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The Political Agnosticism of Free and Open Source Software and the Inadvertent Politics of Contrast
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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 507-519

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The Political Agnosticism of Free and Open Source Software and the Inadvertent Politics of Contrast

University of Chicago

Free and open source software (FOSS), which is by now entrenched in the technology sector, has recently traveled far beyond this sphere in the form of artifacts, licenses, and as a broader icon for openness and collaboration.1 FOSS has attained a robust socio-political life as a touchstone for like-minded projects in art, law, journalism, and science—some examples being MIT's OpenCourseWare project, School Forge, and the BBC's decision to release all their archives under a Creative Commons license. One might suspect FOSS of having a deliberate political agenda, but when asked, FOSS developers invariably offer a firm and unambiguous "no"—usually followed by a precise lexicon for discussing the proper relationship between FOSS and politics. For example, while it is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to have a panel on free software at an anti-globalization conference, FOSS developers would suggest that it is unacceptable to claim that FOSS has as one of its goals anti-globalization, or for that matter any political program—a subtle but vital difference, which captures the uncanny, visceral, and minute semiotic acts by which developers divorce FOSS from a guided political direction. FOSS, of course, beholds a complex political life despite the lack of political intention; nonetheless, I argue that the political agnosticism of FOSS shapes the expressive life and force of its informal politics. [End Page 507]

FOSS gives palpable voice to the growing fault lines between expressive and intellectual property rights, especially in the context of digital technologies. While free speech and property rights are often imagined as linked and essential parts of our American liberal heritage, the social life of FOSS complicates this connection while providing a window into how liberal values such as free speech take on specific forms through cultural-based technical practice: that of computer hacking.2 Whereas, traditionally, censorship and state intervention were seen as the primary threats against the realization of free speech, the social practices of free and open software raise the idea that forms property can be antithetical to the principles of free speech, "principles" that are constantly under social revision though they might appear as timeless and obvious. Source code, the blueprint for programs that most non-technical users rarely see, is becoming an object to construct claims about vocational rights and the appropriate scope of First Amendment law;3 FOSS has not only transformed the dynamics of software development but is also shifting understandings of the appropriate use of intellectual property instruments and the scope of free speech protections.

I argue that the wedge placed by practitioners between FOSS and politics is significant to an anthropological assessment of the liberal underpinnings and reformulations of FOSS and the wider socio-political effect of its vast circulations. My thesis is that the denial of FOSS' formal politics enacted through a particularized cultural exercise of free speech facilitates the broad mobility of FOSS as artifacts and metaphors and thus lays the groundwork for its informal political scope: its key role as a catalyst by which to rethink the assumptions of intellectual property rights through its use and inversion. It works because it recalibrates some of the distinctions and associations between free speech and intellectual property—it revises intellectual property law and channels it toward the protection of free speech, instead of its "conventional use" of securing property rights. Christopher Kelty aptly describes this as "openness through privatization, which makes it the most powerful political movement on the Internet, even though most of its proponents spend all their extra energy denying that it is political" (2000:6).

Political intent and subjectivity are indeed noticeably absent in the constitution of the free software and open source movement, which differs from more formal political endeavors and new social movements predicated on some political intentionality, direction, or reflexivity or a desire to transform wider social conditions. FOSS uniqueness as a "new social movement&quot...