30 April 2009

Spreading Government Openness

For those of us that believe that openness is good for governments (and good for us), the question becomes: how can we encourage government at all levels to become more transparent? Requesting or demanding openness only goes so far, and can ultimately become depressing in the face of refusal. So what else can be done that's satisfying and effective?

How about this?

The mission of Sunshine Review is to create a place where regular people have the opportunity to breathe new life into the political system by demanding a transparent and honest government. Sunshine Review collects and shares information about government transparency, openness and accountability at the state and local level.

One of the ways it does that is by rating websites of local governments:

This page gathers the results of county website evaluations from all 50 states after all 3,140 counties in the country were evaluated by Sunshine Review contributors.

That's an extraordinary achievement, and indicates the scale and ambition of the project. The point being that the more publicity is given to shortfalls in sites - especially compared to their peers - the more likely laggards are to respond positively. Now, if we could only get this going over here....

The Tibetans' Secret Weapon: Openness

I came across this fascinating piece about how the Tibetan exile community not only keeps going in the face of China's unbending occupation of their homeland, but even manages to maintain some optimism. Here's a particularly heartwarming passage:

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and elsewhere in China, the views of exiled Tibetans and portraits of the Dalai Lama are political taboos. But in Dharamsala everything from the "other side" is available: TV news and propaganda on several different Tibetan-language Chinese channels, dramas and (again) propaganda programmes dubbed into Tibetan. Their original target audience is ethnic Tibetans living in the TAR and in neighbouring regions of the PRC where many Tibetans live (Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan - or in Tibetan, U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham).

Tibetan government-in-exile officials express confidence that Tibetans in Dharamsala won't be brainwashed by these Chinese TV channels, even that it is good for Tibetan communities to encounter Chinese arguments. Indeed, some young Tibetans in Dharamsala laughingly pointed out to me some absurdities in the propaganda TV programmes. The Tibetan officials, asked how they are going to deal with the Chinese government's heightened international PR offensive, expressed the belief that being open and honest is all they need to do.

While China clamps down on Tibetan culture, and blocks sites dealing with "forbidden" subjects like the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans in exile allow anyone to hear the Chinese side. Why? Because openness makes them stronger, and better able to counter Chinese arguments.

Moreover, the Tibetans have no fear of their people hearing the truth, unlike the fearsome and yet fearful Chinese leadership - a mighty dragon strangely afraid of the sunlight.

P2P is Political

Richard Stallman has always regarded free software as about freedom, and hence inherently political. And so it's no surprise that many aspects of openness butt against highly-sensitive areas - secrecy, privacy, etc. But that transition from programming to politicals seems to be taking place beyond free software, too:

a new poll conducted by Swedish newspaper DN.se predicts that the Pirate Party will get 5.1% of all votes in the upcoming EU elections this June - enough to guarantee a seat in the European Parliament. The poll further shows that the party is the second largest party among younger voters in the age group 18-30.

“This poll confirms our recent phenomenal growth in support, and says there will be pirates in Brussels after this election,” Pirate Party Leader Rick Falkvinge told TorrentFreak. “Scoring like this in a poll will further enhance support for the party. While there’s still much work to be done, we’re on the home stretch and have the goal in plain sight. June 7 is election day. On the morning of June 8, we’ll know.”

Clearly, the Pirate Party has been fortunate with the timing: had the trial taken place far from the European elections, the effect would have been muted. Nonetheless, I think it's significant that anger over the court's decision is spilling over into politics; I predict we'll see much more of this if - as is likely - we witness further unthinking rejections of today's digital culture and its norms.

Whatever Happened to OOXML?

Remember Open Office XML – a name chosen to be as confusingly close to OpenOffice XML as possible – better known as OOXML? Remember how just over a year ago this and many other blogs and news outlets were full of sound and fury, as OOXML slouched its way through the ISO standardisation process, finally staggering across the finishing line at the beginning of April 2008? I certainly do, but it's extraordinary how things can change in a year...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Patent Nonsense in Europe

Here's some interesting news on the European patent front:

Preliminary figures from the European Patent Office (EPO) reveal that the number of applications for new patents is down 7% in the first two months of 2009. This is the first reduction in patent applications in over a decade, sparking fears that Europe's knowledge economy is under threat.

Applications to the EPO have doubled since 1995, leaving the agency with a backlog of between 400,000 and 500,000 applications. More than half of the applications filed last year were not granted.

However, the advent of the financial crisis has brought a sharp downturn in the exponential growth of new intellectual property filings.

An EPO survey of its clients, published this week (April 27), forecasts a levelling-off of new patent applications in 2009 and 2010, but this study was conducted in mid-2008, and is unlikely to have factored in the recession, which has deepened in the meantime.

"Europe's knowledge economy is under threat"? I don't think so. Here's an alternative explanation. Patents have a clear cost, but the benefit they provide is far more vaporous. I suspect that as belts are tightened, people are realising that patents aren't actually worth getting in terms of the cost/benefit they represent.

When times are good, companies might merrily apply for patents on the assumption that they are a good investment, without thinking about it too much; but when considered carefully against a harsh economic background, maybe they don't look such a good idea - hence the drop in applications.

29 April 2009

The Retreat from ID Cards Has Begun

This is significant:

Senior cabinet ministers are privately discussing a plan to scrap the Government's £5bn identity cards programme as part of cuts to public spending, The Independent has learnt.

Once such people start talking about it, even the most timorous will soon pluck up the courage to express their views; quickly we'll reach a classic tipping point when the majority hold the view that ID cards make no sense from any point of view.

But there are always some who remain prisoners of their delusions:

Your article of 28 April on ID cards is simply wrong on two fundamental points. The Government is committed to introducing ID cards.

Er, why would that be Jacqui?

ID cards will provide the public with a single, simple and secure way for individuals to prove their identity and safeguard their personal details – protecting the community against crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism.

Oh, I see. Why don't we just look at those, eh?

a single, simple and secure way for individuals to prove their identity

Well, no, it won't do that unless ID cards become compulsory for *every* occasion when I have to prove who I am. Now, that may be coming, but until then I'm still going to need to prove who I am by logging in to online services, or showing my library card. Is she really suggesting that the ID card replace *all* of those? If not, it will simply *add* to all of the other proofs that I need. ID cards only make sense if they satisfy a vital new need to prove who we are - for example, when stopped by the police in the street....

safeguard their personal details

How on earth does a centralised database "safeguard my details"? The ID card certainly doesn't - it's just a bit of plastic with a chip in; and as anyone who's been in computing for more than a couple of months knows, bringing data together in any way makes it less secure, not more. So what on earth is she rabbiting on about?

And as for

protecting the community against crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism

these were all debunked ages ago as the UK government desperately shopped around for some kind of justification for ID cards. It won't stop illegal immigration and it certainly won't stop "terrorism".

It hard sometimes to work out whether Ms Smith actually believes the nonsense she spouts, or just believes we're stupid enough to believe her. Either way, news that her colleagues are rapidly placing clear water between themselves and her deranged ideas on this one is welcome indeed. (Via OurKingdom.)

Towards Transparency for Europe

Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that I've been posting more about transparency recently. Of course, it's a natural extension of openness, and can equally be thought of as open government. Whatever you call it, it's apparently problematic for some people:

In the run-up to the European elections, some websites are trying to monitor MEPs according to their attendance in plenary sessions and committee meetings. But in practice the task is proving extremely difficult. EurActiv France contributed to this report.

Last week, one such website, www.parlorama.eu, was forced to shut down after its initiator was flooded with complaints from MEPs.

Flavien Deltort, a former MEP's assistant from Italy, had attempted to rate parliamentarians according to their attendance in plenary sessions, committee meetings and broader participation in parliamentary life.

But only two days after launching his website last week, Deltort was forced to close it down "due to the overwhelming volume of complaints". Threatened with prosecution by many MEPs, he decided to temporary close the website.

Although some of that prickleness may have been justified, I think it also shows that here in Europe we have a long way to go before we achieve open government. The US is already ahead, with campaigners like Larry Lessig working hard to make things more transparent, as well as splendid organisations like the Sunlight Foundation:

Our goal through our grant-making, blogging, projects, and technical leadership, is to use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money, lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible.

We need something similar here in Europe, but it looks like it's going to be a struggle to achieve that.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.

Newly in Newham

Those with good memories may recall that Richard Steel and I had something of a, er, discussion about open source in our respective blogs. This culminated in a suggestion from Richard...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Oi, OIN: What Took So Long?

When the Open Innovation Network announced that TomTom was joining, just after Microsoft accused the latter of infringing patents related to Linux, I was sceptical. After all, the former

was formed to promote Linux by using patents to create a collaborative environment. It promotes a positive, fertile ecosystem for Linux, which in turns drives innovation and choice in the global marketplace. This helps ensure the continuation of innovation that has benefited software vendors, customers, emerging markets and investors.

Now, I'm all in favour of ecosystems, but it's hard to see how this kind of organisation would help TomTom much. Well, some details are starting to emerge of how OIN aims to fight back against this kind of thing:

Open Invention Network (OIN), a collaborative enterprise that enables innovation in open source and an increasingly vibrant ecosystem around Linux, today announced that U.S. patents 5579517, 5758352 and 6256642 have been placed for prior art review on the Post-Issue Peer-to-Patent website associated with the Linux Defenders portal. These patents were recently cited in litigation that targeted TomTom NV.

OIN's mission includes encouraging the Linux community to review patents-of-interest that may be of suspect quality or riddled by questions regarding prior art. Accordingly, the patents used in the recent TomTom patent action have been posted by OIN for review and submission of prior art by the Linux community. Submissions may be made by visiting http://www.post-issue.org, clicking on the appropriate patent and selecting "Submit Prior Art".

Right, so it seems that OIN won't be doing anything directly, other than getting the relevant patents posted on the Post-Issue Peer-to-Patent website associated with the Linux Defenders portal.

Isn't this a rather roundabout way of doing things? I can't help feeling that this could have been done rather quicker: after all, if it's just a matter of posting the relevant patents for people to examine and poke holes in, why wasn't it done as soon as Microsoft attacked TomTom? Did we really need to wait for TomTom to join OIN, and for the latter to pass the message down the chain a few weeks later?

Perhaps the community needs to think about how this kind of stuff can be done more expeditiously given that patent attacks against open source are likely to increase, and that prior art is a powerful weapon to deploy against them in jurisdictions foolish enough to allow software patents in the first place.

Foolish Phorm

Earlier this year, I had some problems with a statement from the Open Solution Alliance's Anthony Gold. Here are my comments from the time...

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 April 2009

The Closing the European Internet

Openness lies at the heart of the Internet, at every level. Indeed, the success of the Internet, and of the open services that run on top of it, was one of the first - and remains one of the most important - demonstrations of the benefits of adopting open architectures. Unfortunately, it's an openness that is fairly subtle for non-technical people; above all, it's not at all obvious to politicians, who seem to assume that apparently minor tweaks won't change things much....

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 April 2009

Taiwan Adopts "Three Strikes" Law

Bad news, bad law:

The Legislative Yuan ratified yesterday the latest revision of the Copyright Law to empower Internet service providers (ISPs) to "strike out" Internet surfers who have violated others' copyrights and posted unauthorized content on any Web sites.

The new rules will exempt the ISPs from any responsibility for offenses caused by pirating parties in order to avoid litigation by copyright owners.

But the service providers will be obliged to inform the pirating parties about the infringement on the copyrights.

They can suspend part or all services to the pirates after giving three warnings.

The pirates will still face lawsuits from the copyright owners.

No details on whether this needs judicial oversight, but don't hold your breath...

23 April 2009

Tropical Disease Initiative Releases Kernel

No, really:

There is an urgent need for identifying new targets for drug discovery. This urgency is even more relevant for infectious diseases affecting third-world countries, which have been historically neglected by the pharmaceutical industry. For example, only ~10% of the R&D resources have been spent on illnesses that represent the 90% of the total disease burden in the world (Munos 2006), which translates in that just ~1% of newly developed drugs are for tropical diseases (Maurer et al. 2004).

At the beginning of the 90s, an initial Linux kernel conceived and created by Linus Torvalds paved the way for a wealth of open and free software programs and operating systems. Here we introduce what we believe can be regarded as an initial kernel for drug discovery with the hope that it will sparkle new ways for developing drugs against organisms that cause tropical diseases. The TDI kernel (v1.0) includes 297 potential drug targets against the 10 selected genomes and is freely and publicly accessible in a World Wide Web server, which was developed with Web2.0 tools for easy dissemination of the deposited data.

It's amazing how metaphors can spread.

You can browser the kernel - *their* kernel - here.

Who Owns Commercial Open Source – and Can Forks Work?

Three years ago, Tom Foremski wrote an interesting piece called “Adapt or die--the choice facing the open source movement“, which began:

Can Larry Ellison be stopped? By which I mean could Oracle shut down the fledgling open-source software movement through a series of acquisitions??

On Linux Journal.

22 April 2009

EU on ACTA: "TRIPS Is Floor Not Ceiling"

Getting information about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is like getting blood from a stone, but here's an article with some useful informtion:

The EU Commission is “committed to improve the international legal framework for IP protection” and sees “ACTA as one way to reach that goal,” Devigne said. There was no intention to duplicate TRIPS. Rather, “we want to go beyond it,” he said, adding, “TRIPS is the floor, not the ceiling.”

Well, that's pretty clear: they are aiming to produce something even worse than TRIPS. This, though, is less convincing:

“It is not that we want to hide something, we just don’t have something to show.” Devigne also rejected all claims about a possibly secrecy in the negotiations. “Quite on the contrary, for international trade negotiations we normally do not have such a democracy exercise where everybody can raise their concern,” said Devigne. For this kind of negotiations the Commission would normally only consult with member states.

One other nugget is the following:

so far there is only consensus in any case to exempt patents from criminal law sanctions.

Drip, drip, drip....

MEPs: Do not Enclose the Cultural Commons

Nicely put by the Open Rights Group:

Wednesday is the last full day to lobby your MEPs in Strasbourg before this Thursday’s vote on copyright term extension.

A cross party platform of MEPs have tabled an amendment to reject the proposal to extend the term of sound copyrights beyond 50 years. Contact your MEPs in Strasbourg and ask them to support the rejection amendment tabled by Sharon Bowles, Andrew Duff and Olle Schmidt ALDE, Guy Bono, PSE, Christofer Fjellner, Zuzana Roithova, Anna Ibrisagic EPP.

It also points to this amazing article from the FT of all places, called "Do not enclose the cultural commons":

Copyright is an act of force: it is the means by which states forcibly establish artificial monopolies in cultural works. There are two arguments why governments can legitimately do this. The first is to ensure efficient incentives for cultural production. The second is to ensure that artists get a fair reward for their contribution to our culture’s enrichment. In the absence of copyright, the ease with which cultural works can be reproduced may leave creators with neither efficient incentives nor fair rewards.

But neither consideration justifies extension of copyright beyond the current 50 years. If anything, copyright terms are currently too long.

Wow, at least we're having an impact *somewhere*: the FT talking about enclosing the commons, and intellectual monopolies...

Anyway, as usual, here's my quick note that I've sent to my MEPs via WriteTotThem:

I am writing to ask you to vote against the proposal to extend the term of sound copyrights beyond 50 years, and to support the rejection amendment tabled by Sharon Bowles, Andrew Duff and Olle Schmidt ALDE, Guy Bono, PSE, Christofer Fjellner, Zuzana Roithova, Anna Ibrisagic EPP.

By now, it has been established that there is no economic justification for extending copyright; that doing so will harm the vast majority of people, and put money in the pockets of a very few, mostly well-off, musical superstars. This measure is quite simply lobbying at its worst.

But you don't have to believe me. Here's what the Financial Times' Editors, hardly anti-business, wrote earlier this week:

“Copyright extension is, in the main, just the well-known strategy of powerful companies: profit-grabbing through lobbying for state protection. That is bad enough. Worse is the chilling effect it can have on creativity: the industry is already on a legal crusade against the sampling of copyrighted material into new original work. This is like the Grimm brothers’ descendants suing Disney for using their fairy tales.

The cultural industries are over-protected. If cultural works were less greedily hoarded, consumers would enjoy more variety – and artists would create more freely.”

Indeed, it points out:

“If anything, copyright terms are currently too long.”

For these, and all the other well-rehearsed reasons why copyright extension would be a retrograde step, I urge you to vote for the rejection amendment.

A Timeline of Microsoft Hurt

I've often written about particular instances where Microsoft has bullied competitors; it's a pretty sorry tale. But that story becomes extraordinary when told in detail, and as a sequence of actions whose sole purpose was to drive off competition by any means.

If you're interested in how Microsoft sought to undermine DR-DOS, WordPerfect, Netscape and Java - to say nothing of GNU/Linux - you can find out here in this document from the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS). As you might guess from the subject matter of the report, this is a bunch of companies who are not overly enamoured of Microsoft:

ECIS has acted as an advocate of interoperability since its inception in 1989. The association believes strongly in the benefits of a competitive and innovative ICT sector, and seeks to support such an environment by actively participating in the promotion of any initiative aimed at favoring interoperability, competition on the merits, innovation, and consumers' interests in the area of information and communication technology.

ECIS’ members include large and smaller information and communications technology hardware and software providers Adobe Systems, Corel, IBM, Nokia, Opera, Oracle, RealNetworks, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems.

Leaving aside the sad fact that a European organisation can't spell "favouring", it's pretty clear that this is not an objective, balanced picture. But as far as I can tell, it's not untruthful, and its statements are butteressed with references to relevant documents and news items that make it useful for further exploration.

Battle for the Soul of the European Internet

Even though the internet is 40 years old, and the Web 20, it's only in the last couple of years that European politicians have started to take a deep interest in its workings – and implications for society. However, the flurry of activity we have seen in recent months more than makes up for that long neglect....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.

21 April 2009

Internet Censorship, Salami-style

This is bad news:

Mobile operators will appoint an independent classification body (see Glossary) to provide a framework for classifying commercial content that is unsuitable for customers under the age of 18. The framework will be consistent with standards used in other media and only treat as 18 content that would receive an 18 type classification for the equivalent material in, for example, magazines, films, videos and computer games.

Commercial content providers will be required to self-classify as 18 all content unsuitable for customers under the age of 18, in accordance with the framework. This requirement does not apply to premium rate voice or premium rate SMS (texting) services, which will continue to operate under the ICSTIS Code of Practice.

By default, all commercial content not classified as 18 will be unrestricted.

Each mobile operator will place commercial content classified as 18 behind access controls and only make it available to those customers that it has satisfied itself, through a process of age verification, are 18 or over.

The mobile operator will also place behind access controls all commercial content chat rooms, unless they are moderated chat rooms.

This doesn't apply to "Internet content" - yet:

Mobile operators have no control over the content that is offered on the Internet and are therefore unable to insist that it is classified in accordance with the independent classification framework.

Mobile operators will therefore offer parents and carers the opportunity to apply a filter to the mobile operator’s Internet access service so that the Internet content thus accessible is restricted. The filter will be set at a level that is intended to filter out content approximately equivalent to commercial content with a classification of 18.

But guess what? Once all those filters are in place, wouldn't it be really convenient - sorry, wouldn't it combat terrorism and fight child pornography - if we applied those same filters to the Internet everywhere?

See? Salami-style censorship: you won't notice a thing... (Via Glyn Wintle).

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.

20 April 2009

Urgent: Please Write to your MEPs about Amendment 138

Sorry, it's time to get those virtual quills out, and to write to your MEPs. There's a crucial vote coming up in the next couple of days that may see net neutrality killed in Europe thanks to the British and French governments. La Quadrature du Net has the details; here's my letter:

I am writing to ask you to urge your colleagues, particularly those on the ITRE committee, to vote in favour of amendment 138/46 to the Telecoms Package, and not to allow it to be deleted or watered down in any way – for example, by making it an indicative recital instead of an article.

As a journalist who has been writing about the Internet since 1994, I know how important it is that the connection is provided without any technical restrictions. This is the only way that innovations can emerge – indeed, the British inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has said that if restrictions of the kind that the striking of amendment 138/46 will allow were in place back in 1989, the Web would never have taken off. This means that if the amendment is dropped or weakened, Europe may well miss out on the next Internet revolution – hardly what the European Union is seeking to do with its wider support for innovation.

To its great credit, the European Parliament has consistently fought to retain this protection for users, and I urge you and your colleagues to continue to stand up for European citizens who are being sidelined by the proposal from some governments to drop amendment 138/46.

Please send your own variation before tomorrow evening. Remember: it's *your* Internet they want to ruin.

Another Reason Copyright is Evil

Usually, I attack copyright on very general grounds - it's a monopoly, it's locking up knowledge, blah-blah-blah. But here's a new one to add to the list: it can endanger freedom of expression.

Given the way in which copyright law was transplanted into China without a fulsome cultural understanding of the values that informed the system, it seems the power of copyright can be easily usurped for means that infringe on political and civil rights. And yet, the United States, through the WTO process, is seeking stronger copyright protection in China.

This seeming inconsistency may not currently be a large issue because of the more explicit means of control available to the Chinese government. However, as political pressure mounts on the human rights front, it is possible that the Chinese government may have to be more covert in their attempts to suppress political speech. If that happens, copyright law may begin to look appealing to the Chinese government as a means of control.

Put it in your diaries...

Don't Do as I Do, Do as I Say

Wasn't Damian Green threatened with life imprisonment for allegedly doing precisely this:

Government officials handed confidential police intelligence about environmental activists to the energy giant E.ON before a planned peaceful demonstration, according to private emails seen by the Guardian.

Correspondence between civil servants and security officials at the company reveals how intelligence was shared about the peaceful direct action group Climate Camp in the run-up to the demonstration at Kingsnorth, the proposed site of a new coal-fired power station in north Kent.

Intelligence passed to the energy firm by officials from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) included detailed information about the movements of protesters and their meetings. E.ON was also given a secret strategy document written by environmental campaigners and information from the Police National Information and Coordination Centre (PNICC), which gathers national and international intelligence for emergency planning.

So it's official now, I take it: *they* can break any law they like, while we are afforded no protection from them - even by innocence.

Rufus Pollock On Copyright and its Sorrows

Brilliant, succinct post by Rufus Pollock explaining what copyright is supposed to be doing (if it's doing anything):

copyright is instrument created in order to promote the interests of society as a whole not to promote the interests of the producers of creative works. Of course we care about remunerating producers and artists both because they are members of society but also, and more importantly, because by remunerating them we ensure the creation of more works which society as a whole can enjoy.

Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind that the purpose of copyright is broader than to promote the interests of a single group. This fact then is central to any assessment of the form and level of copyright and it has important implications. For example if we have a proposal that will help artists but overall harm society we should not support that proposal.

Moreover, he puts his finger on precisely why people flout current copyright laws - and how to fix it:

the successful enforcement of any rule depends on that rule having public legitimacy — being considered reasonable by the majority of the populace. Currently that is not the case: copyright suffers from a serious lack “respect” and has marked lack of public legitimacy.

If you wish to change that we need the rules to be fair and balanced — it hard to have respect and enforcement of an unfair system. For example, copyright term should be reduced and we should expressly avoid extensions, especially retrospective ones like that currently before Parliament in relation to sound recordings. Such policies appear to reflect nothing more than special interest lobbying and this can only make copyright’s “marked lack of public legitimacy” worse — I would note here the recent joint statement put out European IP law centres who emphasized that retrospective term extension would seriously undermine respect for copyright and make “piracy the easy option”.

Exactly; he is even able to single out why copyright is now going through a crisis in this respect:

I would also argue that just rules must also be reasonable rules. For example, is it reasonable in an age of costless reproduction to continue to promote a model of copyright based on exclusive rights? Much of the “problem” of unauthorised file-sharing could be resolved if we moved to an alternative compensation system based on an equitable remuneration right approach.

*This* is what the media industries just cannot grasp: that costless reproduction has changed the public's perception of what is fair. This, in its turn, means that content producers have to change their own expectations - and business models - if they want society to enforce properly the rules surrounding copyright.

What are the Legal Implications of Cloud Computing?

To say that cloud computing is trendy would be an understatement: the topic is almost inescapable in the world of computing these days. I've written about it from the viewpoint of open source several times, because there are a number of important issues arising out of clouds: much of their infrastructure is based on free software, and there are interesting questions to do with licensing that clouds pose for applications. But one aspect almost never considered is even higher up the stack: the legal side of their use....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.

17 April 2009

Copyright Industries' Pyrrhic Victories

It's extraordinary how much that formerly-drab old subject of copyright is in the news these days. There's the Amazon Kindle story, the Pirate Bay judgement and the report, yesterday, that Britain's copyright laws are the "worst by far".

Although much of this bad news, notably the idiotic Pirate Bay ruling - these were links, people, you know, just like Google - there's a silver lining of sorts. The gulf between what the laws on copyright say and what people think is fair to do (picking up on the ethical aspect of copyright, again) is so vast and unbridgeable now that I think we're going to see a massive collapse of copyright soon.

As "young people" grow up and become the mainstream voting population, there is simply going to be zero sympathy for the greed and obtuseness of the intellectual monopolists. The current "victories" of the media industries will prove to be Pyrrhic.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Of RMS, Ethical Visions, and Copyright Law

As RMS emphasises again and again, at the heart of free software lies an ethical vision of sharing and mutual respect. Although open source blurs that vision somewhat thanks to the glasses of pragmatism that it wears, the basic idea is still there. And yet we talk relatively little about that ethical aspect, which is a pity, because it is both important and interesting.

Just how interesting can be seen in this splendid essay "Ethical Visions of Copyright Law" from James Grimmelmann, who is Associate Professor of Law, New York Law School. As its title makes clear, the focus is on copyright, but Stallman's approach to subverting copyright to make it more ethical occupies an important place in the argument. Here's part of the introduction:

copyright law imagines that we are ethical beings, capable of being creative and of being touched by the creativity of others, inclined to be sociable and to return good for good. It has in mind a deontic vision of reciprocity in the author-audience relationship. Or, more succinctly, authors and audiences ought to respect each other.

That may sound like a platitude, but it isn’t. Everyone agrees that authors and audiences ought to respect each other, but they come to blows over how that respect ought to be expressed. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) thinks that audiences don’t respect authors enough; the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) counters that it’s the authors who aren’t showing enough respect for audiences. Meanwhile, free software advocates and fans of the commons sketch pictures of respectful exchange that look very different from the marketplace exchanges that both the RIAA and EFF treat as normal.

We can learn some very interesting things about the state of the copyright debate by looking closely at those disagreements. When the EFF tells the content industries not to “sue their customers,” it’s making an ethical argument that’s the mirror image of the content industries’ call for people to “respect copyrights.” The arguments are the same, just directed at opposite sides of the author-audience relationship. Compare those arguments with the genuine radicalism in the way that some free software advocates don’t care whether programming remains a viable profession. They see legal restrictions on user freedoms as inherently unethical; no amount of software produced or programmers employed could justify them.

As scholars, we should pay attention to these ethical visions, because they are descriptively important to how people behave, because they affect the persuasiveness of our policy arguments in the public arena, and because they make provocative claims about what intellectual property law ought to look like. This essay will find evidence of these visions in the language and structure of intellectual property law, and in the rhetoric that activists use as they make arguments about intellectual property. These ethical visions link copyright law’s rules to a model of how those regulated by copyright law could and should behave.

As you might expect, the Creative Commons movement also figures largely, and the essay picks out an interesting fact about it:

To summarize, there’s a significant ambiguity in Creative Commons’ response to the copyright system. It could be saying (or could be seen to say) that the system is out of balance because authors have exclusive rights they don’t need and don’t want to use. It could also be saying (or could be seen to say) that the system is out of balance because authors have exclusive rights they shouldn’t have and shouldn’t be allowed to use. In either frame, its licensing strategy is a natural response designed to encourage a healthier balance. But the latter frame, let us be clear, is a challenge to the default ethical vision of copyright itself, not merely a critique of authorial behavior made from within that vision.

Great stuff - highly recommended.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

16 April 2009

Is RMS Entering the Fray Again?

The influence of RMS on the world of free software and beyond is, of course, immense. But sometimes his presence is more symbolic than real, as he seems to disappear off the map for weeks at a time, with little in the way of public statements or comments. Maybe this can be put down to the frequent travelling that he undertakes, as he continues tirelessly to spread the word about freedom. Whatever the reason for those intermittent silences, it's interesting to note something of a flurry of comments from him recently, and in quite surprising contexts.

The first was the on Amazon's Kindle, which I wrote about yesterday. That was about DRM, a long-standing concern of RMS. Now here's another rather unexpected intervention, this time concerning Second Life of all things, where a group of virtual users are getting some real-world grief from a bunch of lawyers:

When I read about how the heirs of the Dune fortune attacked Second Life users, my first thought was about how nasty and foolish they were being. My second thought was that the article serves its readers poorly, when it uses the vague term "intellectual property" to describe the legal issue at stake here.

The term "intellectual property" is an incoherent muddle: it lumps together various unrelated laws that do different things. (See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html.) A few of those that use the term know this, and use it to to spread confusion. The rest think the term has a concrete meaning, and are just passing along their own confusion.

This is not a statement of anything new - Stallman's been pointing out how misleading the term "intellectual property" is for some time. But what's interesting is that (a) he somehow came across this rather obscure instance of the term being abused and (b) decided to post his comments.

Let's hope it's a sign of a more general engagement with these and related matters: his rigorous approach remains an important yardstick against which everyone else is measured.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

15 April 2009

Goodbye WIPO, Hello ACTA?

Something strange is happening at the WIPO: it's becoming more reasonable. Where once it was a bastion of intellectual monopoly intransigence, it is now showing signs of being, well, more *open* to new ideas....

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Value of Sharing

Yesterday I wrote about how the media industries abuse language in order to justify their broken business models; today I'd like to complement this by looking at their misuse of numbers.

On Open Enterprise blog.

RMS on Amazon's "Swindle"

As you've probably seen, there is concern over Amazon's plans to pull the text-to-voice capability of the Kindle e-book reader, because of misguided pressure from authors groups in the US. There's been a lot of discussion about this, and how to react to it, on the A2k mailing list, including the following characteristic submission from a certain Richard M Stallman:

I sympathize with the feeling behind these protests, but they are directed at the wrong target.

The protestors rightly condemn the Authors Guild for demanding the removal of the screen reader feature, but the way they are doing it makes Amazon look like a victim. Actually it is the main perpetrator.

The reason that Amazon can turn off the screen reader capability is that the machines use non-free software, controlled by Amazon rather than by the user. If Amazon can turn this off retroactively (does anyone know for certain if they did?), it implies the product has a dangerous back door.

In addition, the Amazon Swindle is designed with Digital Restrictions Management to stop people from sharing. It is a nasty product with an evil goal.

I hope there will be protests against Amazon's role in these events.

Well, at least he's consistent.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

14 April 2009

Up Next for UK: Ban on Photos of CCTVs?

This is too rich:

The man probing police conduct over the death of a newspaper seller during the G20 protests was wrong to claim there were no CCTV cameras in the area near the Bank of England, it was revealed today.

Several cameras could have captured footage of the incident two weeks ago, contradicting comments made by Nick Hardwick, the chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Mr Hardwick made the claim in response to the IPCC being accused of sweeping away evidence of police brutality.

I don't know which is more breathtaking: the fact that he said it, or the fact that he thought it wouldn't be checked and found to be inconsistent with reality, as the Daily Mail pictures prove.

Which brings up the interesting possibility that having banned photos of the police - so as to avoid members of the public taking evidence of police brutality - the next logical step would be to forbid people to take photos of CCTVs or to talk about their location - because it would "help terrorists" - so that the police can then claim that they don't exist in an area where police brutality has taken place.

And if you think that's utterly impossible, you haven't been paying attention.... (Via @stevepurkiss.)

Update: What a surprise, the IPCC has suddenly found those errant CCTV cameras. Amazing how a picture can change one's perception.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Channelling the Power of Open Source

This blog tends to concentrate on two broad aspects of open source: the issues that affect enterprise users, and the companies based around creating free software. But this misses out a crucial player, that of the “channel”, also known by the equally unhelpful name of “value-added resellers”, or VARs....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Let's Drop this Insulting “Digital Piracy” Meme

Until recently, piracy referred to the lawless times and characters of the 17th and 18th centuries – or, if closer to the present, to artful/humorous representations of them in books, theatre and film. This has allowed the media industries to appropriate the historical term, and re-fashion it for their own purposes. And they have been highly successful: even normally sane journalists now write about “software piracy”, or “music piracy”....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

13 April 2009

Of Bruce's Law and Derek's Corollary

Much will be written about the events of the last few days concerning the leaked Labour emails, and the plans to create a scurrilous blog. The focus will rightly be on the rise of blogs as a powerful force within the world of journalism, fully capable of bringing down politicians. But here I'd like to examine an aspect that I suspect will receive far less attention.

At the centre of the storm are the emails: what they say, who sent them and who received them. One suggestion was that they were stolen from a cracked account, but that version seems increasingly discounted in favour of the idea that someone who disapproved of the emails' contents simply leaked them. What's interesting for me is how easy this has become.

Once upon a time – say, ten years ago – you would have needed to break into an office somewhere to steal a document in order to leak it. Now, though, the almost universal use of computers means that all this stuff is handily stored in digital form. As a result, sending it to other people is as simple as writing their name (or just the first few letters of their name, given the intelligence built into email clients these days.) This means that multiple copies probably exist in different physical locations.

Moreover, making a further copy leaves *no* trace whatsoever; indeed, the whole of the Internet is based on copies, so creating them is nothing special. Trying to stop copies being made of a digital document, once sent out, is an exercise in futility, because that implies being in control of multiple pre-existing copies at multiple locations – possibly widely separated.

Bruce Schneier has memorably written "trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet." I'd like to call this Bruce's Law. What has happened recently to the Labour emails is an inevitable consequence of Bruce's Law – the fact that digital documents, once circulated, can and will be copied. Tender and thoughtful alike, perhaps we should dub this fact as Derek's Corollary, in honour of one of the people who has done so much to bring its effects to our attention.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Why, Actually, Are They Hiding ACTA?

One of the curious aspects of articles and posts about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is that it's all a kind of journalistic shadow-boxing. In the absence of the treaty text, everybody has been relying on leaks, and nudges and winks in the form of official FAQs and “summaries” to give them some clue as to its content....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Mikeyy Update

OK, I seem to have regained control of my Twitter homepage, and cleared out the infection. But you might want to (a) be sceptical about it and other Twitter follow requests (b) use a non-Web Twitter client and (c) install the NoScript add-on for Firefox, which blocks the operation of Mikeyy and its ilk.

Apologies again.

Urgent: Do *Not* Vist My Twitter Page

My Twitter account has become infected with Mikeyy - ironically because I was checking out whether to block a new follower. Please ignore all my Twitter posts for the moment, especially the last one, which is fake and infected. And apologies to anyone who may already have been infected in this way.

It's slightly annoying that this is the not the first, but the second wave of such infections: I wish Twitter would get this vulnerability sorted out, or it will make Twitter unusable.

10 April 2009

Tesla Model S Sedan Runs on GNU/Linux...

...well, its "Haptic Entertainment And Navigation System" does:

Its a 17-inch LCD touch computer screen that has 3G or wireless connectivity. When we were in the car, the screen featured Google Maps. Tesla’s website verifies that the screen will be able to feature sites like Google Maps and Pandora Music. From what we saw yesterday, the screen is divided vertically into three separate areas: the maps/navigation screen, radio/entertainment area, and climate controls. The navigation screen has several tabs: “internet,” “navigation,” “car,” “backup,” and “phone.” The entertainment section has several tabs, including “audio,” “media,” “streaming,” “playlists,” “artists” and “songs.” The climate controls seem pretty standard. Our driver (see video) says that the computer is going to be run on some kind of Google Maps software and will feature a “full browser.” It’s not surprising that Google Maps is integrated into the interface, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are investors in Tesla. The dashboard is also an LCD touch screen. Tesla has also confirmed to us that the computer/entertainment center will be Linux-based.

GNU/Linux: it's the future.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

How Apt: Apt-urls Arrive

One of the unsung virtues of open source is the ease with which you can add, remove and upgrade programs. In part, this comes down to the fact that all software is freely available, so you don't need to worry about cost: if you want it, you can have it. This makes installation pretty much a one-click operation using managers like Synaptic.

Now things have become even easier:

As of this morning, apt-urls are enabled on the Ubuntu Wiki. What does this mean? In simple terms, this feature provides a simple, wiki-based interface for apt, the base of our software management system. It means that we can now insert clickable links on the wiki that can prompt users to install software from the Ubuntu repositories.

That's pretty cool, but even more amazing is the fact that when I click on the link in the example on the above page, it *already* works:

If you are a Firefox user on Ubuntu, you will also note that the link I’ve provided here works, too. This is because Firefox also allows apt-urls to work in regular web pages.

Free software is just *so* far ahead of the closed stuff: how could anyone seriously claim that it doesn't innovate?

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Open Sourcing 3D Printer Materials

I've written a fair amount about open source fabbers, but here's someone addressing another important aspect: open sourcing how to make the basic material used by 3D printers:

About five years ago, Mark Ganter, a UW mechanical engineering professor and longtime practitioner of 3-D printing, became frustrated with the high cost of commercial materials and began experimenting with his own formulas. He and his students gradually developed a home-brew approach, replacing a proprietary mix with artists' ceramic powder blended with sugar and maltodextrin, a nutritional supplement. The results are printed in a recent issue of Ceramics Monthly. Co-authors are Duane Storti, UW associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Ben Utela, a former UW doctoral student.

"Normally these supplies cost $30 to $50 a pound. Our materials cost less than a dollar a pound," said Ganter. He said he wants to distribute the free recipes in order to democratize 3-D printing and expand the range of printable objects.

(Via Boing Boing.)

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

09 April 2009

OpenSecrets Moves To 'Open Data' Model

More welcome transparency moves in the US:

Campaign finance clearinghouse OpenSecrets.org, which is run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, is going "open data" next week, according to an e-mail circulated by the center on Thursday.


CRP is expecting all sorts of data mash-ups, maps and other cool projects to result from the new capability. Transparency group the Sunlight Foundation helped fund OpenSecrets.org's OpenData initiative to make millions of records available under a Creative Commons "Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike" license. CRP will continue to offer its data to commercial users for a fee.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

*Truly* Open Education

Here's some brilliant out-of-the-box thinking by Tony Hirst on how higher education should really be done:

imagine this: when you start your degree, you sign up to the 100 quid a year subscription plan (maybe with subscription waiver while you’re still an undergrad). When you leave, you get a monthly degree top-up. Nothing too onerous, just a current awareness news bundle made up from content related to the undergrad courses you took. This content could be produced as a side effect of keeping currently taught courses current: as a lecturer updates their notes from one year to the next, the new slide becomes the basis for the top-up news item. Or you just tag each course, and then pass on a news story or two discovered using that tag (Martin, you wanted a use for the Guardian API?!;-)

Having the subscription in place means you get 100 quid a year per alumni, without having to do too much at all…and as I suspect we all know, and maybe most of us bear testament to, once the direct debit is in place, there can be quite a lot of inertia involved in stopping it…

But there’s more - because you also have an agreement with the alumni to send them stuff once a month (and as a result maybe keep the alumni contacts database up to date a little more reliably?). Like the top-up content that is keeping their degree current (err….? yeah, right…)…

…and adverts… adverts for proper top-up/CPD courses, maybe, that they can pay to take…

…or maybe they can get these CPD courses for “free” with the 1000 quid a year, all you can learn from, top-up your degree content plan (access to subscription content and library services extra…)

Or how about premium “perpetual degree” plans, that get you a monthly degree top-up and the right to attend one workshop a year “for free” (with extra workshops available at cost, plus overheads;-)

Quick: put this man in charge of the music industry....

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Proof That Some Lawyers *Do* Get It

Not just right, but very well put:

I often explain to clients and prospective clients that the main reward for a great, original product is a successful business based on that product. Intellectual property notwithstanding, the best way to protect most great ideas is by consistently excellent execution, high quality, responsive customer service, continued innovation and overall staying ahead of the competition by delivering more value. Absent the rare circumstance of an entire industry dedicated to counterfeits, à la Vuitton, if an enterprise can’t fathom protecting its value proposition without some kind of gaudy trademark protection, ultimately something has to give.

Fender, according to the record in this opinion, understood the truth well for decades. It warned consumers to stick with its quality “originals” and not to be fooled by “cheap imitations,” and it flourished. But for all these years, Fender never claimed to think the sincerest form of flattery was against the law. Only in the feverish IP-crazy atmosphere of our current century did the company deem it “necessary” to spend a fortune that could have been used on product development, marketing or any darned thing on a quixotic quest for a trademark it never believed in itself. That is more than an impossible dream — it’s a crying shame.

(Via Luis Villa's blog.)

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

French "Three Strikes" Law Unexpectedly Thrown Out

In an incredible turn of events, the French HADOPI legislation, which seemed certain to become law, has been thrown out:

French lawmakers have unexpectedly rejected a bill that would have cut off the Internet connections of people who illegally download music or films.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Should an Open Source Licence Ever Be Patent-Agnostic?

Sharing lies at the heart of free software, and drives much of its incredible efficiency as a development methodology. It means that coders do not have to re-invent the wheel, but can borrow from pre-existing programs. Software patents, despite their name, are about locking down knowledge so that it cannot be shared without permission (and usually payment). But are there ever circumstances when software patents that require payment might be permitted by an open source licence? That's the question posed by a new licence that is being submitted to the Open Source Inititative (OSI) for review.

On Linux Journal.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

08 April 2009

Time to Get Rid of ICANN

ICANN has always been something of a disaster area, showing scant understanding of what the Internet really is, contemptuous of its users, and largely indifferent to ICANN's responsibilities as guardian of a key part of its infrastructure. Here's the latest proof that ICANN is not fit for its purpose:

The familiar .com, .net, .org and 18 other suffixes — officially "generic top-level domains" — could be joined by a seemingly endless stream of new ones next year under a landmark change approved last summer by the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, the entity that oversees the Web's address system.

Tourists might find information about the Liberty Bell, for example, at a site ending in .philly. A rapper might apply for a Web address ending in .hiphop.

"Whatever is open to the imagination can be applied for," says Paul Levins, ICANN's vice president of corporate affairs. "It could translate into one of the largest marketing and branding opportunities in history."

Got that? This change is purely about "marketing and branding opportunities"...the fact that it will fragment the Internet, sow confusion among hundreds of millions of users everywhere, and lead to the biggest explosion of speculative domain squatting and hoarding by parasites who see the Internet purely as a system to be gamed, is apparently a matter of supreme indifference to those behind ICANN: the main thing is that it's a juicy business opportunity.

Time to sack the lot, and put control of the domain name system where it belongs: in the hands of engineers who care.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Second Life + Moodle = Sloodle

Moodle is one of open source's greatest success stories. It's variously described as an e-learning or course management system. Now, given that education is also one of the most popular applications of Second Life, it would be a natural fit somehow to meld Moodle and Second Life. Enter Sloodle, whose latest version has just been released:

Version 0.4 integrates Second Life 3D classrooms with Moodle, the world’s most popular open source e-learning system with over 30 million users (http://www.moodle.org). This latest release allows teachers and students to prepare materials in an easy-to-use, web-based environment and then log into Second Life to put on lectures and student presentations using their avatars.

The new tools also let students send images from inside Second Life directly to their classroom blog. Students are finding this very useful during scavenger hunt exercises where teachers send them to find interesting content and bring it back to report to their classmates.

Tools that cross the web/3D divide are becoming more popular as institutions want to focus on the learning content rather than the technical overhead involved in orienting students into 3D settings and avatars.

As an open-source platform SLOODLE is both freely available and easily enhanced and adapted to suit the needs of diverse student populations. And web hosts are lining up to support the platform. A number of third-party web hosts now offer Moodle hosting with SLOODLE installed either on request or as standard, making easier than ever to get started with SLOODLE.

SLOODLE is funded and supported by Eduserv - http://www.eduserv.ac.uk/ and is completely free for use under the GNU GPL license.

The project was founded by Jeremy Kemp of San José State University, California, and Dr. Daniel Livingstone of the University of the West of Scotland, UK.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Forward to the Past with Forrester

Looking at Forrester's latest report on open source , I came across the following:

The bottom line is that in most application development shops, the use of open source software has been a low-level tactic instead of a strategic decision made by informed executives. As a result, while there’s executive awareness of the capital expenditure advantages of adopting OSS, other benefits, potential risks, and the structural changes required to take full advantage of OSS are still poorly understood.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Open Access as "Middleware"

Interesting simile:

A "legacy system" in the world of computing provides a useful analogy for understanding the precarious state of contemporary academic publishing. This comparison might also keep us from stepping backward in the very act of stepping forward in promoting Open Access publishing and Institutional Repositories. I will argue that, vital as it is, the Open Access movement should really be seen in its current manifestation as academic "middleware" servicing the "legacy system" of old-school scholarship.

(Via Open Access News.)

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

07 April 2009

OpenStreetMap Navigates to Wikipedia

One of the powerful features of open source is re-use: you don't have to re-invent the wheel, but can build on the work of others. That's straightforward enough for software, but it can also be applied to other fields of openness. Here's a fantastic example: embedding OpenStreetMap in Wikipedia entries:

For some time, there have been efforts to bring OpenStreetMap (OSM) and Wikipedia closer together. Both projects have the mission to produce free knowledge and information through a collaborative community process. Because of the similarities, there are many users active in both projects – however mutual integration is still lacking.

For this reason, Wikimedia Deutschland (WM-DE, the German Chapter of Wikimedia) are providing funds of 15.000 Euro (almost $20k) and starting a corresponding pilot project. A group of interested Wikipedians and OSM users have partnered up to reach two goals: The integration of OSM-maps in Wikipedia and the installation of a map toolserver. The map toolserver will serve to prototype new mapping-related projects and preparing them for deployment on the main Wikimedia cluster.

Here's how it will work:

Maps are an important part of the information in encyclopaedic articles - however currently mostly static maps are used. With interactive free maps and a marking system a way of presenting information can be created.

For some time there have been MediaWiki Extensions available for embedding OpenStreetMap maps into MediaWiki. That's a great start, but it isn't enough. If these extensions were deployed on Wikipedia without any kind of proxy set-up, the OpenStreetMap tile servers would struggle to handle the traffic.

One of our aims is to build an infrastructure in the Wikimedia projects that allows us to keep the OSM data, or at least the tile images, ready locally in the Wikimedia network. We still have to gain a some experience about this, but we are optimistic about that. On one side, we have a number of Wikipedians in the team, who are versed in MediaWiki and scaling software systems, and on the other side we have OSM users who can set up the necessary geo database.

We learned much from the use of the Wikimedia-Toolservers – for example that on a platform for experimenting much more useful tools were developed than it was predicted. Interested developers have a good starting position to develop new tools with new possibilities.

We expect similar results from the map toolserver. As soon as it is online, everyone who is interested and presents his ideas of development projects and his state of knowledge can apply for an account. We want to allow as many users as possible to implement their ideas without having to care about the basic setup. We hope that in the spirit of the creation and distribution of free content many new maps and visualisations emerge.

Now, it's happening:

There has been rapid progress on the subject of adding OpenStreetMap maps to Wikimedia projects (e.g. Wikipedia) during the MediaWiki Developer Meet-Up taking place right now in Berlin.

Maps linked to Wikipedia content *within* Wikipedia: I can't wait.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Transparency and Open Government

Not my words, but those of that nice Mr Obama:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.



Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.


Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.


Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.

Read the whole thing - and weep for poor old, locked-up UK....

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Google and Microsoft Agree: This is Serious

You know things are bad when a coalition includes Google and Microsoft agreeing on something...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

RFCs: Request for Openness

There's a fascinating history of the RFCs in the New York Times, written by a person who was there at the beginning:

Our intent was only to encourage others to chime in, but I worried we might sound as though we were making official decisions or asserting authority. In my mind, I was inciting the wrath of some prestigious professor at some phantom East Coast establishment. I was actually losing sleep over the whole thing, and when I finally tackled my first memo, which dealt with basic communication between two computers, it was in the wee hours of the morning. I had to work in a bathroom so as not to disturb the friends I was staying with, who were all asleep.

Still fearful of sounding presumptuous, I labeled the note a “Request for Comments.” R.F.C. 1, written 40 years ago today, left many questions unanswered, and soon became obsolete. But the R.F.C.’s themselves took root and flourished. They became the formal method of publishing Internet protocol standards, and today there are more than 5,000, all readily available online.

For me, most interesting comments are the following:

The early R.F.C.’s ranged from grand visions to mundane details, although the latter quickly became the most common. Less important than the content of those first documents was that they were available free of charge and anyone could write one. Instead of authority-based decision-making, we relied on a process we called “rough consensus and running code.” Everyone was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough people liked it and used it, the design became a standard.

After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing. So there was plenty of natural pressure to avoid such hassles. It probably helped that in those days we avoided patents and other restrictions; without any financial incentive to control the protocols, it was much easier to reach agreement.

This was the ultimate in openness in technical design and that culture of open processes was essential in enabling the Internet to grow and evolve as spectacularly as it has. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have the Web without it. When CERN physicists wanted to publish a lot of information in a way that people could easily get to it and add to it, they simply built and tested their ideas. Because of the groundwork we’d laid in the R.F.C.’s, they did not have to ask permission, or make any changes to the core operations of the Internet. Others soon copied them — hundreds of thousands of computer users, then hundreds of millions, creating and sharing content and technology. That’s the Web.

I think this is right: the RFCs are predicated on complete openness, where anyone can make suggestions and comments. The Web built on that basis, extending the possibility of openness to everyone on the Internet. In the face of attempts to kill net neutrality in Europe, it's something we should be fighting for.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

06 April 2009

The Latest Act in the ACTA Farce

I think the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement(ACTA) will prove something of a watershed in the negotiations of treaties. We have already gone from a situation where governments around the world have all-but denied the thing existed, to the point where the same people are now scrambling to create some semblance of openness without actually revealing too much.

Here's the latest attempt, which comes from the US team:

A variety of groups have shown their interest in getting more information on the substance of the negotiations and have requested that the draft text be disclosed. However, it is accepted practice during trade negotiations among sovereign states to not share negotiating texts with the public at large, particularly at earlier stages of the negotiation. This allows delegations to exchange views in confidence facilitating the negotiation and compromise that are necessary in order to reach agreement on complex issues. At this point in time, ACTA delegations are still discussing various proposals for the different elements that may ultimately be included in the agreement. A comprehensive set of proposals for the text of the agreement does not yet exist.

This is rather amusing. On the one hand, the negotiators have to pretend that "a comprehensive set of proposals for the text of the agreement does not yet exist", so that we can't find out the details; on the other, they want to finish off negotiations as quickly as possible, so as to prevent too many leaks. Of course, they can't really have it both ways, which is leading to this rather grotesque dance of the seven veils, whereby bits and pieces are revealed in an attempt to keep us quiet in the meantime.

The latest summary does contain some interesting background details that I'd not come across before:

In 2006, Japan and the United States launched the idea of a new plurilateral treaty to help in the fight against counterfeiting and piracy, the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The aim of the initiative was to bring together those countries, both developed and developing, that are interested in fighting counterfeiting and piracy, and to negotiate an agreement that enhances international co-operation and contains effective international standards for enforcing intellectual property rights.

Preliminary talks about such an anti-counterfeiting trade agreement took place throughout 2006 and 2007 among an initial group of interested parties (Canada, the European Commission, Japan, Switzerland and the United States). Negotiations started in June 2008 with the participation of a broader group of participants (Australia, Canada, the European Union and its 27 member states, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States).

The rest, unfortunately, is the usual mixture of half-truths and outright fibs. But this constant trickle of such documents shows that they are taking notice of us, and that we must up the pressure for full disclosure of what exactly is being negotiated in our name.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

A Different Kind of Wörterbuch

Linguee seems to offer an interesting twist on a boring area - bilingual dictionaries:

With Linguee, you can search for words and expressions in many millions of bilingual texts in English and German. Every expression is accompanied by useful additional information and suitable example sentences.


When you translate texts to a foreign language, you usually look for common phrases rather than translations of single words. With its intelligent search and the significantly larger amount of stored text content, Linguee is the right tool for this task. You find:

* In what context a translation is used
* How frequent a particular translation is
* Example sentences: How have other people translated an expression?

By searching not only for a single word, but for a respective word in its context, you can easily find a translation that fits optimal in context. With its large number of entries, Linguee often retrieves translations of rare terms that you don't find anywhere else.

There two other points of interest. The source of the texts:

Our most important source is the bilingual web. Other valuable sources include EU documents and patent specifications.

And the fact that a "GPL version of the Linguee dictionary" is available.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Google's Perpetual Monopoly on Orphan Works

Here's an interesting analysis of the Google Book Search settlement. This, you will recall, resolved the suit that authors and publishers brought against Google for scanning books without permission - something it maintained it could do without, since it only wanted to index its contents, not display them in their entirely.

At first this looked like an expensive and unnecessary way out for Google: many hoped that it would fight in the courts to determine what was permitted under fair use. But as people have had time to digest its implications, the settelement is beginning to look like a very clever move:

Thanks to the magic of the class action mechanism, the settlement will confer on Google a kind of legal immunity that cannot be obtained at any price through a purely private negotiation. It confers on Google immunity not only against suits brought by the actual members of the organizations that sued Google, but also against suits brought by anyone who doesn’t explicitly opt out. That means that Google will be free to mine the vast body of orphan works without fear of liability.

Any competitor that wants to get the same legal immunity Google is getting will have to take the same steps Google did: start scanning books without the publishers’ and authors’ permission, get sued by authors and publishers as a class, and then negotiate a settlement. The problem is that they’ll have no guarantee that the authors and publishers will play along. The authors and publishers may like the cozy cartel they’ve created, and so they may have no particular interest in organizing themselves into a class for the benefit of the new entrant. Moreover, because Google has established the precedent that “search rights” are something that need to be paid for, it’s going to be that much harder for competitors to make the (correct, in my view) argument that indexing books is fair use.

It seems to me that, in effect, Google has secured for itself a perpetual monopoly over the commercial exploitation of orphan works. Google’s a relatively good company, so I’d rather they have this monopoly than the other likely candidates. But I certainly think it’s a reason to be concerned.


Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

All Tatarstan Schools Moving to Free Software

Tatarstan is the place to be:

До конца текущего года все школы Татарстана планируется перевести на свободное программное обеспечение на базе операционной системы «Linux».


По словам замминистра, в каждой школе республики на уровне кружков планируется открыть курсы по обучению работе в «Linux» учащихся. Но до этого предстоит еще подготовить специалистов, которые будут руководить этими кружками.

Людмила Нугуманова заявила, что Татарстан полностью перейдет на программное обеспечение с открытым кодом на основе операционной системы «Linux». Ведь в 2010 году закончится подписка на лицензию базового пакета программного обеспечения для школ на платформе «Microsoft». «За продолжение подписки придется платить немалые деньги, либо остаться на нашем отечественном продукте «Linux», - отметила она.

Как сообщила начальник отдела развития информационных технологий в образовании Министерства образования и науки РТ Надежда Сулимова, в прошлом году новый софт установлен в 612 школах республики (всего в Татарстане функционируют почти 2,4 тысячи общеобразовательных учреждений).

[Via Google Translate: By the end of this year, all schools of Tatarstan plans to transfer to the free software operating system based on «Linux».


According to the Deputy Minister, in each of the school-level workshops are planned to open courses on the work of «Linux» students. But before that is still to prepare professionals who will lead these clubs.

Ludmila Nugumanova said that Tatarstan is fully pass on the software and open source based operating system «Linux». Indeed, in 2010, will end subscription base license software package for schools on the platform «Microsoft». «For the continuation of subscriptions to pay a lot of money, or stay on our domestic product« Linux », - she said.

As the head of the department of information technology in education the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Tatarstan Hope Sulimova, last year, new software is installed in 612 schools (only in Tatarstan there are almost 2,4 thousand general educational institutions).]

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

How Can We Save Thunderbird Now Email is Dying?

I like Thunderbird. I've been using it for years, albeit now more as a backup for my Gmail account than as my primary email client. But it's always been the Cinderella of the Mozilla family, rather neglected compared to its more glamorous sister Firefox. The creation of the Mozilla Messaging subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation means that efforts are already underway to remedy that. But there's a deeper problem that Thunderbird needs to face, too....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

05 April 2009

Top 10 Measurements for Open Government

One of the most exciting applications of openness in recent months has been to government. A year ago, open government was sporadic and pretty forlorn as a field; today it is flourishing, notable under the alternative name of "transparency". At the forefront of that drive is the Sunlight Foundation, which has just published a suggested top 10 measurements of just how open a government real is:

1. Open data: The federal government should make all data searchable, findable and accessible.

2. Disclose spending data: The government should disclose how it is spending taxpayer dollars, who is spending it and how it’s being spent.

3. Procurement data: How does the government decide where the money is getting spent, who gets it, how they are spending it and how can we measure success.

4. Open portal for public request for information: There should be a central repository for all Freedom of Information Act requests that are public to that people can see in real time when the requests come in, how fast the government responds to them.

5. Distributed data: The government should make sure it builds redundancy in their system so that data is not held in just one location, but held in multiple places in case of a disaster, terrorist attack or some other reason where the data is damaged. Redundancy would guarantee government could rebuild the data for future use.

6. Open meetings: Government meetings should be open to the public so that citizens can tell who is trying to influence government. All schedules should be published as soon as they happen so that people can see who is meeting with whom and who is trying to influence whom.

7. Open government research: Currently, when government conducts research, it usually does not report the data it collects until the project is finished. Government should report its research data while its being collected in beta form. This would be a measure of transparency and would change the relationship that people have to government research as it is being collected.

8. Collection transparency: Government should disclose how it is collecting information, for whom are they collecting the data, and why is it relevant. The public should have the ability to judge whether or not it valuable to them, and giving them the ability to comment on it.

9. Allowing the public to speak directly to the president: Recently, we saw the president participate in something called “Open for Questions,” where he gave the public access to ask questions. This allowed him to burst his bubble and be in touch with the American public directly is another measure of transparency.

10. Searchable, crawl able and accessible data: If the government were to make all data searchable, crawl able and accessible we would go along way in realizing all the goals presented at the Gov 2.0 Camp.

Great stuff, exciting times. Now, if only the UK government could measure up to these....

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Who Can Put the "Open" in Open Science?

One of the great pleasures of blogging is that your mediocre post tossed off in a couple of minutes can provoke a rather fine one that obviously took some time to craft. Here's a case in point.

The other day I wrote "Open Science Requires Open Source". This drew an interesting comment from Stevan Harnad, pretty much the Richard Stallman of open access, as well as some tweets from Cameron Neylon, one of the leading thinkers on and practitioners of open science. He also wrote a long and thoughtful reply to my post (including links to all our tweets, rigorous chap that he is). Most of it was devoted to pondering the extent to which scientists should be using open source:

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that for most researchers software is a means to an end. For the Open Researcher what is important is the ability to reproduce results, to criticize and to examine. Ideally this would include every step of the process, including the software. But for most issues you don’t need, or even want, to be replicating the work right down to the metal. You wouldn’t after all expect a researcher to be forced to run their software on an open source computer, with an open source chipset. You aren’t necessarily worried what operating system they are running. What you are worried about is whether it is possible read their data files and reproduce their analysis. If I take this just one step further, it doesn’t matter if the analysis is done in MatLab or Excel, as long as the files are readable in Open Office and the analysis is described in sufficient detail that it can be reproduced or re-implemented.


Open Data is crucial to Open Research. If we don’t have the data we have nothing to discuss. Open Process is crucial to Open Research. If we don’t understand how something has been produced, or we can’t reproduce it, then it is worthless. Open Source is not necessary, but, if it is done properly, it can come close to being sufficient to satisfy the other two requirements. However it can’t do that without Open Standards supporting it for documenting both file types and the software that uses them.

The point that came out of the conversation with Glyn Moody for me was that it may be more productive to focus on our ability to re-implement rather than to simply replicate. Re-implementability, while an awful word, is closer to what we mean by replication in the experimental world anyway. Open Source is probably the best way to do this in the long term, and in a perfect world the software and support would be there to make this possible, but until we get there, for many researchers, it is a better use of their time, and the taxpayer’s money that pays for that time, to do that line fitting in Excel. And the damage is minimal as long as source data and parameters for the fit are made public. If we push forward on all three fronts, Open Data, Open Process, and Open Source then I think we will get there eventually because it is a more effective way of doing research, but in the meantime, sometimes, in the bigger picture, I think a shortcut should be acceptable.

I think these are fair points. Science needs reproduceability in terms of the results, but that doesn't imply that the protocols must be copied exactly. As Neylon says, the key is "re-implementability" - the fact that you *can* reproduce the results with the given information. Using Excel instead of OpenOffice.org Calc is not a big problem provided enough details are provided.

However, it's easy to think of circumstances where *new* code is being written to run on proprietary engines where it is simply not possible to check the logic hidden in the black boxes. In these circumstances, it is critical that open source be used at all levels so that others can see what was done and how.

But another interesting point emerged from this anecdote from the same post:

Sometimes the problems are imposed from outside. I spent a good part of yesterday battling with an appalling, password protected, macroed-to-the-eyeballs Excel document that was the required format for me to fill in a form for an application. The file crashed Open Office and only barely functioned in Mac Excel at all. Yet it was required, in that format, before I could complete the application.

Now, this is a social issue: the fact that scientists are being forced by institutions to use proprietary software in order to apply for grants or whatever. Again, it might be unreasonable to expect young scientists to sacrifice their careers for the sake of principle (although Richard Stallman would disagree). But this is not a new situation. It's exactly the problem that open access faced in the early days, when scientists just starting out in their career were understandably reluctant to jeopardise it by publishing in new, untested journals with low impact factors.

The solution in that case was for established scientists to take the lead by moving their work across to open access journals, allowing the latter to gain in prestige until they reached the point where younger colleagues could take the plunge too.

So, I'd like to suggest something similar for the use of open source in science. When established scientists with some clout come across unreasonable requirements - like the need to use Excel - they should refuse. If enough of them put their foot down, the organisations that lazily adopt these practices will be forced to change. It might require a certain courage to begin with, but so did open access; and look where *that* is now...

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody