WordPress Stands for Open Source, Morals, Democracy: BetterKnowanSFBlog

Every Tuesday morning, the SF Weekly news blog The Snitch profiles one of the Bay's many cool blogs in a segment we call BetterKnowanSFBlog. This week, it's actually a blog software program called WordPress.

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By Tyler Callister

If you live in China, you probably can’t access this article.

That’s because the Chinese government censors its citizens' internet access, keeping tight watch over controversial words and phrases like “democracy,” “freedom of speech,” and “Tiananmen Square,” as well as blocking access to many popular web sites.

Known best for their blog publishing software, WordPress is one of the most popular sites on the Internet. So when the developers of WordPress woke up one morning and found that a quarter of their site traffic had disappeared, they knew what had happened — the Chinese government had blocked their site. WordPress helps make blogs, blogs help make free speech, and the Chinese government is not a big fan.

WordPress could have regained their Chinese market by launching a specialized sister site for China that censored content and agreed to give up information about users to the Chinese government. But in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg said, “It was the most Orwellian, ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life… That just seems actually, positively evil to me… There’s no way we could support that and still feel passionate about what we do.”

So China continues to block WordPress because Mullenweg and the other developers could not bring themselves to collaborate with the Chinese government. This act typifies the WordPress business model, one that is deeply rooted in democratic principles and a visceral connection to their job. “You really have to love every single bit of what you do,” Mullenweg said. “The moment that you do something that makes you feel queasy to your stomach, the company dies.”

This same spirit is what inspired Mullenweg to make WordPress “open source,” meaning the software and its code is free and open to the public, with no intellectual property restrictions. Users can download the free software script and customize the blog software any way they want. Open source also turns WordPress into a giant collaborative effort. The result is something the WordPress website describes as “both free and priceless at the same time.”

Mullenweg is just 23 years old and has almost no formal tech training. But a passion that he’s had since he was teenager has now become one of the most popular blog tools in the world. Mullenweg has been named one of the “50 Most Important People on the Web” by PC World, and his business travels have taken him everywhere from Argentina to Greece. While WordPress.org is a nonprofit, Mullenweg also has a company called Automattic, which provides services like anti-spam software and blog page hosting.

Mullenweg has practical business reasons for making WordPress open source and he thinks open source is “the future of software.” He foresees a software industry model in which the software company provides a free service and makes money off of advertising rather than software sales. “Selling software is a declining model,” he said.

But Mullenweg seems to support open source for the same reason he opposes the Chinese government’s internet censorship — he just feels it in his gut. “For me, open source is a moral decision,” he said. “I think it’s the right way to do software. You shouldn’t restrict peoples’ freedom on what they can and cannot do with code.”


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