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Boycott Novell: Champion of freedom or den of paranoia?
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By Bruce Byfield on October 24, 2008 (8:00:00 PM)
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Few sites about free software attract more controversy than Boycott Novell. Founded in 2006 in response to the first Microsoft-Novell deal, as its name suggests, the site has evolved more recently into a site for commentary and investigation of any subject that might be a threat to free software. To its regular readers, this subject matter makes Boycott Novell -- like Groklaw, its apparent inspiration -- a defender of the community. But to others, especially those who have been the subject of its articles, the site is full of illogical arguments and undeserved attacks, and an embarrassment that only brings the community into disrepute.
Although founded by Shane Coyle, Boycott Novell is best known for the writings of Roy Schestowitz, a seemingly tireless poster who frequently writes half a dozen or more articles a day for the site, and posts numerous comments elsewhere across the Internet. For many people, Schestowitz is the public face of the site, and the criticisms -- ranging from the reasoned to the obscenely vicious -- are as likely to be directed at him as the site itself.
Boycott Novell, Schestowitz says, "is an accumulation of resources, many of which are external, that together explain the [Microsoft-Novell] deal in what we consider a more realistic light" than what was being said in the media. "It was immediately evident that the press favoured the words of a pair of companies which colluded against a non-commercial entity [the free software movement]. Their wealth alone established trust, so backlash came from isolated voices, but rarely from the mainstream press."
Describing himself as "an avid SUSE user for years," Schestowitz says he and Coyle are two of the community developers "hurt" by the deal. At first, Schestowitz says, he argued his view of the deal in openSUSE mailing lists, but finding his perspective was not being accepted, "I decided to share my understanding of the deal and shed light on the things which the press simply ignored." With this decision, Boycott Novell soon skyrocketed in popularity, and began its evolution into the center of controversy that it has become today.
Boycott Novell advocates
Those who find Boycott Novell's publications valuable vary from those in full agreement with the perspective on the site to those who find the site useful but express concern about how those perspectives are articulated.
A typical unqualified supporter is Keith G. Robertson-Turner, who uses the nickname Homer. "The problem is Microsoft," Robertson-Turner says bluntly. He admits that Boycott Novell "tends to polarise the issue, as do I," but immediately adds, "I make no apologies for that, since as far as I am concerned, one is either part of the problem or part of the solution."
As far as Robertson-Turner is concerned, Microsoft is "a vicious corporation with zero moral standards." Similarly, Novell has "betrayed its own community," especially in the introduction of what he terms "poisonware" such as Mono and Moonlight -- software that might in the future become the basis for patent attacks on free software by Microsoft.
Robertson-Turner sees himself and Boycott Novell as defending against three levels of opponents: Microsoft, its corporate allies, and community members who support them. Such community members include those who actively "support using of developing Microsoft technologies," or those who are "refusing to recognise the problem, instead choosing to shoot the messenger." In other words, he suggests that the attacks on Boycott Novell are easier than facing up to the realities of the dangers that he sees.
Robertson-Turner asserts, "Boycott Novell provides an invaluable service by exposing the truth about Microsoft and its allies. Some of that exposure may be speculative, but most is based on documented fact that can be independently verified."
Other Boycott Novell supporters are more guarded. For example, Peter Kraus, a second-year student at the University of Glasgow who is studying chemistry and forensic studies, describes the site as having a "somewhat borderline point of view" with "a dark Orwell vision," but believes that much of what is said on the site is largely true, even though he thinks that some of its coverage of Novell "is a bit too critical and prejudiced." As a relative newcomer to free software, Kraus also finds it useful as an informational hub that has led him to other sites and blogs.
Similarly, Christian Einfeldt, who for several years has been producing a movie on the free software community called The Digital Tipping Point, says that "I am generally pro-Novell, and I think that the basic concept of Boycott Novell is misguided. But I think that Roy has done some original journalism and some original digging, and he has brought some important stuff to light. Also, I think that, even if I disagree with Roy, he is nonetheless an important voice of conscience for the greater FOSS community. It is important that we have people like Roy who will question what leading members of the community do."
Boycott Novell's detractors
Those who criticize Boycott Novell are different from the site's supporters in several ways. Their opinion is often colored by having been the subject of one of Boycott Novell's articles. Some are afraid to voice their criticisms publicly, worrying that the site will attack them if they do.
Still, criticism does appear occasionally. Last summer, a blog post appeared entitled "Boycott Novell: Defenders of Freedom or Offenders of Freedom." According to the post, Boycott Novell:
has misled hundreds of thousands of Free Software advocates, and it constantly works on staining the reputations of companies that have done nothing wrong. What's worse, they often have little proof of anything. Ever read a Boycott Novell article? Funny how they cite themselves 10 or more times in every article, rather than actually pointing to any relevant news.
Calling for responsible coverage of free software issues, the post concluded, "As a group, Free Software supporters need to end the hate and anger against faceless companies. It's counter-productive. Furthermore, it's just damn silly."
More recently, analyst Stephen O'Grady of open source analyst firm RedMonk responded to Schestowitz's claim that anything said by RedMonk "ought to be taken with a level of caution, apprehension, and suspicion." Although O'Grady agreed that being skeptical of analysts was only healthy, he points out that Microsoft has been as unhappy with his analysis as Schestowitz appears to be. O'Grady continued:
Schestowitz, for his part, has offered up even less evidence. Essentially, Schestowitz would have us branded with a scarlet letter -- S for sell-out, perhaps? -- for the simple crime of agreeing to work with Microsoft. As he has, in the past, recommended that Raven Zachary of the 451 Group be similarly tarred and feathered because he had the temerity to actually visit the Redmond campus. Nowhere that I'm aware of does he point to an alleged example of said bias; it's merely assumed because there is a disclosed financial relationship in place.
To Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation, who last year clashed with Schestowitz over GNOME's involvement in the writing of OOXML specification, the attack on O'Grady and RedMonk was an example of the problem presented by Boycott Novell. Describing O'Grady as "one of those people behind the scenes who has connected a lot of dots and done a lot of really good things for the free software world," he suggests that the fact that Schestowitz would attack O'Grady "clearly shows that he has no idea of what's going on in the industry and who the real players are. Roy likes connecting dots that don't even make sense."
Waugh suggests that the prevailing attitudes on Boycott Novell are symptomatic of a larger situation in society "where to disagree is to be enemies, and you have to find all sorts of connections and conspiracy theories to show that the other person is bad -- not merely holding a different opinion, but bad." He suggests that Boycott Novell and its supporters take the approach that they do because they lack life experience -- either due to their youth, or, more probably, because they do not have "those life experiences that inform them about how the world works -- for instance, that people can do bad things, not because they are involved in some kind of conspiracy, but because they're stupid, or they hold a different opinion or make a mistake."
Waugh suggests that the paranoia he sees on Boycott Novell is the flip side of the idealism that is central to the free software community. "Any leading-edge, anti-establishment group that has a certain amount of ideology in its makeup can attract extremes," he says.
Furthermore, he suggests that the site is full of "purposeful misunderstanding" that allows it to continue publishing. "It must be a complex set of rules to adopt in your mind," Waugh says. "If Microsoft does something good, then we have to find something bad in it. And it's quite complicated to come up with a reason why a person is evil, even though they do good things."
Waugh admits that voicing the community's discontent with Novell was an important statement to make. "Had Boycott Novell taken a very calm and considered approach to the single issue of the Novell and Microsoft agreement and done a highly informed and investigative approach to that issue, I think it would have been very effective. Much like Pamela Jones [of Groklaw] did with the SCO stuff. You need someone who can dedicatingly tear it apart."
However, as things are, Waugh claims that Boycott Novell is "not doing analysis" and "has become extremely emotive instead. It's demonized people, as well as business relations and companies, and branched into 50 million other things to throw mud at the players involved. And that is extremely disappointing." In the end, Waugh says, attitudes like those on Boycott Novell are "enormously divisive." They leave no room for reconciling differences in the community, and leave a bad impression with outsiders that can handicap the community's goals.
Finding middle ground
Perhaps the best measure of the strong but conflicting views that Boycott Novell inspires is that many of those I approached in researching this story expressed strong reservations about publishing it. Waugh, for instance, wondered if "covering [Boycott Novell] at all is either giving it undue promotional time, or just opening yourself up for endless argument." And it does seem likely that any attempt to represent the opposing views on such a heated subject can only lead to accusations of bias, especially since in the past I have been mildly demonized by Boycott Novell myself.
Perhaps the sanest approach to such a divisive subject is Christian Einfeldt's. In Einfeldt's view, "criticism is vital to a democracy," and "the free and open source community is a democratic movement" that can only benefit from being toleration on both sides. "If Novell listens to Roy and considers some of Roy's points, Novell can improve as a company," Einfeldt says. He suggests that he can disagree with Schestowitz while continuing to regard him as "a good personal friend," at the same time that he considers Miguel de Icaza, a frequent target of Boycott Novell, as "a friendly acquaintance" whose company he enjoys.
Waugh suggests that toleration is precisely what Boycott Novell and its advocates are unequipped to practice. Perhaps those on both sides who are capable of practicing it should try to set an example. The alternative is for everyone involved to make enemies of people who should be their natural allies.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.
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