recently I learned about the Open Search Foundation in the public broadcast radio (Bayern 2 Radio Article). That surprised me: I had not heard about OSF before, even though I am active in the field of free software and culture. But this new foundation made it into the mainstream broadcast already. Reason enough to take a closer look.

It is a very good sign to have the topic of internet search in the news. It is a fact that one company has a gigantic market share in searching which is indeed a threat to the freedom of internet users. The key to be found in the web is the key to success with whatever message or service a web site might come up with, and all that is controlled by one enterprise driven by commercial interests. That should be realized by a broad audience.

The Open Search Foundation has the clear vision to build up an publicly owned search index as an alternative for Europe.

Geographical and Political Focus

The whitepaper talks about working on the search machine specifically for Europe. It mentions that there are search indexes in the US, China and Russia, but none rooted in Europe. While this is a geographical statement in the first place, it is of course also a political, because some of the existing services are probably politically controlled.

It is good to start with a focus on Europe, but the idea of a free and publicly controlled project should not be limited to Europes borders. In fact, it will not stop there if it is attractive because it might offer a way to escape from potentially controlled systems.

On the other hand, Europe (in opposite to any single European country alone) seems like a good base to start with this huge effort as it is able to come up with the needed resources.


The founding members of the Open Search Foundation are not very well known members of the wider open source community. That is good, as it shows that the topics around the free internet do not only concern nerds in the typical communities, but also people who work for an open and future proof society in other areas like academia, research and medicine.

On the other hand, an organization like for example the Wikimedia e.V. might have been a more obvious candidate to address this topic. Neither on the web site nor in the whitepaper I found mentions of any of the “usual suspects” or other organizations and companies who have already tried to set up alternative indices. I wonder if there have been discussions, cooperations or plans to work together?

I am very curious to see how the collaboration between the more “traditional” open data/open source community and the Open Search Foundation will be, as I think it is a crucial part to combine all players in this area without falling into the “endless discussion trap” while not achieving countable results. It is the question of building an efficient community.

Pillars of Success

Does the idea of the OSF have a realistic chance to succeed? The following four pillars might play an important role for the success of the idea to build the free search index of the internet:

1. Licenses and Governance

The legal framework has to be well defined and thought through, so that it will be resilient longer term. As we talk about a huge commercial potential to control this index, parties might wanna try to get into control of it.

Only a strong governance and legal framework can ensure that the idea lasts.

The OSF mentions in the whitepaper that it is one of the first steps to set this up.

2. Ressources

A search index requires big amounts of computing power in the wider sense, including storage, networking, redundancy and so on. Additionally there need to be people who take care on that. For that, there needs to be financial support for staffing, marketing, legal support and all that.

The whitepaper mentions ideas to collect the computing power from academia or from company donations.

For the financial backing the OSF will have to find sources like EC money, from governments and academia, and maybe private fund raising. Organizations like Wikimedia would already have experience with that.

If that will not be enough, the idea of selling better search results for money or offering SEO help for development will quickly come up. This will be interesting discussions that require the strong governance.

3. Technical Excellence

Who will use a search index that does not come up with reasonable search results?
To be able to compete with the existing solutions that even made it into our daily communication habits already, the service needs to be just great in terms of search results and user experience.

Many already existing approaches that use the Google index as a backend have already show that even with that it is not easy to provide a comparable result.

It is a fact that users of the commercial competition trade their personal data against optimal search results, even if they dont do that consciously. It is more difficult for a privacy oriented service, so this is another handicap.

The whitepaper mentions ideas on how to work on this huge task and also accepts that it will be challenging. But that is no reason to not try it. We all know plenty of examples where these kind of tasks were successful even though nobody believed that in the beginning.

4. Community

To achieve all the points a strong community is key factor.

There need to be people who do technical work like administering the data centers, developers who code, technical writers for documentation, translators and much more. But that is only the technical part.

For the financial-, marketing- and legal support there are other people needed, not speaking about political lobby and such.

All these parts have to be built up, managed and kept intact long term.

The Linux kernel, which was mentioned as a model in the whitepaper, is different. Not even the technical work is comparable between the free search index and the Linux kernel.

The long term stable development of the Linux kernel is based on people who work full time on the kernel while being employed by certain companies who are actually competitors. But on the kernel, they collaborate.

This way, the companies share cost for inevitable base development work. There differentiators in the market are not depending on there work on the kernel, but in the levels above the kernel.

How is that for OSF? I am failing to see how enough sustainable business can be based on an open, privacy respecting search index so that companies will be happy to fund engineers working on it.

Apart from that, the kernel has the benefit that it had strong companies like RedHat, SUSE and IBM who pushed Linux in the early times, so no special marketing budgets etc. were needed for the kernel specifically. Also that is different for OSF, as quite some marketing- and community management money will be required to start.


Building a lasting, productive and well established community will be the vital question for the whole project in my opinion. Offering a great idea, which this initiative is without question, will not be enough to motivate people to participate long term.

There has to be an interesting offer for potential contributors at all levels, starting from individuals and companies for contributions, to universities for donating hardware or the governments and the European Community for money. There needs to be some kind of benefit they will gain for their engagement on the project. It is interesting if the OSF can come up with a model that will get that kickstarted.

I very much hope that this gets traction as it would be an important step towards a more free internet again. And I also hope that there will be collaboration on this topic with the traditional free culture communities and the foundations there.