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Should Open Web Advocates Stay Independent?

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When it was revealed Wednesday that developer and noted open web champion Tantek Celik was joining the Mozilla Foundation, a wave of congratulations swept across Twitter and the blogosphere. But not everyone was happy to learn that Celik — the former chief technologist at Technorati and before that an open standards advocate at both Microsoft (s msft) and Apple (s aapl) — was joining the company behind the Firefox browser. Ben Metcalfe, a programmer and startup adviser, said on Twitter that while he was happy for Celik, his hiring meant that “none of the open web usuals remain independent.”

By “open web usuals,” Metcalfe was likely referring to prominent open advocates like Chris Messina and David Recordon, both of whom over the past several years have been among those leading the charge for open standards online, including developing and promoting the OpenID standard. Messina is now a Google (s goog) employee and Recordon works for Facebook. While both continue to promote open standards — Messina’s title is “open web advocate” and Recordon is “senior open programs manager” — they’re doing it from inside two of the world’s largest web companies, both of which have corporate interests as well as (presumably) a commitment to being open.

Is that a bad thing for the web? When Metcalfe’s post from Twitter appeared on Google Buzz, it drew a comment from a Google engineer named Adewale Oshineye, who said that instead of seeing Messina and the others as no longer independent, “[Y]ou could say that the ‘open web usuals’ have all found ways to make an even bigger impact.” Metcalfe said that he didn’t agree with this argument, however, because “most of them have had to ‘tone down’ their perspectives in their new fancy corporate jobs.” Oshineye subsequently agreed that “there’s a tension between influence and independence.” Indeed.

So do Messina and Celik and Recordon now have more influence over the openness of the decisions that get made at the world’s largest search company, the world’s largest social network and one of the world’s primary browser developers? Or are they spitting into the prevailing wind at these relatively gigantic organizations, all of which have their own corporate agendas? Although both Google and Facebook are open in many ways — Google more so than Facebook — they also have a clear interest in pursuing their own tactics online. And while the Mozilla Foundation isn’t a typical for-profit corporation, it has its own interests at heart as well.

The tension is clear, not just between these open advocates and their respective corporations, but also between those with conflicting views about what it means to be open. After Facebook launched the Open Graph protocol at the f8 conference, Messina wrote a post taking issue with the description of the Facebook initiative as being “open” at all. Recordon then wrote a blog post for O’Reilly in response, talking about how the protocol was a good thing for the open web.

Messina, Recordon and Celik would likely argue that they can have far more influence within the companies they work for than they could ever have by shouting from the sidelines — and that might even be true. But despite their best efforts, and their reputations as longtime champions of the open web, they are inevitably going to be seen (at least by some) as instruments of the corporations and entities that pay their salaries. In the end, all we can hope is that they have some success in moving those large organizations in the right direction, and that other open web proponents come along who can take over the role of independent web champion.

Update: Ben Metcalfe has written his own post about the loss of independents like Celik and Messina, as well as Joe Smarr (now at Google), Eran Hammer-Lahav (now at Yahoo) and Will Norris (now at Google).

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Duarte

17 Responses to “Should Open Web Advocates Stay Independent?”

  1. I’m glad that there are well-known (i.e. not afraid to slam the door because they know they’ll be able to find a job soon) advocates inside each companies with the ability to do bad things, to check things up. I’ve always considered that “Do no evil” was the result of a brainstorm that failed to define what ‘bad’ could be and that Google’s only guarantee since was the ratio of free-tards on every project, so that if anything was actually wrong, more whistle would blow than you can hope.

    Rather than “independent” (from what?) I think that it’s a shame none of them are working for small projects (the smallest initiative might be JanRain) because that perspective seems to be lacking. No women, non US-based, non-fluent English speakers could also be an issue… but this is tech: you can’t ask for miracles — not all are over-weight, bearded, ironically versed in SciFi, that’s almost good. In all seriousness, the most important diversity is the size of the team, and the perspective in terms of time-frame. What this groups lacks most is stupid people (I mean it): specs are still fairly tough for the average half-baked coder, but I guess we are getting there.

    The real issue I have with this post is the idea that there is one “Open”. Stallman’s definition of “Free” (you can do want you want with your computer) excludes my mom: she can only do what she wants if she as a intuitively designed Mac: good UX can mean Open. More seriously, ‘open’ can mean way to many incompatible things to be used as is by a serious publication like GigaOm. It can be: Programmable (FBJS, anyone?), or (Data-)Portable, or Distributed around standard interface, or Inter-operated, or Open-Sourced, or Freely-licensed, or Well-documented, or Discussed with enough Coders and Users to make sense for all, or B.Y.O. language set, or… way too many things.

    I assume here it means: freely licensed, intelligible and well documented solutions so that any individual developer can implement his own idea, without needing a lawyer, mouths of struggling with specs and access to meetings in Silicon Valley. I’m not sure those add up to the best definition of open; nor, albeit a necessary goal, do they constitute the primary one.

  2. I know all these people personally, and I can almost certainly say that while they may tone down their comments, they certainly aren’t changing their tune.

    I’m fairly certain they’d all quit their jobs rather than compromise any belief they have around the open web.

    Even open web advocates have to eat. And more importantly, pay rent (or mortgage) in the bay area…

  3. While it’s probably true that it’s had to take diametrical opposite positions to your employer if they have skin in the game (which Google, Yahoo, Mozilla etc. obviously all do), there’s also an important flipside: these companies are enabling Chris Messina, David Redcorn – and in fact many others (c.f. many many open source efforts which have developers from companies involved) – to do what they do.

    A great example is what happened when the oAuth fixation attack emerged – a ton of companies allowed team members to join the effort to resolve it. They knew the effort benefited everybody in the end.

    I doubt people would stay around very long if they genuinely found their ability to speak their minds jeopardized.

    No doubt there are sometimes some compromises, BUT it’s up to everybody to participate in these open forums and raise the concerns that not everybody can.

  4. Laura

    While Tantek was independent these past few years, how many articles did you write about him?
    Maybe these guys are using the companies and not the other way around. ;)

  5. Asa Dotzler

    “Or are they spitting into the prevailing wind at these relatively gigantic organizations, all of which have their own corporate agendas”

    “And while the Mozilla Foundation isn’t a typical for-profit corporation, it has its own interests at heart as well.”

    And those “interests” are precisely THE OPEN WEB.

    Mozilla is a global non-profit dedicated explicitly to THE OPEN WEB.

    While I’m sure it’s likely to attract some drive-by pageviews, lumping Mozilla in with Google and Facebook and any of those other advertising companies like this to make an article “work” is a disservice to your regular readers.

  6. Working on open systems or open source should not be a vow of poverty. I don’t fault anybody for finding a way to get paid, and paid well, to work on projects that are important to them and others.

    Information is free, but the rent must be paid. Good for them for landing jobs where they can get paid and continue their work.

  7. It’s a fair point and I’m sure there will be corporate pressures from their employers, but I’ve met both Dave Recordon and Chris Messina. They’re both champions of the open web, and I think that even if they were employed by, say, Microsoft or Adobe, they’d still be crusading for open standards and looking to change things from the inside. I imagine that Tantek has that kind of personality and mindset, too. (and presumably their employers took them on precisely because they wanted someone to be arguing for open standards in their organizations)

    It’s hard to be hugely influential outside of these corporations — you can write articles, put together committees, form standards, etc, but it’s the corporations that ultimately decide what gets implemented.

    • That’s true, Simon — it is hard to be as influential from outside a company, so I can see why Messina and the others made the decision to move into the corporate world. But doing that is definitely a double-edged sword.

  8. To me it seems that Google, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, etc have come to an understanding that they needed to eliminate the ability of “Open” standards to level the playing filed for all, and to do this they have Co-opted the standards as well as the thought leaders…

    Open standard thought leaders lose their credibility when they are employed by companies with a vested intrest in controlling standards….

    I think that it is time to change the model for “Open” so that there is a way to “Employee” thought leaders and developers for the Greater Good…..Why cant we have an “Open” version of Face Book that generate billions and employees “Open” thought leaders and developers; some of the revenue can be used to support other “Open” projects as well as standards initiatives….I m a proponent of Open Source and Open Standard…but I m disappointed that we have managed to become share croppers for companies that generate billions off of the work and give little back in return….I think that in oder for “Open” initiatives to independently survie we must aggressively compete with companies for users, customers, and revenue….but for the “Greater Good” of members and the Open Community…

  9. Mozilla has openness in its DNA, unlike the other two ad companies where there is obviously tension. There would be no point in toning down the open standards drumbeat once hired at Mozilla because that’s WHAT he was hired for. :)

  10. Hi Mathew, I’m not sure that joining the Mozilla Foundation is quite the same thing as joining Google or Facebook. The former is non-profit and has a mission of keeping the web open. I think the institution strives to be independent. The latter two are corporations, with very different motivations. I believe Google has made laudable efforts to promote the open web (I’ll allow someone else to comment on Facebook’s record) but they have diffrent obligations than a foundation.

    This feels akin to claiming that an AIDS activist who joins CARE or even the WHO has lost their independence as much as one who joins Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline. While I think advocating from inside all these organizations can be powerful, I’m not sure it is all the same.

    • I agree, David — I did note that joining Mozilla is different than joining Google or Facebook, since their mandate is explicitly about being open. I still think Ben raised an interesting point. And I’m not saying any of them will be unable to influence their respective organizations to be more open — I just think it’s a very different thing than being on the outside looking in. Thanks for the comment.

  11. So how are these guys supposed to pay the rent? Donations from legions of grateful Internet users?

    It’s not for us to second-guess how they manage their careers. And historically, corporations large and small have contributed much to web standards efforts, and that’s a good thing, even if it does represent enlightened self-interest.

    It’s also worth noting that Tantek spent many years at Microsoft and was at Apple prior to that. He didn’t descend from the firmament as a fully-formed open standards ninja.

    • That’s a fair point, Jeff — I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any of them a paying gig. And I noted Tantek’s background at Microsoft and Apple. I’m not saying they can’t be influential either — just raising the question. Thanks for the comment.

    • Ben Metcalfe

      So how are these guys supposed to pay the rent? Donations from legions of grateful Internet users?

      That’s actually the conclusion of my point/rant. Not that they shouldn’t end up at these places, but more that I feel that it is often out of personal circumstance — and so we in the community need to do more to support people who are independent so they don’t feel they have to join a big company in order to be comfortable.