Does This Mean We've “Made It” as a Social Cause?

Saturday 28 June 2008 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I got a phone call yesterday from someone involved with one of the many socially responsible investment houses. It appears that in some (thus far, small) corners of the socially responsible investment community, they've begun the nascent stages of adding “willingness to contribute to FLOSS” to the consideration map of social responsibility. This is an issue that has plagued me personally for many years, and I was excited to receive the call.

When I graduated high school and read my first book on personal financial management, I learned how to invest for retirement in mutual funds. The book mentioned the (then) somewhat new practice of “socially responsible investing”, which immediately intrigued me. The author argued, however, that it was silly to make investment decisions based on personal beliefs. I immediately disagreed with that, but I discovered that his secondary point was actually accurate: beyond the Big Issues (weapons manufacturing, tobacco, etc.), it was tough to find a fund that actually shared your personal beliefs.

Once I did some research, I discovered that it wasn't actually as bad as that, because there actually is a pretty good consensus on what is and is not socially responsible (or, at least, the general consensus in this regard seems to match my personal beliefs, anyway). However, I did discover a gaping hole in the social responsible investment agenda. The biggest social issue in my personal life — the issue of software freedom — was never on others' radar screens as a “socially responsible issue”.

For example, in 1996, when I had my first opportunity to roll a 401(k) into an investment of my own choosing, I discovered a troubling fact. Every single socially responsible fund, when I looked at their stocks held (sorted by percentage), Microsoft was always in the top ten, and Oracle in the top twenty. Indeed, on most socially responsible axes, Microsoft and Oracle look good: they treat their employees reasonably well, they don't generally build products that actively kill people (although many of us die inside a little bit every time we use proprietary software), and, heck, if they use more DRM, they can ship their software and documentation via the network and won't even ship as many CDs to fill up landfills. This kind of thinking about “socially responsible” ignores how the proprietariness of the company's technology negatively impacts people outside of the company. Nevertheless, for years, I've held my nose and put my retirement money in these funds, content on the compromised idea that at least I don't have my retirement savings in oil companies.

I tell this backstory to communicate how glad I was to get the call from an employee of a socially responsible investment house. This fellow was actually investigating the FLOSS credentials of various companies and trying to bring it forward as a criterion when considering how socially responsible their practices are. He seemed genuinely interested in bringing this forward as part of a social agenda for his company. I told him: every great idea starts as a conversation between two people, and enthusiastically answered his queries.

It was clear FLOSS considerations are new and not widely adopted as a factor in the socially responsible investing world, but I am glad that at least someone in that world is thinking about these questions. Of course, I agree that in grand scheme, FLOSS issues should not be ranked too highly — certainly issues of environmental sustainability and human rights have a higher and more immediate social impact0. However, given that Microsoft so often ends up in the top ten of “good socially responsible investments”, FLOSS issues are clearly ranked far too low in the calculation.

Hopefully, this phone call I took yesterday shows we're entering an era where FLOSS issues are on the socially responsible criteria list for investors. I further hope this blog entry doesn't stop socially responsible investors and fund managers from contacting me in the future to get advice on how socially responsible various companies are. I debated whether to write about this call publicly, but ultimately went for it, since it's an issue I think deserves some net.attention. So many of us, FLOSS fans included, must now must manage our own retirement accounts, since pension funds have generally given way to self-directed retirement savings options. If you have a fund with a socially responsible investment company, take this opportunity to give them a call or send them a letter to tell them you'd like to see FLOSS issues on the criteria list. If you don't yet invest in with a socially responsible company, consider switching to one, as they clearly will be the first to add FLOSS-related criteria to their investing agenda.

0I have never believed myself that FLOSS is the most important social justice issue in the grand scheme. I struggled for years with the question of whether to devote my career to a social cause that wasn't top priority; things like human rights and environmental sustainability certainly deserve more immediate attention. However, it turned out that my skills, knowledge, background and talent are clearly uniquely tuned to Computer Science in general and FLOSS in particular, and therefore I can have the greatest positive impact focusing on this rather than would-be higher priority causes. If only we could get people in these other movements to at least see that they are better off not using Microsoft for their own operations (in my experience, NGOs and NPOs are more likely to stick with proprietary software than for-profit companies), but that's an agenda for another blog entry.

Posted on Saturday 28 June 2008 at 11:38 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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