Why is Open Washing a thing

Free and open source software is on the move. Foss works and it's getting more and more attention, and that is not always positive. So how can the growth of the Free and Open Source movement be negative?

There’s this famous Dutch song of the late Herman Brood and Henny Vrienten, titled: “Als je wint heb je vrienden”, which basically goes about that when you are successful you will have friends. It’s pure sarcasm, of course.

But, yes, Free and Open Source Software is winning, so the number of “friends” is drastically growing. I started this blog with the title “Why is Open washing a thing”, to discuss this title I first have to explain what Open Washing means, so let's examine this phenomenon.

Open washing refers to the practice of using marketing and public relations tactics to make a proprietary or closed-source product, service, or project appear more open than it actually is. It involves giving an impression that the company or organization supports openness, transparency, collaboration, and community involvement while not genuinely embracing these principles in their core operations.

Open washing can be seen in various industries such as software development, hardware manufacturing, and even politics. Companies may use terms like "open," "community-driven," or "transparent" to attract customers who value openness but might not actually contribute to the project's source code, documentation, or governance. This practice can lead to distrust among potential users and contributors, as they feel misled by the company's claims of openness. Let's look at a couple of examples of the last decade.

In recent years, Uber has been criticized for its perceived lack of transparency and treatment of drivers as independent contractors rather than employees with rights and benefits. Despite this, Uber has attempted to portray itself as an open company by launching initiatives like the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), which aims to promote open-source solutions in transportation. However, critics argue that these efforts are examples of open washing since they do not address the core issues within the company's business model and labor practices.

The social media giant has faced numerous controversies regarding data privacy, misinformation, and political manipulation. In response to public backlash, Facebook launched several initiatives under the banner of "openness," such as Open Compute Project (OCP) for hardware design and the Open Source Code Search tool. However, critics argue that these efforts are more about improving Facebook's image than genuinely promoting openness in technology and data sharing. Recently, Meta (Facebook’s mother company) claimed that their AI tool Lhama 3 was Open Source. In this specific case, I studied their license and guess what, it’s not Open Source.

In 2019, Google was accused of open washing when it announced its "Open Usage Commons" (OUC) project to promote the use of open-source software for artificial intelligence (AI). Critics argued that this move came after years of controversies surrounding Google's AI practices and data collection. They claimed that the initiative aimed more at rebuilding trust in the company rather than genuinely promoting openness in AI development.

The Chinese telecommunications giant has faced accusations of being too close to the Chinese government, raising concerns about national security and privacy. In response, Huawei launched its "OpenLab" initiative in 2018, which aimed to collaborate with partners on open-source projects related to 5G technology and IoT devices. Critics argue that this move is an attempt at open washing by Huawei to counter security concerns and improve its global reputation without addressing the underlying issues.

In recent years, IBM has been criticized for its perceived lack of commitment to open-source software development despite being a major player in the industry. To address these concerns, IBM launched several initiatives under the banner of "openness," such as the OpenPOWER Foundation and the Open Source Community. Critics argue that while these efforts contribute to specific areas within technology, they do not represent genuine commitment to open-source principles across all aspects of IBM's operations.

Now we have seen a couple examples of companies which were accused of Open washing we need again to define what we do consider Free and Open Source Software licenses. Basically, Foss licenses need to address the four freedoms as they were defined by the Free Software Foundation. Licenses which are commonly considered as Foss are: GPL, AGPL, LGPL, MIT License, Apache License 2.0, MPL, Creative Commons. So if the license is not mentioning one of the above licenses in it’s text, you know you have to examine more careful.

To come to a conclusion, Open washing is a phenomenon which is happening because free and open source software is successful. Now proprietary crooks want to launder their product to look like foss. To jump on the bandwagon and yell, we are free and open too. A bit like Al Capone was using laundries to ‘whitewash’ his criminal money, and we know how that story ended.

If you are still reading this blog, then consider also to read the last few lines, which is a bit of advertisement about our education.

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