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Exploring a world of only open source at MozFest 2023

At the Mozilla Virtual Festival last week, we organized a session: “In 2030, governments only use open source: a thought experiment”. We wanted to explore a future where all public organizations in the world have joined us in our mission. Watch the full recording or read the description on the archived session page; this blog post is a summary of the discussion.

Participants thought one of the most significant changes would be the impact on public organizations that interact most with regular citizens, such as social services, county councils, public water, and electricity providers. They would have the most practical reasons to switch to open source. This would also apply to smaller outfits with limited funding as they could capitalize on shared codebases. More open source would also provide more modern, user-friendly digital services and solve more challenging problems because the basics would be solved collectively. Additionally, digital services would be more easily customized than white label proprietary software, meeting citizens’ needs better.

Another area that would see improvements would be government administration. Using only open source could promote transparency and accountability, which could lead to greater trust from citizens. Although making the code public would reveal inequality and conflicts of interest, this does not mean everyone would understand it. Therefore, it may require translating the code into lay terms. Following that, it would be possible that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public safety sectors could also benefit from new business models.

One potential issue with the complete adoption of open source is the risk of less diversity among codebases, which would risk a homogenization in the organizations using them. One participant reflected that it would be a kind of colonialism through software. This could be mitigated through advanced configuration options or even local distributions or forks to make it possible to customize it properly, but to do that, it is important to see whether there is a need and be open to suggestions from organizations that want to use the codebase.

In terms of open-source business models, selling support and services to use the open-source software would be a possible way to sustain them. Local councils or other small public organizations that lack the in-house expertise would need to pay for support and implementation/training.

However, some vendors may try to push back on making code open source due fear of losing their unique selling points, the intellectual property of particular software. One significant risk is that they would create “faux open source” where they make the configuration so complex and advanced that the codebase is too generic to be useful, thus preserving their “secret sauce”. Standardization and protocols could help mitigate this issue, with open standards encouraged by open source software as the baseline.

Finally, the knock-on effect of a “right to repair” style movement for public purpose open source software could lead to job creation, increased labor mobility and economic growth.

It was an interesting experience facilitating this session, as the premise for it is so far beyond the current situation that many participants struggled to stick to this and fell back into discussing current problems. However, it still gave some new thoughts for us and specifically the risk of homogenization through codebases having a huge “market share” was something that I, personally, hadn’t reflected on before. To me, the built-in possibility for local adaptation of open source software has always been a safeguard for this, but as was pointed out, many small organizations may not have the capabilities to do that and will just use the cheapest tool available, whether it is open source or proprietary.

I also found the reflection of the importance of open standards alongside open source to be a good reminder, and am happy that we already have it as a criterion in the Standard for Public Code. With this early picture of the future, we can steer towards the good parts and away from the not-so-good ones and perhaps one day reach this utopia.