Ethical issues in open source

Posted: - Modified: | free and open source


One of my students e-mailed me asking for help finding interesting
ethical issues in open source. Here’s the partial list I sent him:

  • What is the fundamental ethical issue behind open source software?
    There are zealots in both the open source and closed source camps,
    but the world isn’t as black and white as people paint it. What do
    _you_ personally feel about the issue of open source? Think about
    this a great deal. I think it’ll give you an aha moment. =) This is
    something really worth writing about.
  • Think about the difference between open source software and closed
    source software, and the difference between free software and
    commercial software. Note that free != open source, and commercial
    != closed source. Think about what the different combinations mean
    from the point of view of users, developers, and companies.
  • Businesses would like to be able to hire fresh graduates and put
    them to work right away without having to train them in the specific
    software used in the business. Learning how to properly use a
    toolset takes a lot of time, and these companies argue that this
    kind of training should be part of students’ formal education. In
    addition, many HR personnel filter resumes based on keyword.
    Students also sometimes become restless when they’re asked to use
    languages or toolsets not seen in the job ads. As a result, there’s
    strong incentive to teach the quirks of vendor-specific products
    like Microsoft Visual Studio .NET instead of focusing on general
    ideas. This is one of the biggest barriers to open source adoption
    in schools. Should schools cater to their market, or should they
    also explore alternatives?
  • Large companies complain about the unlicensed distribution and use
    of commercial software (popularly known as piracy). However, it
    actually strengthens dominant companies. For example, would we
    really be so dependent on Microsoft Office if people only used
    legitimate copies? If enough people chose not to buy Microsoft
    Office, then alternative office suites could flourish.
    Unfortunately, the unlicensed distribution and use of software means
    that other people can assume people run Microsoft Office, leading to
    a vicious cycle. What do you think about that?
  • Non-trivial software programs have errors. Sometimes these
    errors are severe, exposing your system to attacks. Some major
    software vendors practice ‘security through obscurity’; security
    holes are not publicized, and the companies sometimes aggressively
    go after whistle-blowers who try to point out weaknesses in the
    software. Because the companies are the only ones with access to the
    source, they are the only ones who can fix the broken programs, and
    their resources are limited. On the other hand, open source exposes
    all source code for potential audit. This means that other
    organizations and developers can examine the code for security
    errors, which often results in faster fixes when an exploit is
    actually discovered. On the other hand, it also means that crackers
    who want to exploit systems can find holes more easily. What do you
    think about disclosure versus non-disclosure?
  • Many people in the Philippines are not completely comfortable with
    English. We are too small a market for multinational companies to
    develop Tagalog versions, but some volunteers have been working on
    translating open source software. This has met with mixed reactions.
    Some people say that localizing software for the Philippines is a
    waste of time and students should get used to English versions right
    away; others say that localization is the key to helping more
    Filipinos get into information technology. What do you think?
  • Closed source software tends to optimize for number of features and
    ease of use, because that’s what draws customers. It makes common
    things easier. Open source software often comes with a high learning
    curve but focuses on power and security, making it easier for people
    to use it to fit their individual needs. Think about the different
    markets for open source and closed source software, particularly in
    terms of security. What are the implications of these choices?
  • Open source means there’s a lot of code out there that you can base your
    programming projects on. As a student, where should you draw the line on
    acceptable use of other people’s code?
  • Closed source software often carries a “click-through license”
    severely limiting your rights and giving no warranty anyway
    (although this last part is buried in the fine print). Open source
    software tells you right away that there is no warranty. It’s kinda
    funny the way closed source companies keep criticizing the fact that
    open source software isn’t backed by a company. Look into the
    usefulness of support contracts for large and small clients. (Hah.
    Leading question. Sorry. ;) )
  • What do you think about NDAs?
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