The Congressional tech antitrust report raises concerns that Amazon's practice of making 'knock-off' versions of open source software could stifle innovation

  • The House antitrust committee released a 449-page report Tuesday, outlining its investigation into potential anti-competitive practices by Big Tech companies including Amazon.
  • The report raises concerns over how Amazon Web Services takes popular open source software built or maintained by smaller companies and creates "knock-off" versions to sell on its cloud.
  • In response, many of these companies have changed their software licenses to restrict access to this open source software — but this, too, could hinder innovation, the report says.
  • Are you an Amazon Web Services employee? Contact this reporter via the encrypted messaging app Signal (646.376.6106) or email ([email protected]).
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Amazon Web Services has a certain reputation for its practice of taking free, open source software — software often created or maintained by smaller companies — and repackaging it to sell on its cloud. The practice is perfectly legal under the principles of open source software, but AWS has sometimes faced backlash from developers.

Now, Congress has weighed in with concerns that the practice of creating what it calls "knock-off" open source software could harm innovation, according to a 449-page report released Tuesday by the House antitrust subcommittee.

In the House committee's view, it presents a potential antitrust concern: Amazon takes popular open source software like Redis, MongoDB, or Elastic, makes "additional developments" to it that make it run better on the AWS cloud, and made it a proprietary service. In so doing, Amazon is taking business away from the smaller players that make or maintain the software, while also diminishing the incentive to build open source software in the first place.

"Through a combination of self-preferencing, misappropriation, and degradation of interoperability, Amazon has sought to eliminate cross-platform products with Amazon-only products," the report said. "Amazon's conduct has already led several open-source projects to become more closed, a move driven by a need for protection from Amazon's misappropriation."

To that point, companies like Redis Labs, MongoDB, Elastic, Confluent, and Cockroach Labs have made defensive moves against AWS and other mega-cloud platforms, going so far as to change their open source licenses to prevent the ability of certain companies and organizations to make changes to the software. These moves have been controversial in the open source community, though the companies have said they were necessary.

One open source software company even told the subcommittee staff that it was "paranoid" of Amazon, and that if AWS repackages its software as it has with others, the company "would not have a business."

Amazon, for its part, says that it has a long-term commitment to the open source community, and regularly contributes bug fixes, new features, and other improvements to the software projects behind the relevant cloud services it offers. It also says that the maintainers of open source projects have a responsibility to keep the project open.

Companies complain that AWS creates 'knock-off' open source products

Open source software can quickly spread in popularity through developer communities, owing to the fact that it's both free and quickly improves as more contributors gather to make improvements.

AWS relies on this innovation from the open source software community "to gain dominance," market participants told the subcommittee staff — open source software is very popular in corporations large and small as a cost-effective alternative to more proprietary alternatives from companies like Oracle, Microsoft, or even Amazon itself.

However, many commercial open source companies and developers have taken issue with AWS and its approach, saying it contributes very little back to the open source community despite all that it apparently gains. For example, Amazon Elasticsearch Service is based on Elasticsearch, an open source search project from the company Elastic. It's possible that AWS generates as much revenue from its version of Elasticsearch as Elastic sees from its own products. 

"People were feeling, we develop all this work and then some large company comes and monetizes that," an unnamed open source market participant told the subcommittee staff. 

The report also raises concerns that AWS can also name so-called "knock-off" open source products similarly to the original product, misleading customers into believing that product is sponsored by the original vendor. For example, last year AWS launched Open Distro for Elasticsearch, an open source software project. In response, Elastic CEO Shay Banon wrote a blog post calling AWS out for co-opting the Elasticsearch brand and community for its new project.

MongoDB, which is an AWS partner, also faced similar competition when AWS built a similar version of MongoDB called DocumentDB that is tied to AWS and designed to "emulate the responses that a MongoDB client expects from a MongoDB server."

Open source license changes could 'significantly undermine innovation'

Even though open source software is free, customers are often willing to pay for Amazon's versions because they're much easier to use on the AWS cloud without intensive configuration. What's more, the report notes that AWS has the power to give its own versions preferential placement in its management console, such that customers see them first when looking for solutions and buy them with the click of a button.

It can also make certain AWS functionalities available in its own products but not in software from other vendors. And while AWS says that it adds capabilities to these open source projects, market participants told the subcommittee staff that those "additional developments" were only to work with AWS, increasing lock-in, and thus reducing the ease with which a customer could move to rival clouds like Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform.

Read more: Despite the looming threat of Amazon's cloud, some software companies are going all in on free software. Others are fighting back.

Notably, however, the committee also took issue with the license changes that some like Confluent and Redis Labs have made to limit Amazon's ability to use their code. These more restrictive licenses could confuse customers, and make the software less useful to smaller companies and research labs that can't necessarily afford to pay for the commercial versions.

That could ultimately drive customers, users, and developers away from open source software in the first place, and towards AWS and other large clouds, which would prove counter to the point and "significantly undermine innovation."

"All large organizations attract the attention of regulators, and we welcome that scrutiny. But large companies are not dominant by definition, and the presumption that success can only be the result of anti-competitive behavior is simply wrong. And yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, those fallacies are at the core of regulatory spit-balling on antitrust," Amazon's statement on the House report says, in part. You can read the full response here.

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