In Open projects, the source needs to be made available to anyone who requests it. As a result, it is incredibly easy to determine what the source is being used for, what each component does, and who wrote it. You could tell what was happening, whether it was good or bad.

This leads me to my question: Was transparency of projects a main goal for the creation of FLOSS movements? Why is transparency such an important thing in FLOSS ideologies?

Essentially, was transparency a large factor in the creation of open movements? I am looking for a source or reference to this.


2 Answers 2


The problem with a concept like 'transparency' is that it is multi-layered. Being able to see the source code is an important aspect, but not all of it.

When we talk about transparency in an organization's process, it means that we not only see the results of decisions (code changes in this context) but the reasoning behind the decisions.

Even for large projects, where much debate occurs in the open on mailing lists and discussion boards, there is often still a small group of core contributors (perhaps the maintainers) who determine the overall direction in which a project moves (short of it being forked). They may have a private agenda which goes beyond simply making the code available.

Lest this sound paranoid, consider some major open source projects which are largely funded by Corporations. The corporate strategy meetings where licensing changes, or the choice of new features etc, are decided are almost certainly not open for any community member to attend. We have no idea what commercial business reasons may be driving some of their decisions unless they choose to share them.

A project is only truly transparent if all discussions are held in the open, and anyone can attend. And if meetings are fully minuted and the minutes published openly.

So, given this definition of transparency, I would deem it unlikely to be a major goal in the decision to make any given project open-source or free.


Nowadays, most FLOSS (free/libre/open-source software) projects have a public code repository, which everyone can browse. But historically this wasn't always the case.

Part of the reason was of course that in the early days of free software, the tools for version control weren't as good as they are today (CVS, the first freely available version control system that managed whole projects and not just individual files, only appeared in the late 1980s). Another reason was that many people didn't have enough bandwidth to download sources, they could only get sources on tape or CD. Since distribution was infrequent, there was little motivation to get the whole change history. It was common to include a summary of changes in a changelog file (a tradition that most projects either have abandoned, or keep going by generating the changelog from the VC history).

Beyond the technical issues, there were philosophical differences. It's been a long time, and I'm working from memory, so I'm afraid I don't have references; I'll try to find some (probably old mailing lists). There definitely have been disagreements as to the importance of making all development public. In particular, GNU projects did not do so, for a long time. For the first 20 years or so of the project, only new beta or release versions were released, not intermediate working revisions, and this was presented as a normal thing, not a technical limitation. The OpenBSD project, in particular, criticized this model, and claimed that it was important to make the whole project history public in real time. So transparency was a major virtue for OpenBSD, but irrelevant for GNU.

Some famous FLOSS projects that kept their development hidden for a long time include TrueCrypt and NetHack. With both of these effectively stopped, I can't think of any remaining major FLOSS project that develops behind closed doors, apart from projects maintained by companies as an enabler of their main business (such as Android), with open source chosen not for philosophical reasons but for practical reasons (ability to reuse existing open source code, encouragement for third parties to tune the software). I think that nowadays, most supporters of free software consider transparency during development the norm, whether they consider it philosophically important or not.

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