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Open Source Society

Reprinted from Sedona.biz. First Published June 25, 2009

In case you missed it, history was made last week.  The street uprisings in Iran, and the role that technology has been playing in that grass-roots democratic movement, has signaled a very important shift in the socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape of the planet.  What is this technology I’m referring to?  Actually, I’m referring to two: the open source paradigm and the web-portal, Twitter.

twitter-bird-1There are now an estimated 15 million members of Twitter, a web-based social networking site that is built entirely using open source software [more on this later].  In addition to the massive popularity it has gendered, it has also spun off hundreds of start-ups based on the publically available application interface (API) the founders made available to the developer community.  It was reported by blogger Brian Solis last week that, in addition to the core site, it has generated 3,500 new start-ups that have gendered over US$23M in investment capital (see: http://www.briansolis.com/2009/06/twitter-incubates-a-dedicated-and-thriving-startup-economy/ ).

But what do APIs, open source code and a bird-named web service have to do with a democratic uprising in the streets of Tehran?


When it became apparent to the people in the street throughout Iran that their recent election for a new President was rigged there was a general uprising.  For days there were thousands of people in cities across Iran that risked life and limb to openly defy the authorities.  Some video footage smuggled out of Iran of the shooting of a 26 year-old woman known as Neda became an instant YouTube phenomenon.

Even this week with a much more vicious crackdown there has been a call for a general strike.   The dissemination of this call has come primarily through the use of Twitter, which can operate through cell phone devices as well as the Internet.  And, according to an in depth look  by the Wall Street Journal at the Internet traffic going to and from Iran, it became clear to the world that the authorities tried to ratchet down the access of their citizens shortly after the election.  To counter this, cyber-warriors and hacktivists from around the world started using many sophisticated techniques to protect their sources inside Iran and maintain access to credible sources of information on the extent of the human rights abuses.

The demographics of the Iranian Twitter users might also lend some insight into this phenomenon, as well.  According to the Economist’s 2009 ‘Pocket World in Figures’ approximately 28% of the 70.3M people in Iran are under 15 years old.  This could be contrasted with the U.S. figures for 2009 which are 20.8% under 15 years old in a population of 301M.  And, according to many researchers in the management sciences, advanced technologies tend to have higher levels of adoption rates among younger generations.   This could account for some of the citizen journalist-type press coverage that was generated by the protests in Iran.

The Islamic fundamentalist Mullahs that run the country above and beyond the control of electoral politics are backing the incumbent, President Ahmadinejad.  According to former insiders like Mohsen Sazegara that had suffered the wrath of the hard-liners, there is great cause for concern that human rights are regularly being violated under this regime.  [See his opinion piece in the June 11 edition of the International Herald Tribune.]  Detainees from the uprising this week are likely to suffer the same fate he did with imprisonment and long term solitary confinement for openly defying the conservative fundamentalist regime.


Although most of the Western mainstream journalists have been banned from reporting on the events in Iran, many brave Iranian men and women are continuing to inform the other citizens of the world about the situation through their Twitter accounts on their mobile phones.

So here, now, in 2009, in the post 9/11, post Iraq-war, post economic crash of 2008 world, we have a country whose citizens have had the fortitude to stand up to a corrupt authoritarian regime that appears to be seeking to consolidate its own power at the expense of truth and transparency.  And, furthermore, they are generating support among the world community by using a technology that was spawned in the land of the devil incarnate, i.e., the United States of America [remember the rhetoric of the 1989 Revolution?].

The world is being turned on its head.  The effect of Twitter on the activities of the past week cannot be undone.  It makes a profound statement in support of grass-roots movements and the quest for democracy in the modern world.

Now, what of this ‘open source’ paradigm?  How does it relate to the issue at hand?

Ahhh, here is where it gets interesting.  In the world of technology and software engineering there has been a decade-long battle waging.  This battle has been between large (and small) companies that operate using two opposing revenue/business models.  On one side you have a group, most effectively represented by Microsoft and IBM, that I will call the ‘proprietary’ model users.  On the other side you have a group, most effectively represented by Sun Microsystems and Google, that I will call the ‘open source’ model users. [OK, OK, look at the Google developer release of the Wave beta to see the open source approach.]

Companies using the proprietary model have, for years, used a black box approach to developing and releasing software and proprietary hardware systems.  Their revenue model was based on the assumption that if they sold a certain number of units at a certain price, they would be able to make money and grow profitable.  OK, so far, so good.  I think most computer users understand this concept.  The down side to this is that there are only a limited number of people that can get access to the ‘code’ and therefore write new and exciting software that extends the capabilities of the original code.  Therefore the use of a proprietary model is not as ‘extensible’ as the use of an open source model.

In contrast, the open source model was based on the assumption that by generating code that was freely available to a wide array of developers they would be able to continually improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the code, thereby generating a greatly extensible product.  As a result, many innovative and ‘extensible’ applications have come out of this free market of ideas.  In the case of Twitter, the extensibility of the code to the mobile phone market was what gave the software its power when the Mullahs tried to muffle the voice of the youth.

Earlier this year Savio Rodrigues, writing for InfoWorld (http://www.infoworld.com/d/open-source/how-we-won-open-source-battle-449) argued that the decade long battle on the most effective business model for the Internet  was a truce. Some argued that the open source model has won the battle.  Rodrigues argued, however, that both models triumphed in that they both became stronger and more robust as a result of the competition.

I’m not so sure I agree that it was a truce.  What we have seen in Iran, given the role of Twitter, an open source technology, is truly revolutionary.  The old hierarchical reporting lines are breaking down.  We see this in our modern world in everything from the operations of General Motors, to the loss of credibility by the ruling elite in Iran.

A new open source, truly democratic movement is taking hold; and it is worldwide.  It is one that rejects the corruption and self-interested usury of the past and adopts a more transparent model of decision-making, governance and control.  The mullahs are seen by the youth and forward-thinking individuals in Iran as self-serving ideologues that have no role in a future society where mutual respect and good governance is key.

I wonder if the parents of the people that have died in the Iranian clashes this week know anything about open source software.  I wonder if the uncounted people that have been detained as the behest of the Iranian secret service were using their Twitter accounts before their phones and rights were stripped away.  We’ll never know.

In any case, let’s hope that the open sourcers continue to use Twitter to let the rest of us know about the outcome of their revolution for accountability and truth.