Tuesday, February 9, 2010

SourceForge Lifts the Block: The Power of Negative Publicity

I woke up this morning to Joe Brockmeier's blog and the happy news that SourceForge has decided to lift it's block against the various nations the United States has placed on its embargo list. I had blogged on the original ban announcement and was pleased to see further action had been taken. Actually, the entire matter is not quite as clear cut as it may seem.

First, you'll recall the original announcement by SourceForge that it was establishing a denial of site list in order to comply with United States legal requirements, banning nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria from being able to access any of the open source projects hosted at SourceForge. Of course, that didn't just ban the governments running various totalitarian regimes in these nations, but also every single citizen living in the banned countries. In essence, the United States, and by its legal compliance SourceForge, was restricting people from access to open source projects just because of where they lived.

I didn't blame SourceForge for this (although plenty of people did). When you get a legal order from an entity that has the right to issue and enforce legal orders, if you are law abiding in your nation of residence, you comply with the order. SourceForge had nothing to gain by "bucking the system" and could ultimately do more harm than good to the open source community by telling the U.S. Government to "go pound sand".

Things have now changed. SourceForge has decided to lift its ban according to their announcement last Sunday but that doesn't mean it's "business as usual". SourceForge has put the responsibility to allow or deny access to projects in the hands of the individual project administrators. This makes a lot more sense when you consider that not all projects universally are banned from being disseminated by the U.S to embargoed nations.

Is full access to all the projects at SourceForge completely restored? No. Access is now determined on a project-by-project basis by the project administrators themselves. SourceForge is only involved to the degree that it has allowed project admins this level of control over project access on the SourceForge site. Most of the comments made in response to this action, at least from U.S. developers, are really positive. Non-U.S. folks tend to still slam the U.S. embargo list if not SourceForge, including one German fellow:
I am not an U.S. citizen, so I give a fuck on U.S. laws. We Germans are allowed to export anything to anywhere. Also our encryption mechanisms. So it’s all right for me.
I guess you can't please everyone.

For instance, Brockmeier's blog included a link to ArabCrunch.com's take on the SourceForge matter (despite the fact that the embargo list doesn't affect just Arab nations). You can read first hand, the thoughts and particularly the emotions this entire incident has evoked, as written by Abdulrahman Idlbi, who "is computer engineering master’s student at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals", in his guest editorial.

Did SourceForge do the right thing? Yes. The overarching principle of open source is to be accessible to everyone, and I mean everyone. Politics, ethnicity, gender, and any other differences and divisions simply don't matter. Open source, at its finest, functions to unite people, or at least developers, all over the world, in a common and peaceful endeavour. OK, the real world doesn't work that way, but as I said, this is an ideal. I think we found out pretty quickly that political and ideological differences kick in with a vengeance (see the comment from the German fellow and the ArabCrunch article) when you throw a monkey wrench into the machine.

Open source is an ideal but this entire sequence of events has illustrated with great clarity that we human beings, all of us, have a long way to go before we even approach this ideal with how we think, feel, and live.



  1. "political and ideological differences kick in with a vengeance (see the comment from the German fellow ..)"

    Well, to be honest, my view of the German commenter's contribution is that he himself is not tainted by law, religion or other inhibiting influences [when it comes to open source code]. This is hardly an opposition to the ideal position. It is the U.S. gov. (and by extend its voters) that are causing this mess in the first place.

    Remember: change comes from within, so next time you find yourself wondering about U.S. politics, research their policies first before you look at the persons, if at all.

  2. On the other hand, in Germany you can get arrested for importing something that infringes the MP3 patents.

    Economically, it makes no sense to restrict open source software at borders. The point of such regulations is to discriminate against foreigners, but OSS isn't a great way of making money. It's like applying gun-control laws to cap pistols.

    "We human beings have a long way to go before we even approach this ideal with how we think, feel, and live."

    True and sad.

  3. Sourceforge has merely shifted responsibility to project admins, many of whom are unlikely to even know the US embargo lists exist let alone understand how to keep their projects from inadvertently breaking the US laws.

    This is nothing more than a cop-out.


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