In the two years since the start of the pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that Covid-19 has 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 are joining efforts to provide greater insight into the spread of Covid-19 and help with 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 organisations — 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 is because open source collaboration helps maintain secure software so that ransomware attacks become more difficult for the adversary.
National tech isolation
Despite this progress, the open Internet and other forms of digital globalisation are under threat from worldwide efforts to nationalise 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 are better off when developers work together without barriers.
That is 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 is 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.
One of the leading factors is the pressure on governments to craft policy to promote and shelter their tech sectors, given the growing awareness that digital tools will be instrumental in preserving economic and military standing. It is reminiscent of 20th-century insulation of critical industries, such as steelmaking, from foreign competition. This time, they would create national champions in everything from artificial intelligence (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 the 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 2019. 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.
Continuous 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 globalisation 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.
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The private sector has long realised 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 at it alone would only hurt themselves.
The Singapore government has taken progressive steps by recognising that contributions to the open source community bring opportunities and provide solutions to global problems. Within a period of eight weeks, the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) developed TraceTogether, a digital system facilitating contact tracing efforts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
GovTech decided to make the source code for TraceTogether freely available online so that other organisations and countries could build similar Bluetooth-based contact tracing solutions suited to their local context, while enabling interoperability across jurisdictions. This is not an isolated incident — GovTech has made many of its tools open source so it can work together with developers around the world to tackle common issues.
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.
Mike Linksvayer is the head of policy at GitHub