There's a nice little argument bubbling away over in the south of Italy. It concerns the decision of Nichi Vendola, the president of Puglia, to sign a deal with Microsoft. The motivation, according to Signor Vendola, in the translation of Marco Fioretti, who has been tracking this episode, is that this:
“represents the beginning of an important collaboration partnership, whose goal is to promote innovation and excellence in creation, development and usage of ICT technologies and solutions, adding value to the role of the Region in direct relationships with the biggest international groups of that sector”.
So far, so depressingly normal you might think. Well, it would be, were it not for the fact that the party that Signor Vendola leads in the region, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL), has the following to say on the subject of technology:
Crediamo che parlare di copyleft, di software libero, di neutralità della rete sia una necessità per un partito moderno, così come lo è parlare di lavoro, ambiente, economia e diritti civili.
Per questo abbiamo ripreso l’espressione Ecologia della Conoscenza, perchè crediamo che tutti quei movimenti che si oppongono alla privatizzazione della conoscenza debbano essere unificati in un’unica istanza. Chi si oppone ai brevetti sul genoma o sul software, chi chiede una riforma radicale delle leggi sul copyright, chi sostiene il software libero condivide un’idea di base, che la cultura debba essere libera.
[We believe that speaking about copyleft, free software and Net neutrality is a necessity for a modern party, just as it is to speak about work, the environment, the economy and civil rights.
For this reason, we have adopted the expression "the Ecology of Knowledge", because we believe that all those movements which are opposed to the privatisation of knowledge must unite. Those who are opposed to gene or software patents, or ask for a radical reform of copyright law, and those who support free software share a common idea: that culture must be free.]
Fine words, but hard to square with a deal that places an entire region in the very unfree grip of Microsoft, hardly a great supporter of free software or opponent of software patents.
Understandably, then, Italian free software activist have been questioning this very inconsistent move, and now Signor Vendola has responded to the barrage of criticism:
La sottoscrizione del Protocollo d’intesa con Microsoft ha suscitato le perplessità di chi crede che con questa iniziativa si possa mettere in discussione il software libero e la libera circolazione dei saperi. La tentazione di lasciarsi andare a un impulso referendario è fortissima. Per la Puglia, per l’Italia il nemico è Microsoft? O uno qualsiasi degli altri colossi dell’informatica? A mio parere dovremmo guardare a queste dispute con lo stesso coraggio che ci aiuta a decifrare la politica di questi giorni bui. Combattendo i luoghi comuni.
[Signing the protocol of understanding with Microsoft has given rise to some perplexity in those who believe that this initiative could put in question free software and the free circulation of knowledge. The temptation to call for a referendum is very strong. Is Microsoft the enemy of Puglia, or of Italy? Or are the other giants of IT? In my opinion, we must look at this dispute with the same courage that helps us decipher the politics of these dark days.]
Whoa, hang on a minute: "courage"? We're talking about making a decision based on the technical facts. But anyway, let's go on and hear what the man has to say in explanation:
Dovremmo ammettere che in un secolo nuovo che si apre al cloud computing, all’open data government, alla neutralità tecnologica, al crollo dei prezzi delle Apps, il compito delle politiche pubbliche non è più tanto di scegliere tra competitori, ma quello di allargare le autostrade della società dell’informazione.
I veri nemici nel 2010 (e forse nel 2015 sarà più chiaro) non sono più Windows, Google, Leopard o l’iPad. Il vero nemico è il digital divide in cui il paese è prigioniero. Meno rame e più fibra.
[We must admit that in a new century that is opening up to cloud computing, open data government, Net neutrality, and to the collapse in the price of apps, the job of politics is no longer to choose among competitors, but to broaden the motorway of the information society.
The true enemies of 2010 (and perhaps it will be more clear in 2015) are not Windows, Google, Leopard or the iPad. The true enemy is the digital divide in which this country is imprisoned. Less copper and more fibre.]
What on earth is he talking about? After having made an unjustified choice to sign a deal with Microsoft (
Now, closing the digital divide is certainly a hugely important undertaking, but if anything can do that it is *free* software, which can be distributed to everyone in Puglia - to every school, and to every business. Microsoft's offerings are precisely the last thing that will close that digital divide.
Indeed, the divide is there largely *because* of Microsoft. By virtue of its monopolistic hold on the desktop market it has been able to impose artificially high prices on a sector whose marginal costs of production are zero. This implies that that natural price of software is also zero - as is exactly the case for free software. Anything higher than zero makes the digital divide deeper - which means that Microsoft's inflated prices have helped excavate not so much a digital divide as a digital chasm.
So Signor Vendola's bizarre "explanation" of his move - which, of course is a non-explanation, and the Italian equivalent of saying: "ooh, look, a squirrel" - is in fact a superb reason why he should in fact be supporting open source, just as his party professes to do on its Web site.
However, there is some good news here. And that is the fact that Signor Vendola felt impelled to offer some kind of explanation, however unsatisfactory. This means that he is feeling the effects of the outcry, and knows that he cannot simply ignore it.
The message is clear: Italian free software activists must (a) continue to pile on the pressure until he cancels this deal with Microsoft, and (b) non guardare lo scoiattolo.
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