Transparency strategies

In Free Software circles working in public is important, and transparency is a precondition for that. The more transparent workflows and information are, the more is there a collective basis for collaboration and mutual trust.

In this forum topic we elavuate variations of Transparency that can be strategically applied, given circumstances and situation.

(Note: Just brainstorming, taking notes. Many more variations, different ways to slice, etc. Names are just made up on-the-fly, there may be a whole field of study here with well-defined terminology)

Radical Transparency

Real-time and information-complete…

This is the highest level of transparency attainable, the ultimate goal, where everything is 100% out in the open at any moment in time. This level is not always practical, desirable or even possible.

  • Not practical: A squater registers domain names before you do → Need for preparation.
  • Not desirable: Your visit to the toilet and archiving of the ‘message’ → Need for privacy.
  • Not possible: WInning a war with war rooms broadcasted to Live TV → Need for secrecy.

Fully transparent

Information-complete, but not real-time

Eventual Transparency

Planned fully transparent

You plan to be fully transparent at a a certain moment in time, but before that you are not or only partially transparent. Leading ultimately to full transparency. This is a very natural approach:

  • You are writing notes on paperr to publish them later online.
  • You draft a proposal and want to publish once its understandable and of good enough quality.

Progressive Transparency

Gradual full transparency

Where information becomes gradually transparent as soon as that is in any way possible, and there’s no longer a need for preparation / privacy / secrecy.

Concentric Transparency

Hierarchical full transparency

Picture concentric circles where from the inner circles an information stream is published to the next circle, and the next, informing more people, until all information is public.

Conceded Transparency

Update 13 April 2023: Hellekin calls this selective opacity.

Partially transparent trade-off

There are times when a cost / benefit must be weighed and the outcome can be a concession to the level of transparency.

An recent example came up in a collaboration proposal with Codeberg. The codeberg organization has private members and these again have a private Presidium, all defined in the bylaws of their non-profit organization.

Radical transparency is not possible because of this. Full transparency may still be possible.

Reason to accept the concession are the opportunity to have Codeberg as partner and custodian with their reputations and guarantees to Free Software they can offer. I.e. an opportunity was weighed.

CC @dachary

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Radically Transparent Strategy?

(This example deals with the topic of ‘strategies’, but might as well be a sales plan, contract, etc.)

Can a Strategy be Radically Transparent? Can it be Fully Transparent? If so, what are risks, pros, cons, and ways to do it?

My assumption is that:

Radically transparent strategy only makes sense if there are no (alert) rivals to easilly annul it.

The “easily” is important. Your rival may know your strategy, yet not be able to make it void by direct counter-measures.

Shamir’s Shared Strategies

One showerthought, fun to mention. I thought of Shamir’s Secret Sharing where multiple parties hold only part of a secret key.

When you have a comprehensive strategy plan, you might cut it up and delegate work on it so the big picture isn’t clear. The consecutive parts may make not much sense on their own, and may have innocuous-sounding names. Store in different locations, then have a secret ToC that brings them together.

This seems inpractical in most cases, unless the different parts have value if they are out in the open. If that is not the case the obfuscation is not increasing transparency.

An example that I have heard of is Nextcloud. They would love to share their plans and features in upcoming releases with their community as soon as possible, but rely on press covering for marketing reasons.

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Distrust vs Trust based compliance

In all but a radical transparency approach there is either an informal or a formal agreement to only disclose according to the transparency strategy that is followed.

In formal arrangements (NDA, Contract) there is an assumption of a possible betrayal and hence that a legally binding guarantee is needed to deal with cases where there’s a breach of trust. A framework of legal compliance and reinforcement becomes available.

In informal arrangements (Promise, Pledge, Vow) there’s assumption and higher confidence that people can be trusted. A breach of trust may lead to consequences, but need to be dealt with in other ways. Social qualities and human interactions + forms organizations play a more prominent role.

I cannot be more transparent than the space in which I am allows me to be. Forgejo is where I can be radically transparent and this is great. Forgefriends too. But Codeberg no: when I choose to enter the Codeberg space I also adhere to their level of transparency. Nobody can be radically transparent regardless of the space in which they are, that would not make much sense and create conflict.

Although information that need to be kept secret in order for a strategy to be effective is a theoretical possibility, I am yet to find a valid example in the wider context of social coding / Free Software / humane software. What I have however seen, a number of times, is how secrecy divides potential allies that try to reach the same goal. This is not theoretical but I cannot discuss it because… it was secret, obviously :smile:

There are zillions of spaces / organizations that implement various levels of transparency, for whatever reason and this is fine. I’m not advocating that all organizations must be radically transparent. I’m drawn to the very few that are and I wish there was more. I’m a fairly private and shy person and will not share personal details about my life in these transparent spaces (going to the toilet etc.), no more than I will discuss them in the subway, which everyone around me listening.

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Thank you for your feedback, @dachary. As you know you are a great inspiration for me to think about these subjects. In this topic and others I want to delve into the concepts deeper and find a kind of framework that allows more deliberate and conscious approach to how we can operate, and feel comfortable to do so by knowing the rationale of our choices.

I see this differently. The delibation with Codeberg is part of the Forgejo project, and there were moments in Forgejo activities where things were Eventually Transparent. In other words applying different transparency strategies became a required part of Forgejo project for various reasons (i.e. collaboration with third parties in this example).

First I’d like to mention that using the word “secrecy” - though maybe technically correct - refers to the opposite extreme of transparency, and has a negative connotation. We may find another way to describe.

In the example above Eventual Transparency was chosen because:

  • Opportunity: Honoring Codeberg governance rules is a pre-condition to reaching strategic objective: Forgejo project under umbrella / custodianship of Codeberg who have a great reputation.

  • Respect: Otto, having a preference for adopting Forgejo, could not short-cut the decision-making process he was bound. This process allows all Codeberg members to discuss freely and unrestrained among themselves without fear of public backlash, and then vote democratically on course of action.

Another example where Eventual Transparency was chosen, was my idea for Code Liberation to be a major service provided by Codeberg. Here considerations where:

  • Readiness: There should be time to draft things, until they are sufficiently worked out not to be leading to discussions on things not relevant, or premature opinion-forming by people TL;DR’ing.

  • Timing: Forgejo was in very early stage at the time, with no strategical directions clear, or even knowing anything about value proposition and project direction. In both of these there are more decisions to be made that will affect the nature of the proposal (such as membership of The Forgers Guild).

As it ultimately turned out, both these points led to postponing elaboration of the proposal for good reasons. If Codeberg members were already informed this would lead to significant confusion and unnecessary communication overhead.

(In this case my insight is that Software Guilds should operate on their strengths that the strategic collaboration of its members provide and make an attractive Offer to codeberg for collaboration, on the condition of Guild membership. I.e. an invitation to join and be stronger together)

Yes, indeed. And this is another insight. In many cases it is just natural to be not radically transparent. If you are with your friends talking in a bar, having a good time, it would be very weird to demand your talks to be publicly registered.

And I wonder to which extent this also applies to your personal online social network (see Strategic Social Networking), as well as - stretching the idea further - the talks that Codeberg e.V. members have among themselves.

I disagree. The deliberations with Codeberg were split in two clearly separated parts:

  • All messages sent to Codeberg from Forgejo were transparent and visible to all in the Forgejo space
  • None of the messages sent from Codeberg to Forgejo were transparent and stayed in the private Codeberg space

There was a suggestion during the conversations to report to Codeberg which I acted upon and referred to when I proposed to publish monthly reports. The conclusion of the discussion (approval of the proposal) was communicated to the general public by Codeberg.

The transparency situation is not going to change: none of the Codeberg messages sent to Forgejo will be published.

Which proposal is that?

It may be just a difference in how we define this. There were a couple of times “this is discussed among codeberg members and private, so we cannot quote here”… in other words the collaboration with a party that is not radically transparent (and in fact forever opaque to non-members) led to parts of Forgejo to be Eventually Transparent (“awaiting result of our deliberating with Codeberg” etc).

The one outlining a completely new service for Codeberg, where you, me and @onepict where involved, and we recorded the meeting for Otto to see. It fell a bit through the cracks in busy chatrooms, but I mentioned adding a note to the pad to elaborate later.

There are advantages and disadvantages to either approaches, but they have to be evaluated by in the context of the Free software and Free culture.

  1. By making compromises on transparency policies, we might gain a temporary advantage over non-free actors. Ideas will be protected and showcased first. But non-free actors usually have more resources than most Free software projects. They are driven by increased sales and profits, both of which are not primary goals of Free Software projects. So it is very easy for non-free actors to catch up and even supersede Free software projects, making the advantage a very short-lived one.

  2. Free Software projects are initiated and managed by a diverse set of folks. The projects generally pledge to treat their audience with respect, something that non-free projects regularly violate. Being radically transparent presents a track record to the public. The alternative, would require a leap of faith.

  3. Secrecy is an anti-pattern in Free Software: There are several ongoing attempts to evaluate and document the trust-ability of Free Software projects ( and ). Any compromise to transparency will only serve to hurt the project in the long term.

  4. Secrecy is based on the idea that ideas can be owned. An idea is a result of past experiences and some creativity from the part of the person imaging it. To say that the idea belongs to the individual and can be owned disregards the contributions of the society. Besides, even if an idea was imagined in a black box with no influence from the environment, it is only a matter of time before someone else imagines it.

Also, secrecy is besides the point. Non-free actors are secret because they want to be more successful, generate more profits. In the context of Free Software, this would translate to more adoption and a general conversion to FOSS.

Conversion shouldn’t be the main goal, IMHO. I personally focus on honing my skills as a programmer and building and maintaining a healthy community for the people that are willing to participate in it. I am not a religious person, but I found the Buddhist philosophy of “Show not tell” very interesting and relevant for spreading Free software:

Because of this ‘come and see’ approach, scholars of Buddhism, as well as travellers, often have not noticed that monks are missionaries. The student monks in Chiang Mai themselves would not call their work missionising in the same vein as the Christians they have encountered. They contrast their openness to ‘show the way’ with Christian missionaries, who go out to find potential converts. Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai are not advertising their way of life, asking for support, or offering the possibility to become a Buddhist. Instead, they conclude that when the karmic connections arise, travellers will arrive at the temple and monks will be ready to share their teachings.

Source: Buddhists missionaries let prospective converts come to them | Aeon Essays

So, IMHO, conversion and better FOSS adoption is inevitable in the long run. But it is important that we don’t lose sight of it while trying to get there.


Thank you @realaravinth you make some very good points… before I delve into them I’d like to summarize the reasons for this exercise as there seem to be misconceptions and even resistance to have the discussion itself:

  • My observation is that in our world the forces of evil (hypercapitalism) gain strength more rapidly than forces of good (FOSS, Free Culture, etc) can counter-balance them.
  • I also wonder why hypercapitalism can uphold the most complex of structures and processes and be highly profitable at that, while a humble FOSS project is in general hugely unsustainable (be happy if you get infra costs back).
  • I know that in business circles having good business strategy is seen as a key factor to success.

So the only thing I want to explore is this:

Could FOSS benefit from more strategic approaches without compromising its core values?

What you could distill from posts above (and also from chat today) is that we apply various transparency strategies all the time, and it is only natural to do so. Above I’m just naming them so I can refer to them in analysis.

100% agree. Your second and fourth points highlights something that is crucial: Most ideas and innovations come from the general public and the free flow of information. It is essential this exists. And of course we want to have respectful value system to spread to all places where it isn’t now. (Once more my observation says we are trending in the opposite direction as a society… towards autoritarianism).

Commit your passwords and SSH keys to git then :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: This is a bit of a tease, you would obviously not do so. But it demonstrates there are reasons to consider different levels of secrecy.

You give a really technical example. FOSS projects are good on the technical side. Would there be more examples beyond the technical? Like high-level strategic, or involving the coordination of multiple projects in an ecosystem?

Suppose I elaborated an idea with a group of friends, and together we concluded that “Oh my, would Adobe just kill to have this product plan we created here?”. Should we then continue to post that idea publicly and everyone toot about it on the Fediverse knowing that there are a bunch of Adobe product managers among their followers? → Maybe :thinking: because that is just what FOSS does, right?

Or maybe they should wait a bit, and only go public once they are better protected against Adobe going full force on it. :thinking: Especially if maybe they know that Blender might be interested to implement.

“Secret” is this negative word. The group never intended to be some secret club. They only ever wanted to be public, but they timed their publication to not have done all their work for nothing if Adobe steals it. In the mean time they might have discussed all different aspect among their wider group of (FOSS) friends.

Different transparency strategies are just some of many different instruments, yes.

Bit OT, but note that “more adoption” were a great strategy that FOSS community might have followed for years to create a stronger Fediverse technology base with Free Software at its heart. Right now what happens to the Fediverse is in the hands of the corporations. If we are lucky enough they lose interest, we might get another chance to take our fate in our own hands,but right now we squandered the opportunity.

I get, appreciate, and highly respect the Buddhist philosophy… yet with a more practical eye I witness it hasn’t spread that much and in the mean time the world is burning from hypercapitalism.

I agree fully. Our current system of hypercapitalism is entirely against forces of nature, and hence doomed to fail. But is that before or after the bloody revolution / apocalypse / your own lifespan?

A post was split to a new topic: FOSS sustainability: Highlighting the need to discuss Strategy

I have a very recent example of this, depending on how the situation develops / which side of a conflict you ask, it is an example of the former or the latter.

Here is a recent discussion about transparency I had in Trustroots project: Information about Trustroots Foundation is not accurate any more · Issue #2585 · Trustroots/trustroots · GitHub

It started from a power and (mis)trust issue. Now I’d say it is an ownership issue between the founders (this is their legacy) and the contributors (their legacy too) both claiming to ack with the best faith in the name of the users community (85K) which is not informed about the situation so far.

There ware/are many people involved in resolving the conflict, but I am not part of it any more. It was too much for me at this time.

Some background story:

Trustroots is a FOSS project in hospitality exchange domain, an example of modern giving economy with strong connections to moneyless movement. It was co-founded by people disappointed with CouchSurfing being started as a community project and then privatized by the founders who become owners of a for-profit company. Because of this, to protect Trustroots community from being sold out, the platform was backed by a Foundation registered in the UK.

Fast forward to 2022, people who founded Trustroots were not involved in the project any more and most of them resigned from the board of the Foundation (3 out of 5) already years ago. The only board member who remined active in the volunteers team was the main developer of the platform, who suddenly stopped answering any messages at the beginning of this year (but we know from his wife he’s fine).

In March none of the two remaining board members filled out tax declaration for the foundation and in May it got dissolved.

At the moment of dissolution, all assets of the foundation are transferred to people who are in the board at that point in time, for us they remain unreachable. These assets include users data and the rights to access and manage it, domain name etc.

In the summer for a few weeks messaging system on the platform was broken and it turned out the only people who have access to the deployment servers and are reachable are the former board members who are not part of the team. The same with code repository, domain name…

There were more people from the team that shared access and managed the deplyments but they left the team because of a conflict with one of the founders. I didn’t get a chance to meet that founder before this summer, he was not active in the team at least since I joined about 2 years ago and was not answering even when tagged, but I was quite close with one of the main contributors who left TR because, as he told me, he didn’t trust that founder person. Unfortunately he’s not talking with me any more either. None of them is, actually :smile:. (I feel like I should start writing a book about my experiences in software projects)

And now there is a commit that documents change of deployment servers which involves move of users data and full control of access to it, by the two founders and former board members. They have no legal rights to manage or access users data and, as far as I understand data protection law in Europe (GDPR), that move was illegal, but maybe necessary to keep the platform running, I don’t know, I was not included in the decision.

I am sure there is much more to that story, on both sides of the conflict, and I’ll be observing how it develops, from the distance of Open Hospitality Network project which I started because of a similar issue in one other similar community project I contributed to. At that time both sides ended up taking steps that were probably illegal (I am not a lawyer though).

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Hi there @mariha thank you for posting.

I was aware of this conflict via the OHN chatroom, and these types of things are unfortunately horror stories that happen all too often. Part of Social Coding Movement would be finding all kinds of best-practices for the Social Coding FSDL pattern library that can help avoid these situations from happening.

In the case of this conflict lack of Transparency was certainly one of the contributing factors, together with a range of other aspects I guess. Lack of Transparency might easily lead to an erosion of Trust, which is also extremely important in FOSS projects.

Btw, I do not know if you’ve seen it, but I created a separate topic explaining the reason that imho talk about strategies are needed: FOSS sustainability: Highlighting the need to discuss Strategy. Especially beyond the scope of single FOSS projects to the level of ecosystems and technology adoption there is imho a big weakness in FOSS in the face of hypercapitalism.

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On the W3C SWICG Mailing List Hellekin mentions the term selective opacity in response to quoting Jack Dorsey:

Jack: I do believe absolute transparency builds trust.

Hellekin: I do believe selective opacity builds confidence.

Nice. Hints again at that there’s a sweet spot to find, and how that approach can be strategic in nature.

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Generally: the moment formal agreements come into play, is the moment transparency (regardless of its form) ends.

Say whatever you want @aschrijver, but this is just plain reality. No words are going to change this.