Understanding LF's New “Community Bridge”
byon March 13, 2019
Yesterday, the Linux Foundation (LF) launched a new service, called “Community Bridge” — an ambitious platform that promises a self-service system to handle finances, address security issues, manage CLAs and license compliance, and also bring mentorship to projects. These tasks are difficult work that typically require human intervention, so we understand the allure of automating them; we and our peer organizations have long welcomed newcomers to this field and have together sought collaborative assistance for these issues. Indeed, Community Bridge's offerings bear some similarity to the work of organizations like Apache Software Foundation, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the GNOME Foundation (GF), Open Source Initiative (OSI), Software in the Public Interest (SPI) and Conservancy. People have already begun to ask us to compare this initiative to our work and the work of our peer organizations. This blog post hopefully answers those questions and anticipated similar questions.
The first huge difference (and the biggest disappointment for the entire FOSS community) is that LF's Community Bridge is a proprietary software system. §4.2 of their Platform Use Agreement requires those who sign up for this platform to agree to a proprietary software license, and LF has remained silent about the proprietary nature of the platform in its explanatory materials. The LF, as an organization dedicated to Open Source, should release the source for Community Bridge. At Conservancy, we've worked since 2012 on a Non-Profit Accounting Software system, including creating a tagging system for transparently documenting ledger transactions, and various support software around that. We and SPI both now use these methods daily. We also funded the creation of a system to manage mentorship programs, which now runs the Outreachy mentorship program. We believe fundamentally that the infrastructure we provide for FOSS fiscal sponsorship (including accounting, mentorship and license compliance) must itself be FOSS, and developed in public as a FOSS project. LF's own research already shows that transparency is impossible for systems that are not FOSS. More importantly, LF's new software could directly benefit so many organizations in our community, including not only Conservancy but also the many others (listed above) who do some form of fiscal sponsorship. LF shouldn't behave like a proprietary software company like Patreon or Kickstarter, but instead support FOSS development. Generally speaking, all Conservancy's peer organizations (listed above) have been fully dedicated to the idea that any infrastructure developed for fiscal sponsorship should itself be FOSS. LF has deviated here from this community norm by unnecessarily requiring FOSS developers to use proprietary software to receive these services, and also failing to collaborate over a FOSS codebase with the existing community of organizations. LF Executive Director Jim Zemlin has said that he “wants more participation in open source … to advance its sustainability and … wants organizations to share their code for the benefit of their fellow [hu]mankind”; we ask him to apply these principles to his own organization now.
The second difference is that LF is not a charity, but a trade association — designed to serve the common business interest of its paid members, who control its Board of Directors. This means that donations made to projects through their system will not be tax-deductible in the USA, and that the money can be used in ways that do not necessarily benefit the public good. For some projects, this may well be an advantage: not all FOSS projects operate in the public good. We believe charitable commitment remains a huge benefit of joining a fiscal sponsor like Conservancy, FSF, GF, or SPI. While charitable affiliation means there are more constraints on how projects can spend their funds, as the projects must show that their spending serves the public benefit, we believe that such constraints are most valuable. Legal requirements that assure behavior of the organization always benefits the general public are a good thing. However, some projects may indeed prefer to serve the common business interest of LF's member companies rather than the public good, but projects should note such benefit to the common business interest is mandatory on this platform — it's explicitly unauthorized to use LF's platform to engage in activities in conflict with LF’s trade association status). Furthermore, (per the FAQ) only one maintainer can administer a project's account, so the platform currently only supports the “BDFL” FOSS governance model, which has already been widely discredited. No governance check exists to ensure that the project's interests align with spending, or to verify that the maintainer acts with consent of a larger group to implement group decisions. Even worse, (per §2.3 of the Usage Agreement) terminating the relationship means ceasing use of the account; no provision allows transfer of the money somewhere else when projects' needs change.
Finally, the LF offers services that are mainly orthogonal and/or a subset of the services provided by a typical fiscal sponsor. Conservancy, for example, does work to negotiate contracts, assist in active fundraising, deal with legal and licensing issues, and various other hands-on work. LF's system is similar to Patreon and other platforms in that it is a hands-off system that takes a cut of the money and provides minimal financial services. Participants will still need to worry about forming their own organization if they want to sign contracts, have an entity that can engage with lawyers and receive legal advice for the project, work through governance issues, or the many other things that projects often want from a fiscal sponsor.
Historically, fiscal sponsors in FOSS have not treated each other as competitors. Conservancy collaborates often with SPI, FSF, and GF in particular. We refer applicant projects to other entities, including explaining to applicants that a trade association may be a better fit for their project. In some cases, we have even referred such trade-association-appropriate applicants to the LF itself, and the LF then helped them form their own sub-organizations and/or became LF Collaborative Projects. The launch of this platform, as proprietary software, without coordination with the rest of the FOSS organization community, is unnecessarily uncollaborative with our community and we therefore encourage some skepticism here. That said, this new LF system is probably just right for FOSS projects that (a) prefer to use single-point-of-failure, proprietary software rather than FOSS for their infrastructure, (b) do not want to operate in a way that is dedicated to the public good, and (c) have very minimal fiscal sponsorship needs, such as occasional reimbursements of project expenses.
Update on 2019-04-01: Community Bridge was also discussed on episode 0x65 of Free as in Freedom, which is available in mp3 format and ogg format.
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