Entryism in Open Communities


Locked

If you are a follower of the OpenStreetMap Foundation mailing list you may recall that there was a flurry of concern in late November 2018 regarding 100 new members, all of whom worked for the Indian data factory GlobalLogic. The new members had all signed up in a relatively short time period just prior to the cutoff point for new members to vote in the annual OSMF Board Elections and understandably some people thought that this influx of new members might signify an intent by GlobalLogic to influence the outcome of the election (readers in the UK and US may be hearing an echo at this point).

It turned out that the new members had misread the cutoff conditions and had in fact missed the cutoff by a few hours so no influence was exerted on the elections.

Entryism (also referred to as entrism or enterism, or as infiltration) is a political strategy in which an organisation or state encourages its members or supporters to join another, usually larger, organisation in an attempt to expand influence and expand their ideas and program. In situations where the organization being “entered” is hostile to entrism, the entrists may engage in a degree of subterfuge and subversion to hide the fact that they are an organisation in their own right.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entryism

Subsequently the Membership Working Group of OSM undertook a detailed study of what had happened and what conclusions might be drawn. This was a careful and moderate response to the incident that proposed a series of recommendations for further discussion.

I follow two open communities OSGeo and OSM, I’m less active in OSM nowadays, and there has always been a concern within these communities about retaining a defence against “bad actors”, particularly businesses trying to influence or take over the foundation of the community. I’m not suggesting that GlobalLogic were a “bad actor” – you should read the MWG report and form your own judgement.

Both the OSGeo Foundation and the OpenStreetMap Foundation restrict membership to individuals as a protection against a corporate takeover. I must admit that until now I had always considered the concern about corporate takeover to be a bit paranoiac and unlikely, in my opinion there is something of a thread of anti corporatism in both OSM and OSGeo. Now I am wondering whether I was wrong about attempts at a takeover.

So could what happened in the OSM last year also happen to OSGeo? The membership models are different:

  • In OSM anyone can become a member of the OSMF by signing up and paying an annual fee of £15, there has been talk about reducing this fee for people from low income countries. There is no requirement to be an active mapper or even to be an occasional mapper.
  • OSGeo membership is described as Charter Membership and members have to be proposed, seconded and previously voted on by the existing Charter Members. Charter Membership is seen as a recognition of past contributions to the OSGeo community and projects. There is no membership fee.

In the past OSGeo held annual elections for Charter Membership, there were a fixed number of places and those candidates who got the most votes were elected i.e. not everyone who was proposed and seconded was elected. In 2014 this process was changed (with limited discussion in my recollection) to remove the cap on numbers elected by allowing all candidates who receive more ‘for’ votes than ‘against’ and at least 5% of the electorate to be elected. In 2016 the process was further amended to not require a vote, if you are proposed and seconded and not vetoed (a Charter Member can veto a candidate privately) you are elected. Charter Membership has grown quite rapidly (420+ CMs after 2018 elections) and the diversity of membership has been extended as one no longer needs high profile amongst active community members to be elected in a competitive vote. This is almost certainly a good change within OSGeo.

The new Charter Membership election process does potentially open membership up to manipulation as there is limited scrutiny of proposed members and most people are, quite rightly, reluctant or cautious about using their veto. It hasn’t happened, it’s unlikely to happen but the experience of the OSM community last year suggests that what I thought was paranoia could be sensible prudence. This matters because Charter Members elect the board of OSGeo and the board can change policies and processes and after electing the board the membership has no mechanism (apart from the next board election) to overturn decisions of the board.

I think that growing Charter Membership makes it more difficult for entryism to occur but I’m not sure.

What is clear to me now is that as OSM and OSGeo have become more established and mainstream with substantial commercial entities embedded within their ecospheres the potential for conflicts of interest is likely to grow. It may be time to revisit the articles of association to ensure that we have adequate protections. Perhaps this is something that OSGeo should be discussing?

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