continues to require) contributors to
the project to assign joint copyright in their work
to it.[80]
This kind of collective hierarchical control over an open source
software project can also be exercised by a civil society
organisation. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation, for example,
succeeded to the rights of Netscape, such as the trade mark and
rights under the Netscape Public License.[81] Membership of its governing body (or "staff") is
by invitation only.
Apache Software Foundation
Another example of such an organisation, also taken from one of
the most prominent and successful open source projects, is the
Apache Software Foundation (ASF),[82] which is best known for the Apache HTTP Server
which powers the majority of Web sites on the Internet.[83]

The case of the ASF illustrates well that there are also various
strata of developers underneath the BDFL. One study has categorised
these into core members (or maintainers), active developers,
peripheral developers, bug reporters, readers and passive
users,[84] and confirmed previous
findings that the core developers are generally the smallest group
but write the majority of the project's code.[85] Whilst developers in lower strata are mostly
self-selected,[86] in many
projects, including those of the ASF, the core developers are
selected by the BDFL, applying stringent meritocratic
The Apache Software Foundation is a non-profit corporation
governed by a board of nine directors who are elected by the
Foundation's members for one-year terms, and who in turn appoint a
number of officers (63, in 2007) to oversee its day-to-day
operations. As of 2007 there are 156 members of the ASF, each of
whom was invited to join on the basis of their previous
contributions to ASF projects, and whose invitation was extended by
a majority vote of the existing members.
Each project overseen by the ASF (such as the HTTP Server
Project) is in turn governed by a Project Management Committee
(PMC) comprised of a self-selected group of ASF members. Whilst
non-members can also contribute to project development, they are
required to assign copyright in their contributions to the
ASF.[88] PMC chairs are officers
of the ASF who have power to define the PMC's rules (if any) and
the responsibility to report to the board. The ASF itself claims
that it

represents one of the best examples of an open
organization that has found balance between structure and
flexibility. We have grown from 200 committers to almost 800, and
that number continues to grow on a daily basis. We have been able
to create several software products that are leaders in their
market. We have also been able to find balance between openness and
economical feasibility. This has earned us respect from a range of
people, from single individuals to multinational corporations. We
hope to continue to provide inspiration for businesses,
governments, education, and for other software

One final example of hierarchical ordering in open source
software development is found in comparing two similar Linux-based
operating system distributions, Debian GNU/Linux[90] and Ubuntu.[91] The Debian project was the first to be
established, in 1993. Although not incorporated, an associated
incorporated body Software in the Public Interest, Inc (SPI) was
formed in 1997 to provide the Debian project (along with various
other open source projects) with administrative and legal
support. It does not take an active role in the development of
the Debian distribution.
The Debian project is led by a Project Leader who is elected by
the project's members, known as its Developers (or Maintainers),
for a one year term. The Project Leader presides over a Project
Secretary, a Technical Committee of up to eight members, and
various other technical positions, all of whom are appointed from
amongst the Developers by the Project Leader (save that the Project
Leader appoints a new Project Secretary jointly with the incumbent
in that role). The process for becoming a Developer is a
meritocratic one, the requirements of which are set out in a
detailed policy document.[92] As
at 2007 there are over 1100 Developers, although many of these are

The autonomy of the Project Leader is expressly limited by
clause 5.3 of the Debian Constitution[93] which provides, "The Project Leader should
attempt to make decisions which are consistent with the consensus
of the opinions of the Developers" and "should avoid
overemphasizing their own point of view when making decisions in
their capacity as Leader." The same applies to the Technical
Committee, which is only to make decisions as a last resort, where
"efforts to resolve it via consensus have been tried and failed"
(clause 6.3.6). Clause 4.1 provides that any decision of the
Project Leader may be overruled by a general resolution of the
Developers, as may any decision of the Technical Committee by a two
thirds majority resolution.
This is in contrast to the position within the governance of the
Ubuntu distribution. Mark Shuttleworth founded the distribution in
2004, and termed himself its SABDFL (self-appointed benevolent
dictator for life). He exercises a casting vote on both of its main
decision-making bodies: the Technical Board and the Ubuntu
Community Council.
The Technical Board is a committee which makes decisions on
technical issues relating to the distribution, such as which
software it should include and how this should be packaged and
installed. It acts by consensus, but only amongst its own members,
and is not required to reflect the views of the Ubuntu community at
large. Its members, currently four, are appointed by Shuttleworth
subject to confirmation by a vote of all developers, and they serve
a one year term.
The Community Council is responsible for overseeing the social
structure of the Ubuntu community, including the creation of Teams
and Projects with responsibility for particular tasks such as
documentation and release management, and the appointment of new
team leaders, developers and members. It also maintains a Code of
Conduct to which all members of the Ubuntu community are required
to adhere, and arbitrates disputes arising under it. The Community
Council, also currently of four members, is appointed by
Shuttleworth subject to confirmation by a vote of all developers
and members, and sits for a two year term.
The developers or maintainers of Ubuntu are equivalent to those
of Debian and nominated by a similar process, save that they are
divided into two tiers: Masters of the Universe or MOTU, who have
authority to maintain packages only in the unsupported "universe"
and "multiverse" classes available for installation on an Ubuntu
system, and Core Developers who are uniquely authorised to maintain
packages in the fully supported "main" class which are installed by
default by the Ubuntu distribution.
In addition, Ubuntu recognises as "members" those who have
provided a significant contribution to the Ubuntu community,
perhaps by providing support, writing documentation or reporting
bugs, but who do not require the power to directly maintain
packages. Members, like developers, are required to agree to the
Code of Conduct and have the right to vote to confirm new
appointments to the Ubuntu Community Council.

A survey of desktop users of Linux distributions conducted in
2005 by Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) revealed that in little
over a year since its establishment in 2004, the Ubuntu
distribution was already in use by more than 50 per cent of
respondents.[94] A prominent
former Debian Developer who resigned in 2006 compared the Debian
and Ubuntu distributions by saying,

There's a balance to be struck between organisational
freedom and organisational effectiveness. I'm not convinced that
Debian has that balance right as far as forming a working community
goes. In that respect, Ubuntu's an experiment—does a more
rigid structure and a greater willingness to enforce certain social
standards result in a more workable community?[95]

Exit-based empowerment
In fact of the examples given of open source projects in which a
significant hierarchical structure exists or has existed—the
Linux kernel, Mozilla,, Apache, and Ubuntu—all
are the most widely-used open source projects in their class, and
have large and active communities of developers. How can this be
reconciled with the earlier hypothesis that it was the very lack of
hierarchy that empowered developers and attracted them to volunteer
their services to open source projects?
Despite the fact that its significance to developers had earlier
been downplayed, the answer is found in the open source licence. It
is the open source license that enforces benevolence upon the
dictator. It does this by ensuring that for any open source
project, there is always relatively costless freedom of exit, in
that any developers who feel they are being oppressed by a project
leader can simply cease participating in the project, take its
source code, and use it as the base for a new project of their own
(known as a "fork" of the original project). This "exit-based
empowerment"[96] enjoyed by
developers mitigates the power of the project leaders.

As Torvalds has put it,

I am a dictator, but it's the right kind of
dictatorship. I can't really do anything that screws people over.
The benevolence is built in. I can't be nasty. If my baser
instincts took hold, they wouldn't trust me, and they wouldn't work
with me anymore. I'm not so much a leader, I'm more of a shepherd.
Now all the kernel developers will read that and say, "He's
comparing us to sheep." It's more like herding cats.[97]

The Linux kernel has, indeed, been forked numerous times. One
prominent fork was that maintained by Red Hat Linux developer Alan
Cox, who released a series of kernel source trees differentiated
from Torvalds' official kernel by the "-ac" tag, and which
contained patches not yet accepted by Torvalds.[98] However since 2002, a technical solution
to Torvalds' backlog was found in the use of specialised
revision control software (originally, ironically, a proprietary
product called BitKeeper,[99]
and subsequently an open source equivalent called Git written by
Torvalds himself).[100] This
has placated many of Torvalds' critics, and resulted in the
obsolescence of many former forks of the kernel.
Both Mozilla's Firefox browser and the office
suite have also been forked. The Debian project, for example, has
replaced Firefox in its distribution with a forked version called
Iceweasel, to escape the onerous trade mark licence conditions
imposed by the Mozilla Foundation for the use of the Firefox name
and logo.[101] As for, a prominent fork called NeoOffice[102] has been customised to integrate more
smoothly with the Mac OS X operating system. Debian itself has also
spawned a number of derivative distributions, although these are
seldom termed forks. A federation of Debian-based distributions
(though not including Ubuntu) is the DCC Alliance.[103]

Admittedly, forking an open source project is not completely
costless. Although the cost of the infrastructure required to host
a new project is minimal (often even free),[104] a new name and logo will be required (either
because the originals are protected by trade marks as in the case
of Firefox and, or simply because of the practical
necessity to distinguish the two projects).
Usually the most significant cost however is that it will be
necessary for the new project leader to establish a community of
users and developers to support the project in the long term. This
is defined by economic sociologists as the cost of developing
social capital.[105] Thus, the
more successful the parent project is (and the more cohesive its
communities of developer and users), the higher its social capital
will be, the higher the transaction costs of a fork, and the more
effectively that fork will have to differentiate itself from its
parent in order to overcome those costs.
This is illustrated by the case of Samba-TNG which forked from
the highly successful Samba project in 1999,[106] seeking to differentiate itself by first
offering the facility to replace a Microsoft Windows NT server as a
Primary Domain Controller. However it struggled to build a
development community comparable in size and expertise to that of
its parent project, which in the meantime implemented its own
version of Samba-TNG's differentiating feature. In comparison,
forks of less dominant and stable projects (such as the
oft-criticised[107] PHP-Nuke
content management system)[108]

have been forked more often and more successfully.[109]
This characteristic of the transaction costs associated with
migration from one open source project to another provides a
cohesive force against the unnecessary fragmentation of open source
projects, that will only be overcome if enough developers become
sufficiently dissatisfied to form a viable competing project (which
the project leaders have an incentive not to allow to happen, lest
they lose their base of developers). In comparison, developers
within Microsoft Corporation face much higher transaction costs in
replicating their work and their communities elsewhere if they are
dissatisfied, if indeed it is possible for them to do so at
Thus it is from the unexpected source of the open source licence
that a possible solution is found to the problem of how to ensure
that an organisation acts benevolently rather than tyrannically,
even though it may be structured in hierarchical rather than
democratic form. The open source licence achieves this by providing
an implicit check on the power of the organisation's leadership,
effectively conditioning its continued exercise of that power on
the consent of its constituents.
Open source principles in Internet

How, if at all, is this insight applicable to Internet
The answer is more subtle than simply suggesting that the output
of the IGF should be released under an open content licence so that
a "fork" of its output (if any) could be taken up by another
governance network. Although sound in theory, the transaction costs
of establishing another such network are rather higher than those
of establishing a fork of a software project.
A more considered answer will require the implications of the
case study of open source software to be isolated; specifically,
the assumptions that must be satisfied to ensure that the
stakeholders in a governance network that is structured in
hierarchical form are not at risk of being oppressed (that is,
being subjected to hierarchical power to which they have not
consented, and the objective merit of which cannot be
demonstrated). These assumptions can be reduced to three:

  • the existence of perfect substitutes for the product of the
    governance network;
  • freedom of exit from the network; and
  • that stakeholders are not coerced to accept the product of the
    governance network by mechanisms external to that

With these three criteria satisfied,

[i]t does not matter whether online discussion groups
or even entire networks of such groups are internally autocratic,
since individuals can always choose "their own more congenial
online homes." Cyberanarchists, then, see cyberspace as a market of
alternative rule regimes. It is the ease of exit and the abundance
of alternatives—in essence consumer choice in conditions
approaching perfect competition -- that bring to fruition the
liberal ideals of liberty and consent.[111]

The next question then is the extent to which the above, apparently
rather idealistic, assumptions can be fulfilled in the case of a
governance network as they are in the case of open source software
development. Examining each of them in turn:

  • In the case of a governance network, the substitutes for
    governance through that network are governance either through
    another network, or through another mechanism: that is, by rules,
    norms, markets and/or architecture. In few cases is the
    substitution likely to be perfect, and the closest available
    substitute will vary from one case to another. However, it may be
    good enough in many cases to persuade stakeholders who feel
    oppressed to opt out of the governance network in favour of
    pursuing the same end by that substitute means.
  • Freedom of exit from a governance network is impeded by the
    transaction costs of switching to an acceptable substitute
    mechanism of governance, or developing a new governance network
    afresh. As suggested in the preceding point, the quantum of the
    transaction costs incurred may vary considerably from case to case.
    However in general, as seen from the example of open source
    software, these costs will be higher the more social capital the
    original project (or in this context, the original network) has
    developed, and the less the defecting project has to offer to
    differentiate itself.
  • Whether the requirement of lack of coercion is satisfied in the
    case of a governance network depends on who it is that has
    authority over the network. On this count, governments are likely
    to be the least appropriate stakeholders to lead a governance
    network, as they are the only parties who possess significant
    coercive power over all other stakeholders through their domestic
    legal regimes, and could exercise that power to compel other
    stakeholders to accept the product of the governance network rather
    than opting out in favour of other mechanisms of

An example will put these observations in more concrete terms. Let
us assume that the IGF has an hierarchical leadership, which
develops a set of principles governing the issue of Internet
interconnection costs. These principles are entirely satisfactory
to all of the other stakeholders, except for the private sector who
claim that interconnection costs should continue to be set by the
market (an alternative mechanism of governance, which it is
costless for them to substitute for that of the IGF).
Are the three criteria satisfied? Yes, there is a perfect (or at
least a costless) substitute for the principles of the IGF. Yes,
there is freedom of exit from the IGF so that even if its
hierarchical leadership required all IGF members to subscribe to
the principles, the private sector would be at liberty simply to
withdraw from the network. And as to whether the private sector
could be coerced to accept the principles, regardless of its
departure from the IGF—well, this depends on whether the
authority behind the IGF is governmental or not. If it is, then it
can pass the principles into international or domestic law
regardless, which defeats the very purpose of developing them
through a multi-stakeholder governance network.
Let us change the scenario a little. In this case, the IGF's
principles on interconnection costs have been very successful
amongst all stakeholders and has been voluntarily adopted by most
of the private sector. A few private sector stakeholders however
decide to opt out of the IGF regime and revert to reliance on the
market to set interconnection prices. They immediately find that
the success of the IGF's principles has permanently lowered market
prices for interconnection, and that the costs of differentiating
their service so that it can be sold at higher prices are
insurmountable. The hierarchical leadership of the IGF (if not
composed of governments) not only cannot coerce these private
sector stakeholders into accepting the principles, but it does
not need to. The IGF's very success has made it
Granted, less extreme examples could be given in which the
applicable transaction costs would vary markedly from these, and
produce different outcomes. Specifically, if the transaction costs
are too low, the governance network may lack cohesion, since all
that holds it together is that it is relatively more expensive for
stakeholders to use other available mechanisms of governance. If on
the other hand the transaction costs associated with the use of
other mechanisms of governance are too high, then the networks'
stakeholders may still be oppressed.
Even where the three assumptions given above do hold, many of
the same shortcomings of the free market may be replicated in a
forum whose authority is drawn from its success in what Netanel
describes as the market for "alternative rule regimes." He

In cyberspace, no less than in real space, consumer
decisions may represent an impoverished account of individuals'
true preferences for many types of social goods. By the same token,
market failure is no less endemic to online decision making than to
its offline counterpart. In particular, the cyberanarchist vision
would countenance some of the very externalities that liberal
democracy seeks to minimize, including status discrimination and
the suppression of minority viewpoints.[112]

In other words, just as the free market does not naturally admit of
the concept of distributive justice, it may be necessary for
differences in power between participants in a governance network,
such as that between civil society and governments, to be mediated.
The model given here, in which the imbalances of power between
stakeholders participating in a governance network are assumed
away, does not do this.
Despite these limitations, it is still submitted that the lesson
of exit-based empowerment drawn from the model of open source
software development produces useful insights for the design of
Internet governance networks such as the IGF. It reveals that
although a governance network may—perhaps inevitably—be
dominated by the hierarchical power of an oligarchical elite (as
arguably the IGF is), it may still, if the conditions are right, be
compelled to act in much the same manner as a more democratically
organised body. If the hierarchical leadership of the governance
network does not act in the best interests of stakeholders, then
its output will be ignored (the more so, the greater the segment
whose interests are disregarded) and it will tend to become
powerless. If it does act in the best interests of stakeholders,
then its power will tend to grow.

The importance of this finding is that it reveals that there are
other avenues for the effective democratisation of governance
networks other than through the democratic election or consensual
appointment of its leadership, including:

  • promoting the development of other, parallel governance
    networks, perhaps through meta-networks such as the GKP[113] and GAID,[114] to address the limitations or specialisations
    of existing networks;
  • reducing the transaction costs of stakeholders' movement
    between these networks through means such as capacity building and
    the use of online communications, so as to foster regulatory
    competition between the networks;[115] and
  • calling for the leadership of any governance network to be of
    multi-stakeholder rather than purely governmental composition, so
    as to reduce the likelihood that governments will seek to use their
    coercive external authority against other stakeholders to force
    them to adopt the network's output.

The example of open source software development also suggests an
important way in which a given governance network such as the IGF
might increase its social capital, and therefore promote its own
survival in the marketplace for governance solutions. It should
engage all stakeholders in public policy development using a
participatory process, much as open source developers
collaboratively work on open source software projects. In doing
this, the stakeholders will become empowered, the social capital of
the governance network will increase, and the process of governance
through that network will become effective. And perhaps even fun.
About the author
Jeremy Malcolm is currently writing his PhD thesis in law
on the topic Multi-Stakeholder Public Policy Governance and the
1. Stirling (1993)
2. World Summit on the
Information Society (2003)
, para 49

3. Holck and Jørgensen

4. Pal

5. Malcolm (2008), section 2.4
6. Leiner et al.

7. Ford et al. (1993)
8. Malcolm (2008), section 5.4.1
9. World Summit on the
Information Society (2003)
, para 48

10. 23 Nov 2001, 2003 S
Treaty Doc No 108-11
11. WIPO Copyright
Treaty, 20 Dec 1996; WIPO Performances and Phonograms
Treaty, 20 Dec 1996
12. Taking Australia as
an example, respectively the Spam Act 2003 (Cth),

Broadcasting Services Amendment Act 1999 (Cth) and
Interactive Gambling Act 2001 (Cth).
13. Weinberg (2001), 327;
Palfrey Jr
, 40, 45
14. See particularly

NTIA (2005).
15. Working Group on Internet Governance

16. World Summit on the Information Society
, para 20

17. World Summit on the Information Society
, para 72
18. de la Chapelle (2007)
19. Waters (2006)

20. Malcolm (2008), section 5.2
21. World Summit on the Information Society
, para 72(g)
22. Michels (1962)

23. DiBona et al. (1999)
24. Levy (2001), 65
25. Raymond (2001), 51
26. Raymond (1998)

27. See
28. Stallman (1998). A similar but
more comprehensive list of ten requirements of open source software
was first published by the Open Source Institute in 1998 in its
Open Source Definition: see
29. FSF (1991)

30. Malcolm (2003)
31. Hertel et al. (2003)
32. Feller and Fitzgerald (2002),
33. Raymond (2001), 21-22

34. FSF (2002)
35. See,
though for criticism of the openness of the Creative Commons
licences see Hill
36. See

37. See
38. See
39. Benkler (2002)
40. von Hippel (2005)

41. Lerner and Tirole (2004), 7
42. Ghosh (1998)
43. Lerner and Tirole (2004), 8
44. Raymond (2001), 60

45. Torvalds and Diamond (2001),
46. Levy (2001), 46
47. Poe (2006)
48. Davies (2003), 32

49. Rheingold (1993)
50. According to blog
analysis firm Technorati; see
51. Wu (2006)
52. Matthews et al. (2003),

53. Maslow (1987)
54. Weber (2003), 181
55. Fragoso (2000)
56. This does not
necessarily mean that the open source software development
methodology is the only one to so empower its users; the so-called
"agile" development methodologies for proprietary software also do
so to some extent, and in fact share some of the characteristics of
the open source model such as promoting short release cycles and
involving the end user in the development process (Highsmith and Cockburn (2001)).
However, there are many other advantages of open source software
over proprietary software besides the extent to which its
developers are empowered; for example, its contribution to bridging
the digital divide (James
, 60).

57. The Jargon File,
edited by none other than Eric Raymond and an Internet institution
in its own right, offers a variety of definitions including, "An
expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker,
for example": Raymond
58. Levy (2001), 40
59. Imhorst (2005)
60. Reynolds (2006)

61. Holck and Jørgensen

62. Reagle (1999)
63. See
64. See

65. See
66. See
67. See

68. See
69. See
70. See
Documentation/SubmittingPatches within the kernel source tree which
can be downloaded from

71. For a more detailed
case study of Linux kernel development see Schach et al. (2002).
72. Landley (2002)
73. See

74. Originally published
on Usenet at news:4sv02t$j8g@linux.cs.Helsinki.FI, now archived at
75. See
76. See

77. For more detailed
case studies of these projects see Holck and Jørgensen (2005)
and Mockus et al.
for Mozilla, and Štrba (2006) for
78. See

79. See
in its description of the Netscape Public License.
80. See
81. See

82. See
83. See
84. Ye et al. (2005)

85. Mockus et al. (2002)
86. Ye et al. (2005), 64
87. For a more detailed
case study of Apache see Mockus et al. (2002).

88. See
89. Foundation (2003)
90. See
91. See

92. See
93. Debian (2006)
94. OSDL (2005)
95. Quoted in
Byfield (2006), which
links to the original source.

96. Warren (2006), 2
97. Hamm (2004)
98. Corbet (2001b)
99. See

100. See
101. Corbet (2005)
102. See
103. See

104. For example from
Sourceforge at
105. Uphoff (1999)
106. See
107. Corbet (2001a)

108. See
109. See eg Post-Nuke
Envolution at,
MyPHPNuke at
and Xoops at

110. These conditions
are of course reminiscent of those that underlie the ideal of the
perfect free market (along with additional assumptions not needed
here, as we do not require that the governance network be
effective, only that it not be oppressive).
111. Netanel (2000), 404-405
112. Netanel (2000), 405-406
113. See

114. See
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