Think tech globalisation is risky? Millions of developers disagree

Open source software helps developers collaborate

Open source software helps developers collaborate Image: Headway

Mike Linksvayer
Head of Policy, GitHub
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  • Open source software provides crucial platforms for coordinated responses, especially when the need is urgent.
  • Open source collaboration can keep systems and software secure against cyberattacks.
  • Efforts to break up digital globalization could seriously hinder the international developer community.

In the two years since the start of the pandemic, it's become abundantly clear that COVID-19 exposed the need for collaborative research to be widely and globally accessible. Open source software projects played a key role in addressing that need; the Our World in Data repository is a prime example of how developers joined efforts to provide greater insight into the spread of COVID-19 and aided a more coordinated medical response.

More recently, that collaborative need has emerged in cybersecurity.

In an April report, the Ransomware Task Force made up of experts across industry, government, law enforcement, civil society and international organizations recommended a “whole of world” approach to confront digital threats. It noted that siloed tactics are far less effective than a globally coordinated response.

That’s because open source collaboration helps maintain secure software so that ransomware attacks become more difficult for the adversary. The United States heard the call and, in November last year, signed onto the 80-nation Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, an international agreement on cybersecurity that includes tech company participation.

National tech isolation

Despite this progress, the open internet and other forms of digital globalization are under threat from worldwide efforts to nationalize and “splinter” the web. The loss of interconnectedness could be disastrous for developer communities that depend on international collaboration.

After all, open source software forms the infrastructure on which nearly every digital innovation around the world is built. Whether it’s fighting a pandemic or powering the first Martian flight, we’re better off when developers work together without barriers.

That’s why open source development has become synonymous with enterprise software – 99% of applications contain some open source code, and 90% of the average application is open source. However, by their very nature, open source systems are only as strong as the global community of developers who create and support them.

It’s an important lesson for policymakers, especially as they fall under increasing pressure to eschew the global internet and cut off international platforms favouring national champions and further fragmentation. Several global factors have converged in recent years that could push governments to isolate their technology industries from foreign influence.

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One of the leading factors is pressure on governments to craft policy to promote and shelter their tech sectors, especially given growing awareness that digital tools will be instrumental in preserving economic and military standing. It’s reminiscent of 20th-century insulation of critical industries, such as steelmaking, from foreign competition. This time, they would create national champions in everything from AI to mobile communications by controlling their interaction with international peers through data transfer restrictions and other inward-looking policies.

There is then the ever-increasing surge in cyberattacks that has policymakers on edge and threatens to give autocrats cover to disconnect their internet. The aforementioned Ransomware Task Force recently reported that online ransom payments surged more than 300% in 2020 from the prior year. Even before the financial incentive provided by ransomware, many criminals behind these attacks operated with impunity from countries where governments were unwilling or unable to stop them.

Meanwhile, governments are increasingly using digital access as a tool to censor opposition and prevent widespread protests, with the number of deliberate internet shutdowns reaching 155 in 2020, a more than fourfold increase from 2016, according to data from advocacy group AccessNow. And according to their findings, these shutdowns are not only increasing in frequency, but they’re becoming more sophisticated and are lasting longer while targeting vulnerable populations.

Learning from private sector innovation

If these factors succeed in forcing policymakers to look inward, they will isolate innovators from the open source community and force them to start projects from scratch. Competitors from other countries will build on the advances of the thriving open source community, crafting programmes and applications at a pace and level of sophistication that far surpass anything that siloed developers can reasonably create.

The good news is that forward-looking policymakers and governments are learning about the benefits of digital globalization over isolation. Indeed, the benefits of open source collaboration are overwhelming, with work from academia to corporations offering compelling proof points.

For example, a November 2021 study by Harvard University researchers shows a direct relationship between domestic participation on open source platforms to the number of new tech ventures within a country.

The private sector has long realized the advantages of open source, as businesses know they can only compete if they actively engage with the open source community, rather than doubling down on tech they can control. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the all-importance of the Linux kernel, the core of open source operating systems that serve as the underlying architecture to much of the world’s software. Moreover, the biggest names in tech, from Google to Intel, IBM and Samsung, are contributors and know that cutting themselves off from the community and going it alone would only hurt themselves.

The European Union has taken critical steps toward progress, recognizing that contributions to the open source community bring opportunities for the bloc while contributing to global solutions. The European Commission is prioritizing the development of open source software as part of its Digital Europe modernization program to leverage “the transformative, innovative and collaborative power of open source, its principles and development practices.”

But challenges persist and cyberattacks will continue to test the mettle of the international community, as will policymakers intent on controlling information or treating digital competition as a zero-sum game.

Governments must work together and promote collaboration on all fronts – cybersecurity, internet governance and software development – with the conviction that those who embrace open innovation will fare far better than those who do not.

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