With Open Source software against the global surveillance state - eCAPITAL portfolio company Open-Xchange featured in FAZ

eCAPITAL portfolio company Open-Xchange featured in FAZ

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 19, 2018, No. 66, p. 22

With Open Source software against the global surveillance state

For many services that we use in the Internet every day, there exist free open source alternatives / But how do you make money from those? / By Jonas Jansen


Frankfurt, March 18 - In Olpe in the Sauerland as well as in Hamburg and Nuremberg developers are working to disturb the large American internet companies like Microsoft, Google or Facebook. How those companies handle the data of their users, angers Rafael Laguna. "Because of these providers we lose sovereignty over our data. We always leave traces, even if we have left specific services long times ago", says Laguna. He is the CEO of Open-Xchange, a German software company that hardly anyone knows, even though many internet users use their products every day. They simply do not know that Open-Xchange’s technology sticks inside almost every email that is being sent.

The 55-year-old founder of Open-Xchange is quite belligerent and he has to be, because his company is developing competing products to internet giants. The first development started in Olpe in 1996, but in its present form the company exists since 2005. In between there have been several acquisitions and company sales. Laguna became an investor and a rich man. But he also kept the company alive with his own money and at times paid out 60,000 euros a month out of his own pocket. Laguna is a businessman but also an idealist.

His company Open-Xchange offers partially what you know from Microsoft’s Office package: an e-mail program, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, as well as a calendar and data storage. However, there is one crucial difference: The technology of Open-Xchange is based on Open Source software. This means that nobody has to pay license fees and that it can be used freely by everyone. In addition, their source code is open to anyone and therefore verifiable. Theoretically, millions of developers around the world could work on it and immediately report security issues they find.

This follows the tradition of the internet’s free and open development, where software is available for everyone and professionals can verify that the used data is stored safely. Operating systems such as Linux are based on that principle, as well as the development of e-mail servers in the early years of the internet, when Laguna, like many other developers, contributed to the now existing global network.

However, it is those companies that make the big money that exploit Open Source software by using it as a foundation, adding to it but keeping their additions secret instead of publishing it. Laguna calls them internet silos. He says, that even Facebook, Amazon and Google utilize approx. 95 percent of the so-called Open Source software and then do not release their own five percent. What the big Americans do with their services is best understood by a quote from the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles, Laguna says, "You can check-out anytime you like, but you can never leave." No one can escape them. Even though, with open programs one would have better control and could easily transfer own data from one provider to another.

One may wonder why not every internet user simply uses Open Source software if everything is so much better and also free of charge. One explanation is that even Open Source software is not free of errors despite the swarm intelligence of its contributors. Just because Open Source software can theoretically be reviewed by many developers this does not mean that it happens that way. A lack of incentives can be one of the reasons - only because of solidarity with other internet users and without any return for developers it becomes difficult to maintain such a system. Those who are paid for their service, like employed developers, have a higher motivation to look for mistakes. Just a few years ago, Open Source software was especially affected by a vulnerability called Heartbleed. By exploiting this vulnerability, private data such as passwords or secret keys could be stolen.

A company like Open-Xchange is therefore a twofold advantage for supporters of Open Source software: It fights for spreading Open Source and at the same time it professionalizes its development. After all, the company wants to earn money and is actually quite successful in doing so. Open-Xchange has grown by 45 percent every year for the last nine years, today employs 220 people, is profitable and has raised 55 million euros in venture capital. Of more than four million e-mail servers running with Open-Xchange, the company monetizes only about 100, but those 100 customers pay well. Those who use e-mail programs of Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone, 1&1 or, in America, customers of the largest cable provider Comcast, use Open-Xchange. These e-mail platforms often have millions of users who could turn angry quickly if their mailbox were not working properly. Competition is tough, there are a lot of free e-mail services, and Google and Microsoft are good at binding users. Because e-mail accounts do not belong to the core business but still need to be managed properly, Telecommunications companies such as Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone outsource the operation completely to Open-Xchange and pay for it. Of course, the telecom providers expect a smooth process, otherwise they could do it themselves - the necessary software is, as we now know, available for everyone and license-free.

Despite the growth of Open-Xchange, it is not all rosy for lobbyists of Open Source software. Especially public administrations in Germany have recently moved away from Open Source programs. While cities such as Barcelona rely completely on Open Source software as part of their smart-coty strategy, the city of Munich plans to switch back to with Microsoft instead of using Linux by 2020. The police authority in Lower Saxony is also planning this step. Laguna is angry about this development because he thinks that the public sector in particular should promote Open Source software. "Politicians always complain that we are missing the boat, but then they do not support Germany as an IT location," he says. With Open Source software, public authorities in Europe could connect better because they use the same technology. But instead, orders by authorities and governments go to the already powerful and big American software companies with their silos.

Nonetheless you cannot assume Laguna to have a general dislike of American software companies. Almost every company he founded in his career - he started when he was 16 - was bought by an American company. His drive rather comes from the fear of a surveillance state. Laguna grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he felt constantly observed as a child. "We are currently developing into a global surveillance society. I want to prevent that."

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