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The Google Question: Is The Hacker Ethic Compatible With A "For Profit" Company?

by Phillip Rhodes

Posted on Sunday March 17, 2013 at 05:02AM in Technology

Earlier, I start a G+ discussion about Google and their "War on RSS", and spoke a bit about which organizations "out there" have a commitment to the Open Web and to Open Standards. In that brief and hastily written post, I came up with only four organizations (not "companies" mind you, but organizations in general) which seem committed to protecting access to technology in an open manner, and which could be said to promote something like the hacker ethic. The four I came up with initially were:

1. Mozilla
2. Free Software Foundation
3. Electronic Frontier Foundation
4. Red Hat

Now I'm thinking, there must be more than four, and there must be more than one "for profit" company which leans on the hacker ethic as a pillar. But no others immediately come to mind. Well, except for us here at Fogbeam Labs, but we don't really count, as we're a bootstrapped, self-funded startup, with very little in the way of resources. I'm thinking more about established, profitable, for-profit companies.

So the question that occurs to me now is this: Is the Hacker Ethic, and related mindsets, including commitment to the Open Web, Open Standards and F/OSS, compatible with a for-profit enterprise? This hits very close to home for us here at Fogbeam, as our entire model is based on F/OSS. For those of you who don't know, all of our software is available under the Apache Software License v2, or another OSI approved license. (Aside: practically speaking, everything we do is ASLv2, but we might ship something that's BSD license, MIT license, LGPL or GPL. We don't be doing any CPAL badgeware crap even though it is OSI approved). Our goal is to follow in the footsteps of our neighbors in Raleigh, the fine folks at Red Hat, and build a profitable business around a true Open Source approach.

So, since we're talking about Red Hat, one might say the question is settled, that RH are an "existence proof" that a company can be profitable (and growing) as a public company and still adhere to the Hacker Ethic. But one has to wonder, why aren't there more companies like Red Hat? And why has a company like Google, once considered a haven for hackers, started to look more and more like a 2010's version of 1990's era Microsoft?

Of course, Google certainly aren't as evil as 1990's era MS, and maybe they never will be. Google have released a ton of code as Open Source over the years, and they bought the VP8/WebM technology just to make it an open standard. Android is still OSS (sort of), as is Chrome, and I'd still look at GOOG as more "hacker friendly" than Microsoft. But I think it is painfully obvious that Google have backslid in recent years, and that their reputation among hackers is somewhat tarnished.

So, where is all this going? And why does it matter? Well, it matters to us, for aforementioned reasons... we want to be a company that grows into a position where we can make money, be influential, and become a great haven for hackers who want to get paid for hacking on cool stuff. But you have to manage to be profitable to do all that. And you have to wonder, if the sacrifices you have to make - in order to become profitable - necessarily mean slipping away from that core ethic.

And, looking beyond our own immediate concerns, you have to question what all of this means for society at large. There are forces at work, and trends developing, which would limit access to technology and knowledge, and lock it down behind all sorts of walls and gates, both technological and legal, or otherwise turn it against the people it should serve. DRM baked into hardware, the Windows 8 UEFI / Secure Boot debacle, the DMCA and it's "anti circumvention" measures, CISPA, the list goes on and on. For a fascinating and in-depth analysis of some scary changes in the tech landscape, see the famous The Coming War on General Purpose Computing talk.

So, my challenge to you, and to ourselves is this: Seek out ways to create companies (for-profit AND/OR non-profits and other organizations) that do embody the hacker ethic, and which can help fight the good fight to, as an old Lulu t-shirt said "Take Back Technology". And help promote and encourage the existing organizations that are on the right side of this. Also, continue to publicly "call out" the Google's of the world when they start to falter. Join, contribute to, or start a hackerspace, or a free culture meetup, or a Linux User's Group. Start or join an Open Source project of some sort. Whatever works for you.

For my own part, I plan to chip in some more money to the EFF very soon. And Fogbeam Labs will continue to churn out awesome Open Source products as we play our (currently) small part in this story.

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