Last week, Eric S Raymond (often known as ESR, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and co-founder of the Open Source Intiative) was banned from the Open Source Intiative (the “OSI”).

Specifically, Raymond was banned from the mailing lists used to organize and communicate with the OSI.

For an organization to ban their founder from communicating with the group (such as via a mailing list) is a noteworthy move.

At a time when we have seen other founders (of multiple Free and Open Source related initiatives) pushed out of the organizations they founded (such as with Richard Stallman being compelled to resign from the Free Software Foundation, or the attempts to remove Linus Torvalds from the Linux Kernel – both of which happened within the last year) it seems worth taking a deeper look at what, specifically, is happening with the Open Source Initiative.

I don't wish to tell any of you what you should think about this significant move. As such I will simply provide as much of the relevant information as I can, show the timeline of events, and reach out to all involved parties for their points of view and comments.

Raymond made the following statement, on February 27, 2020, on his personal blog:

“I – OSI’s co-founder and its president for its first six years – was kicked off their lists for being too rhetorically forceful in opposing certain recent attempts to subvert OSD clauses 5 and 6. This despite the fact that I had vocal support from multiple list members who thanked me for being willing to speak out.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that there is an effort afoot to change – I would say corrupt – the fundamental premises of the open-source culture. Instead of meritocracy and “show me the code”, we are now urged to behave so that no-one will ever feel uncomfortable.

The effect – the intended effect – is to diminish the prestige and autonomy of people who do the work – write the code – in favor of self-appointed tone-policers. In the process, the freedom to speak necessary truths even when the manner in which they are expressed is unpleasant is being gradually strangled.

And that is bad for us. Very bad. Both directly – it damages our self-correction process – and in its second-order effects. The habit of institutional tone policing, even when well-intentioned, too easily slides into the active censorship of disfavored views.”

So what, exactly, prompted this extreme measure? What could happen that would be so problematic that an organization would ban their founder (and one of the most well known individuals in the Open Source world)?

Thankfully the Open Source Initiative keeps a public archive of all the posts to their mailing lists. I did what any journalist would do in this scenario… I started reading.

And I didn't have to go very far back through the archive, either. Turns out the first post (in a very long time) from Raymond was 3 short days before he was banned (and before the blog post he penned above).

February 24th, 2020. Raymond posted the following to an OSI mailing list with the title “A wild co-founder appears”:

“After twenty years of staying off this list, I have joined it.

I didn't, until now, because whenever I checked in on this list the regulars seemed to be doing the job I expected them to do quite competently. And I had enough of an “I can't be everywhere, dammit!” problem without adding to it.

But there are two recent developments I find concerning that have convinced me I need to weigh in. Please pay careful attention, as I am not making this choice [lightly].

I will start individual threads for both issues.”

What followed from there were several posts by Eric Raymond over the next two days – having conversations on multiple topics relating to Open Source licensing and how the OSI should handle potential revoking of certification of licenses.

Some of the messages had strong disagreements over OSI policy. However, I was unable to find any messages, from Raymond (or anyone else) that would (based on my understanding of the Code of Conduct that the OSI has adopted for their mailing lists) constitute a banning… of a founder or of any regular member.

Then, on February 26, 2020, “Moderator@OpenSource.orgposted the following statement:

The OSI Board is aware that some offensive emails have been sent to this list. The OSI does not tolerate deliberately divisive or disrespectful messages from any quarter. We have already taken moderation actions to this effect and we will apply further sanctions if necessary.

No further details were provided, making this difficult to verify.

The next day (February 27, 2020), Josh Berkus (a Red Hat employee and regular speaker at Open Source conferences) posted the following:

ESR's “sharp language” is not an attempt to persuade. It is an attempt to intimidate opponents; to “win” an argument by making others afraid to participate. Indeed, even today OSI mailing list composition is entirely folks with enough privilege to be resistant to personal attacks. That's a sad, terrible thing.

It's not “free speech” when it's an attempt to shout others down so that they have no voice. It's something else entirely.

Further, not one of ESR's points is original or even original to this list. In his absence, not one of the ideas he so “colorfully” expressed will be lost. In the meantime, we're missing the input of so many people who will not participate in OSI because of our tolerance for wholly uncivilized behavior like his posts.

Followed shortly thereafter (February 28, 2020) by Pamela Chestek (a member of the OSI Board) who posted the following to the OSI Mailing list with the title “Member conduct”:

Following an incident on Open Source Initiative mailing lists, the Board has removed a subscriber from both the License-Review and License-Discuss mailing lists for repeatedly violating the Code of Conduct.

The Board took steps to mitigate the issue and began deliberating immediately after the incident, reached a decision early this morning, and notified the subscriber of the decision this afternoon.

The Board regrets that some material was published that should not have been, in spite of our best moderation efforts. We ask for all mailing list participants to be cautious with the use of CC, BCC, and Reply-All fields in the future.

Although we have failed in this instance, the OSI continues to work on making the email lists safe environments where all people and viewpoints are greeted with an open mind and treated with dignity and respect. OSI has a broad constituency and that remains a fundamental asset to our mission.

We will be following up in the coming weeks with a more general public statement about the current state of our moderation efforts, as well as relevant projects that are in flight. We are grateful for the feedback we’ve received and welcome further input on our efforts.

We hope that our continued efforts will bring more underrepresented voices to the table, and that those who left will feel safe returning. We want you all with us on this journey.

I reached out to the Board and leadership of the Open Source Initiative for comment, and to provide the quote from Eric Raymond that prompted the decission to ban him.

As of the writing of this article, I had not yet received any reply from the Open Source Initiative leadership.

I also reached out to Eric S Raymond to see if he could shed any further light on the situation and get his views. What follows are his complete responses to me.

Lunduke: Any idea what statement/email you sent that specifically caused the banning?

Eric S Raymond: “They never told me specifically which message was the cause.

In fact, they haven't publicly admitted to banning me, though I got an email telling me I had been banned.”

Lunduke: I've also asked the OSI board the same question (and others)… but have yet to hear back from them.

Eric S Raymond: “Don't hold your breath waiting. Full political ass-covering mode will be in effect now, and you can quote me on that. These people are an utter disgrace to the ideals on which I founded OSI.”

Lunduke: What do you see as the root cause of the issues you see with the OSI (which you call out in your blog post)?

Eric S Raymond: The fetishization of ‘nice’ behavior, where ‘nice’ ends up defined as being any behavior some self-appointed censor doesn't like. Usually (and in this case) accompanied by a lot of bafflegab about “inclusion” and “diversity” so thay anyone who isn't a fan of the new, censorious rules can be cast as some sort of bigot.

Lunduke: How would you go about fixing those issues?

Eric S Raymond: Abolish “Codes of Conduct” and all the Orwellian doublespeak that goes with them. It's less bad that people sometimes got their feelings hurt than it is to institutionalize a means by which dissenting opinions are crushed under the rubric of “not nice”.

Let's take a step back, for a moment, and look at thing from a high level.

Where are we at, as of the writing of this article?

  • Eric S Raymond (ESR), one of the founders of the Open Source Initiative, has been banned from OSI mailing lists.

  • No verifiable reason has been given, by the OSI, for the banning. Based on the timeline, presumably the offending message (or messages) would have been sent in the two day window between February 24th and February 26th.

  • The Open Source Initiative has not responded to a request for clarification or comment.

Perhaps interestingly, the Open Source Initiative is right in the middle of an election for a few of their Board seats. With such clear and strong conflicts happening between a founder of the OSI – and some of the current leadership of the OSI – it will be interesting to see what direction the current OSI leadership and membeship choose to go in.

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