Is the Linux community under-represented in the Linux Foundation?
Last week, this question raised controversies when Free Software Foundation director Matthew Garrett observed that the Linux Foundation had eliminated voting rights for individual members and changed its bylaws to make at-large board members optional.
Observing that these changes were made shortly after Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy announced her intention to run for the Linux Foundation board, Garrett speculates that they were made to keep her off the board, because her interest in license enforcement was at odds with the Linux Foundation’s policy.
Garrett’s comments were answered a few days later by Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation’s executive director. Zemlin stated that Larry Augustin and Bdale Garbee continued to be directors at large, and that Grant Likely, the director appointed by kernel developers, also represented the community. Zemlin then went on to denounce Garrett’s speculations about Sandler.
Unfortunately, this change does little to answer the basic question. Although Garrett has a deserved reputation for his work on enabling secure boot on Linux, he also seems to have a habit of making harsh accusations. A few years ago, for example, he condemned a prominent kernel developer as a “rape apologist” rather than simply condemning their ignorance and ill-founded speculation. Similarly, as more than one observer has noticed, Zemlin’s response does little to disprove Garrett’s comments, derailing the discussion with accusations.
Meanwhile, the comments on Garrett’s blog suggest that, whatever else happens, Garrett has tapped into a general perception. For instance, the community site FOSS Force discussed the issue under the headline “Linux Foundation Sells Out.”
Clearly, to many, the Linux Foundation represents the community poorly. However, the accuracy of that perception seems more mixed that either side seems willing to acknowledge.
The Linux Foundation and the Uneasy Alliance
The uneasy alliance of community and corporations in open source is hardly news in itself. Founded to represent the interests of Linux vendors, from the start the Linux Foundation has been a focal point for misgivings in the community. As Garrett points out — but most commenters ignore — the number of board members that corporate members appoint depends on their yearly contributions to the Foundation. Moreover, the total number of corporate directors greatly outnumber those appointed from the community.
Both these practices, however common they may be in non-profit professional organizations, could hardly be more different from the egalitarian governance that prevails in open source projects. Nor does it help that the Linux Foundation’s budget is almost twenty times greater than that of the Free Software Foundation, the organization that perhaps comes closest to representing the community as a whole. Given these differences, conflict seems inescapable.
Yet despite these natural differences, the Linux Foundation has benefited the community as much as its members corporation. Among other things, it funds leading developers like Linus Torvalds, allowing them to work without being unduly influenced by corporate donors. It supports resources like OpenPrinting, the database of printer compatibility with Linux. When key projects like SSH were found to be underfunded, the Linux Foundation stepped in to provide vendor-neutral relief. From the first, the Foundation has also supported LinuxCons in North America, Europe, and Japan, providing some of the major Linux conferences today.
Cynics might say that these services are for corporate members, but that hardly matters — such services cannot be provided for corporations without also benefiting the community, any more than the rich can have street lights for themselves but not the general public. To condemn these services because they are judged to be delivered non-democratically would be hypocritical, considering that the community tolerates many projects controlled by a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life).
Moreover, in its early years, the Linux Foundation did show some support for the uneasy alliance. This support included offering @linux.com email addresses for individual members, running Linux.com as a news site, and encouraging member participation on online forums.
However, from the first, Linux Foundation’s version of Linux.com has emphasized technical material rather than news articles, no doubt to avoid the possibility of upsetting members with negative reviews. It continues to attract first rate writers like Carla Schroeder and Swapnil Bhartiya, but its rates are low compared to sites like LWN or Linux Pro Magazine.
Even more noticeably, forum activity has dropped dramatically — out of thirty forums, only six have last posts that are less than a week old, and, on twenty, the last posts were several months ago.
Whether the Linux Foundation is to be blamed for these circumstances is uncertain. However, add them to the changes in governance observed by Garrett, and the Linux Foundation does seem to be paying less attention to the community than it once did — and, as the responses to Garrett’s blog shows, the community is reciprocating with the anger and suspicion that is never far away from Linux’s uneasy alliance.
Reviving the alliance
You do not have to take sides to be concerned about this situation. Although the alliance responsible for Linux is often uneasy, it is responsible for Linux’s runaway success, with both the community and the corporations offering what the other has not.
Garrett’s blog was rashly worded, but it still raised legitimate questions that many would like answered — questions like, “Why were the bylaws about representation changed?” and “”What can the Foundation do to give the community greater involvement in its activities?”
Of course, some might say that as a 501(c) (6) American non-profit, the Linux Foundation cannot be blamed for any of its actions, and is only doing what it was designed to do, and representing its corporate members. However, given that the members of the uneasy alliance are dependent on each other, the Foundation would be acting in the best interest of its corporate members if it addressed the apparent problems with the community directly and in detail. The sooner such actions are taken, the better for everyone.