31 May 2009

Open Government: the Latest Member of the Open Family

One of the most exciting developments in the last few years has been the application of some of the core ideas of free software and open source to completely different domains. Examples include open content, open access, open data and open science. More recently, those principles are starting to appear in a rather surprising field: that of government, as various transparency initiatives around the world start to gain traction....

On Linux Journal.

30 May 2009

How Open Source Will Save the World (Really)

Apparently, I'm not the only one to think that open source will save the world - literally:

Could open source software save the planet? Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, says it can certainly help, by making it easier for all countries to access tools to design and build more energy-efficient buildings.

More specifically:

[It] should be open source software, so companies can add to that and put whatever they want on it but then you get this body of programmes, computer aided design programmes, as a way of helping design much more efficient buildings.

Now if we develop this with China together so that this intellectual property is co-owned, co-developed, free to be used by each country, you get away from this internal discussion of ‘we’re not going to do anything until we get free IP’.

Fantastic to see someone with considerable power making the connection between intellectual monopolies and the problem of mitigating climate change - and seeing that open source is a practical way to get around the problem.

29 May 2009

Why the “Copycats?” Report has a Copycat Problem

Along with death and taxes, one of the other certainties in life is the constant flow of reports from the media industries claiming that copyright infringement is causing them to lose billions of pounds of revenue each year, and that they will inevitably go to the wall if even harsher legal sanctions against infringement are not brought in (although, strangely, they have been saying this for about 10 years now, and they seem not to have gone bust yet....)

Of course, you might expect industries to paint the situation as bleak as possible – that's why they spend large chunks of their considerable revenues on expensive PR companies and lobbyists to “sex” things up a bit. But there are other kinds of reports, typically sponsored by national government departments, that claim to provide more objective information about what is happening in this field.

Sadly, those expectations of objectivity are not always fulfilled. The most blatant example occurred just this week, when some fine digging by Michael Geist showed that a report from The Conference Board of Canada, which purports to be an independent research institute, not only copied text verbatim from the International Intellectual Property Alliance (the primary film, music, and software lobby in the U.S.), but also used figures from an old Canadian Recording Industry Association press release to justify dramatic statements like the following:

As a result of lax regulation and enforcement, internet piracy appears to be on the increase in Canada. The estimated number of illicit downloads (1.3 billion) is 65 times higher than the number legal downloads (20 million), mirroring the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s conclusion that Canada has the highest per capita incidence of unauthorized file-swapping in the world.

As Geist points out:

While the release succeeded in generating attention, the report does not come close to supporting these claims. The headline-grabbing claim of 1.3 billion unauthorized downloads relies on a January 2008 Canadian Recording Industry Association press release. That release cites a 2006 Pollara survey as the basis for the statement. In other words, the Conference Board relies on a survey of 1200 people conducted more than three years ago to extrapolate to a claim of 1.3 billion unauthorized downloads (the survey itself actually ran counter to many of CRIA's claims).

After stupidly trying to defend this indefensible position, The Conference Board of Canada has now backed down, admitted that the report plagiarised material, and withdrawn it, along with two others.

Against that background, the appearance of the report “Copycats? Digital consumers in the online age”, produced by University College London's CIBER for the UK governmnent's Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy (what a name) takes on an added significance. Among other questions, one issue is to what extent the report manages to look objectively at the facts, rather than blithely accepting the highly-partial views of the media industry itself.

The 85-page report is detailed, and as you might expect from an academic outfit, is fully referenced, which is excellent. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this important field read the whole thing. But for those of you slightly more pressed for time, the executive summary gives a good flavour of its approach:

The backdrop to our research on online consumer behaviour – and the impacts and implications this has on legal practice, the content industries, and governmental policy – is one of vast economic losses brought about by widespread unauthorised downloading and a huge confusion about (or denial of) the definition of what is and is not legal and copyright protected. Industry reports suggest that at least seven million British citizens have downloaded unauthorised content, many on a regular basis, and many also without ethical consideration. Estimates as to the overall lost revenues if we include all creative industries whose products can be copied digitally, or counterfeited, reach £10 billion (IP Rights, 2004), conservatively, as our figure is from 2004, and a loss of 4,000 jobs. This is in the context of the “Creative Industries” providing around 8% of British GDP. And the situation is not solely a British problem, but a global one. Downloading culture (Altschuller, 2009: unpaginated) “has forced society into a muddle of uncertainty with how to incorporate it into existing social and legal structures.” Altschuller adds that: “...music downloading has become part and parcel of the social fabric of our society despite its illegal status,” (emphasis added).

Just to make it clear - this is not simply an issue of music and film downloads alone. Software losses due to what is often described as “piracy” were, for example, $48 billion worldwide in 2007 (BSA, 2007); and in the UK the figure was $1,837,000 or approximately £1.25 billion. An exploratory CIBER investigation found vast quantities of films, music, software, e-books, games and television content available to download and share without cost. On one peer-to-peer network we found that at midday on a weekday there were 1.3 million users, sharing content. If each “peer” from this network (not the largest) downloaded one file per day the resulting number of downloads (music, film, television, e-books, software and games were all available) would be 473 million items per year. If the figure for each individual is closer to five or more items per day, the lowest estimate of downloaded material (remembering that the entire season of the Fox television series “24”, or the “complete” works of the rock group Led Zeppelin can be one file) is just under 2.4 billion files. And if the average value of each file is £5 – that is a rough low average of the price of a DVD or CD, rather than the higher prices of software or E-books – we have the online members of one file sharing network consuming approximately £12 billion in content annually – for free. These figures are staggering.

Staggering indeed – and complete piffle.

Sadly, the basic problem with the whole report is made clear in the first line of the above extract: “The backdrop to our research on online consumer behaviour – and the impacts and implications this has on legal practice, the content industries, and governmental policy – is one of vast economic losses brought about by widespread unauthorised downloading”. That is, it starts from an *assumption* that unauthorised downloading is causing economic damage, rather than examining whether that is the case: clearly, this is going to skew all the results of the research, because it is seen through a particular optic – that of the media industries.

But wait, you may say: maybe that is simply a statement of what the report found out during its objective research, which is a fair point. So let's just look at the figures cited above, and their source.

Estimates as to the overall lost revenues if we include all creative industries whose products can be copied digitally, or counterfeited, reach £10 billion (IP Rights, 2004), conservatively, as our figure is from 2004, and a loss of 4,000 jobs.

A quick check in the references gives the following:

IP Rights (2004) UK Tackles counterfeiting and piracy – launch of national IP Crime Strategy, Alert, Press Release, August 2004, issue 156. Available online at: www.iprights.com/publications/Alert_156.pdf (accessed 02.03.09)

So that £10 billion figure actually comes from a press release from the UK government itself – looking good so far. But why don't we check up on what exactly that reference says? Here's the relevant paragraph:

there has been a growing recognition of the economic impact of IP crime. Rights owners have estimated that last year alone counterfeiting and piracy cost the UK economy £10 billion and 4,000 jobs.

There we have it: that cast-iron, irreproachable, UK government-guaranteed £10 billion figure is merely – you guessed it – an estimate from the media industries themselves. In other words, there is no fundamental difference here from the situation with the Canadian report, except – importantly – there is no attempt to hide the connection (provided you are prepared to follow the links). But the figure is essentially worthless: it was produced by the media industries to justify their perennial wails of anguish.

That's one pretty obvious way in which the whole context for the report is biased by the media industries' agenda. But the problems go deeper, and operate in a more subtle way. Consider, for example, this passage from the paragraphs above:

On one peer-to-peer network we found that at midday on a weekday there were 1.3 million users, sharing content. If each “peer” from this network (not the largest) downloaded one file per day the resulting number of downloads (music, film, television, e-books, software and games were all available) would be 473 million items per year. If the figure for each individual is closer to five or more items per day, the lowest estimate of downloaded material (remembering that the entire season of the Fox television series “24”, or the “complete” works of the rock group Led Zeppelin can be one file) is just under 2.4 billion files. And if the average value of each file is £5 – that is a rough low average of the price of a DVD or CD, rather than the higher prices of software or E-books – we have the online members of one file sharing network consuming approximately £12 billion in content annually – for free.

Again, this is riddled with unexamined assumptions that are taken straight from the media industries framing of the situation. For example:

“if the average value of each file is £5 – that is a rough low average of the price of a DVD or CD, rather than the higher prices of software or E-books”

This assumes many things. For example, that all these downloaded files represent real losses for the media industries – that people would have bought this stuff had it not been available online. This is a huge jump to make: it's just as likely that people are trying out stuff they would never have looked at if they needed to pay for it. In this case, it's closer to marketing materials, providing powerful free advertising. As other research indicates, people who download unauthorised material from the Internet are *more* likely to buy stuff afterwards.

Then there is the pricing - “average value of each file is £5”. This simply accepts that the pricing the media industries are trying to impose on online customers is reasonable. And yet economics teaches us that the price of goods tends to fall to their marginal cost – zero in this case. The media industries are basically trying to defy the laws of economic gravity: that prices of digital goods will inevitably fall to earth (reference is made to this later in the report, but the authors don't seem to have understood the implications).

It's the same with software: what illegal downloading has shown is that the prices Microsoft and other proprietary companies have tried to obtain for software are, in fact, unjustifiable, and essentially unenforceable in an online world. Paying several hundred pounds for something that costs effectively zero to manufacture and distributed is rightly perceived as unfair by consumers – which is why they feel little compunction in downloading it. Costs of development need to be recouped, but that doesn't justify the kind of price-gouging that has been going on in the software industry for the last few decades (just think of the profit margins that companies like Microsoft have achieved historically).

The difference is, people now have a way of manifesting their discontent by using open source, or through unauthorised downloads (which Bill Gates has admitted he prefers to the former option). And, of course, free software, as produced by open source companies, shows that there are other ways of developing code – be it drawing upon a wider community of volunteer programmers, or selling support etc. - without charging high prices for goods with zero marginal cost.

In fact, there is a larger point here, completely missed in the report, as far as I can see. One reason why people have few qualms about downloading copyrighted material – that lack of “ethical consideration” the report refers to above - is that there is growing realisation that copyright law as currently construed is totally tilted in favour of businesses. Copyright term – originally *fourteen* years – is now effectively forever, thanks to constant extensions. The basic social compact that a creative work was granted a short-term, government-backed monopoly in return for placing that work in the public domain soon afterwards has been betrayed: people effectively give lots and get nothing. Illegal downloads are a way of striving for a fairer balance in a world where the laws are completely skewed against ordinary citizens, who have no other way of obtaining a more equitable approach.

Again, the report does not reflect this, but silently assumes that copyright is good in itself, and is working as it should. In fact, the massive flouting of the law is proof that this is not the case: when “[i]ndustry reports suggest that at least seven million British citizens have downloaded unauthorised content, many on a regular basis, and many also without ethical consideration”, then clearly today's copyright system is badly – perhaps irremediably - broken.

So while “Copycats” is to be welcomed as an honest effort to report on the true situation of unauthorised downloads in the UK, it fails at a profound level by overlooking its own deep, ingrained biases, fruits of years of relentless propaganda campaigns waged by the media industries and their lobbyists. Ironically, then, it would seem that the authors of the “Copycats” report, which delineates a wired-up Britain permeated by the “copycat” tendency in the realm of digital artefacts, are themselves unconscious copycats, albeit of a different, more rarefied kind, in the realm of ideas.

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28 May 2009

Why It's Better With Windows...

...because it hasn't got that horrible unfamiliar environment, which has all those bizarre features like:

* freedom

* zero cost

* stability

* security

Much better to stick with the proprietary, expensive, unstable, insecure operating system you know and love....

GNU/Linux Eclipses Windows – for Eclipse Users

Eclipse has long been one of my favourite open source projects, despite, or maybe even because, it's not as widely appreciated as it should be – though more now than it was three years ago when I described it as Open Source's Best-Kept Secret....

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 May 2009

Why Windows Netbooks are good for Open Source

Here's an excellent point:

Even Windows-based netbooks are good news for open source, though. Firefox is pre-loaded on the millions of Windows netbooks that Asus is shipping, and many netbooks come pre-loaded with numerous other open source applications. That means that any more people are gaining experience with good open source applications as soon as they unbox their new computers--undoubtedly a positive trend.

Building on that insight, one thing that might be useful would be to create a site specifically for those running Windows XP on netbooks, with a range of open source software that's particularly suitable - because it's free, requires little resources and is fast.

Is it Possible for the Chinese *Truly* to Twitter?

Here's something that has always struck me about Twittering in Chinese:

a Chinese tweet can have three times the volume of an English tweet, thanks to the high information intensity of the Chinese language. 140 Chinese characters can make up all the full elements of a news piece with the "5 Ws" (Who, What, Where, When and HoW).

So that's as if those writing in alphabetic languages had 420 characters instead of Twitter's usual 140 - a very different kettle of fish.

So, is that still a genuine tweet, given that it's no longer so constrained by its format? Is it better or worse to have more space for your thoughts? Which would you prefer: traditional micro-blogging, or Chinese-style *miniblogging*?

26 May 2009

Speak up for the Speaker's Principles

In the past, I've frequently asked you write a letter to your MP or MEPs about issues that relate to technical issues around open source, even if only indirectly. Today, I have a slightly different request. It's not about technology, but it is about openness....

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Internet's Infinite Exploitation

Talk about opening your mouth and putting your foot in it....

Here's Michael Lynton, Chairman and CEO, Sony Pictures Entertainment - yes, the one who famously said:

"I'm a guy who sees nothing good having come from the Internet. Period."

Realising that this was not the most astute statement, he's back, desperately trying to spin. Here's a sample:

But, I actually welcome the Sturm und Drang I've stirred, because it gives me an opportunity to make a larger point (one which I also made during that panel discussion, though it was not nearly as viral as the sentence above). And my point is this: the major content businesses of the world and the most talented creators of that content -- music, newspapers, movies and books -- have all been seriously harmed by the Internet.

Well, no: music, news, films and books and the people who create them are all thriving; what *isn't* thriving is the old way of providing access to them - things like Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Anyway, let's pass over that and hear what the man who insists "I am not an analogue guy living in a digital world" has to say:

Contrast the expansion of the Internet with what happened a half century ago. In the 1950's, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation's history -- the creation of the Interstate Highway System. It completely transformed how we did business, traveled, and conducted our daily lives. But unlike the Internet, the highways were built and operated with a set of rational guidelines. Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed. As a result, as interstates flourished, so did the economy.

Well, I have to confess that sounds pretty analogue to me. The Internet doesn't need "guardrails", because there are no safety issues. In particular, there are no lives or maintenance costs to save. It's a completely bogus analogy, trying to draw on a romantic image fromthe past livened up with a little fear-mongering about those lives that need saving.

But the real give-away is the following:

without standards of commerce and more action against piracy, the intellectual property of humankind will be subject to infinite exploitation on the Internet.

What a wonderful phrase: "infinite exploitation on the Internet" - a perfect description of *precisely* what humanity needs. The inability to provide that "infinite exploitation" is precisely why the current system ought to be superseded. And finally, the fact that this glorious possibility is meant to be a *criticism* of the Internet shows that poor Mr. Lynton is indeed an analogue guy in a digital world - worse, one whose mind keeps bumping up against his own, internal guardrails.

Update: Don't miss Mike Masnick's even more thorough debunking.

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Microsoft Makes Itself at Home in Transylvania

In what is perhaps a sign of desperation, Microsoft is really pushing governments around the world to sign up to el cheapo mega-deals that they think they can't refuse. The FSFE's Georg Greve points out to me in an email that there's an interesting angle to this story in Romania:

It seems ironic that the European Commission has to fine Microsoft repeatedly over sustained monopoly abuse, then transfers part of that money to Romania, which enjoyed the highest level of financial support ever granted to a candidate country in the history of the European Union, and the Romanian government then decides to return part of that money to Microsoft with close to no tangible benefit for Romania.

He also points out that taking this route might backfire badly on Romania:

Considering the recent freeze of EU funds due to corruption in Bulgaria, this decision of the Romanian government seems careless and dangerous for the sustained economic growth of the country in more than one way: By endangering EU support, by increasing dependency on proprietary software for the economy, and by wasting funds that could have been used for much-needed infrastructure projects.

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RIAA Fines: Not so Fine

Yesterday I told the story of RMS and his magic bread, and what it taught us about sharing; here's the negative corollary, courtesy of Charles Nesson:

Imagine a law which, in the name of deterrence, provides for a $750 fine [the lower threshold for statutory damages] for each mile-per-hour that a driver exceeds the speed limit, with the fine escalating to $150,000 per mile over the limit if the driver knew she was speeding.

Imagine that the fines are not publicized, and most drivers do not know they exist. Imagine that enforcement of the fines is put into the hands of a private, self-interested police force that has no political accountability, that can pursue any defendant it chooses at its own whim, that can accept or reject payoffs on the order of $3,000 to $7,000 in exchange for not prosecuting the tickets, and that pockets for itself all payoffs and fines. Imagine that almost every single one of these fines goes uncontested, regardless of whether they have merit, because the individuals being fined have limited financial resources and little idea of whether they can prevail in a federal courtroom.

That, of course, is the precisely the situation for copyright infringement: how can this be just?

Go Charlie, go.

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25 May 2009

RMS and His Magic Bread

One of the reasons I admire RMS is because of his complete integrity and consistency. He simply will not compromise on his principles, even if it leads to the loss of support from those who are not so rigorous. I'm also impressed by the steadfastness of his vision: he does not flit from one trendy idea to another, but sticks unswervingly to his core beliefs.

But even I am astonished by this July 1986 interview with him, which could have been conducted yesterday:

BYTE: Given that manufacturers haven't wanted to fund the project, who do you think will use the GNU system when it is done?

Stallman: I have no idea, but it is not an important question. My purpose is to make it possible for people to reject the chains that come with proprietary software. I know that there are people who want to do that. Now, there may be others who don't care, but they are not my concern. I feel a bit sad for them and for the people that they influence. Right now a person who perceives the unpleasantness of the terms of proprietary software feels that he is stuck and has no alternative except not to use a computer. Well, I am going to give him a comfortable alternative.

I was particularly struck by the following passage:

Stallman: I'm trying to change the way people approach knowledge and information in general. I think that to try to own knowledge, to try to control whether people are allowed to use it, or to try to stop other people from sharing it, is sabotage. It is an activity that benefits the person that does it at the cost of impoverishing all of society. One person gains one dollar by destroying two dollars' worth of wealth. I think a person with a conscience wouldn't do that sort of thing except perhaps if he would otherwise die. And of course the people who do this are fairly rich; I can only conclude that they are unscrupulous. I would like to see people get rewards for writing free software and for encouraging other people to use it. I don't want to see people get rewards for writing proprietary software because that is not really a contribution to society. The principle of capitalism is the idea that people manage to make money by producing things and thereby are encouraged to do what is useful, automatically, so to speak. But that doesn't work when it comes to owning knowledge. They are encouraged to do not really what's useful, and what really is useful is not encouraged. I think it is important to say that information is different from material objects like cars and loaves of bread because people can copy it and share it on their own and, if nobody attempts to stop them, they can change it and make it better for themselves. That is a useful thing for people to do. This isn't true of loaves of bread. If you have one loaf of bread and you want another, you can't just put your loaf of bread into a bread copier. you can't make another one except by going through all the steps that were used to make the first one. It therefore is irrelevant whether people are permitted to copy it—it's impossible.

Books were printed only on printing presses until recently. It was possible to make a copy yourself by hand, but it wasn't practical because it took so much more work than using a printing press. And it produced something so much less attractive that, for all intents and purposes, you could act as if it were impossible to make books except by mass producing them. And therefore copyright didn't really take any freedom away from the reading public. There wasn't anything that a book purchaser could do that was forbidden by copyright.

But this isn't true for computer programs. It's also not true for tape cassettes. It's partly false now for books, but it is still true that for most books it is more expensive and certainly a lot more work to Xerox them than to buy a copy, and the result is still less attractive. Right now we are in a period where the situation that made copyright harmless and acceptable is changing to a situation where copyright will become destructive and intolerable. So the people who are slandered as “pirates” are in fact the people who are trying to do something useful that they have been forbidden to do. The copyright laws are entirely designed to help people take complete control over the use of some information for their own good. But they aren't designed to help people who want to make sure that the information is accessible to the public and stop others from depriving the public. I think that the law should recognize a class of works that are owned by the public, which is different from public domain in the same sense that a public park is different from something found in a garbage can. It's not there for anybody to take away, it's there for everyone to use but for no one to impede. Anybody in the public who finds himself being deprived of the derivative work of something owned by the public should be able to sue about it.

A little later on, he returns to that loaf of bread:

Stallman: More people using a program means that the program contributes more to society. You have a loaf of bread that could be eaten either once or a million times.

It's an important point, and one I think we could usefully employ to get across what is at stake here.

Imagine that you are in a world where people are starving. Imagine you have some bread, and you were confronted with starving people: most would feel a compulsion to share that bread. But imagine now that you had RMS's special kind of bread that could be eaten once or a million times: how much greater would the duty to share that bread with the hungry be? And how much more despicable would the person who refused to share that bread be?

Translate this now to the realm of ideas. We are surrounded by people hungry for knowledge, and we do possess that magic bread - digital copies of knowledge that can be shared infinitely without diminishing it. Do we not have a similar moral duty to share that magic bread of digital knowledge with all those that hunger for it?

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22 May 2009

Should OQO Have Chosen GNU/Linux?

Remember OQO? It was a really innovative machine, well ahead of its time. Essentially it was a netbook before they existed, but it made one big mistake: it ran Windows XP rather than GNU/Linux (even though it was quite capable of running the latter).

This meant that it needed higher specs than a GNU/Linux machine with similar performance, and a licence from Microsoft (not a cheap one either: this was well before the GNU/Linux netbooks persuaded Microsoft to cut some deals on Windows XP). Both factors pushed up its price. That, in its turn, meant that this neat little machine never really took off - unlike the Asus Eee PCs.

The final result?

"We are sad to report that due to financial constraints, OQO is not able to offer repair and service support at this time. We are deeply sorry that despite our best intentions, we are unable to provide continued support for our faithful customers. Please accept our sincerest apologies"

It would, of course, be overly simplistic to lay to blame for OQO's problems exclusively at the door of Windows XP; but it's an interesting thought experiment to imagine a GNU/Linux-based OQO launched at Asus Eee PC price levels back in 2004. Would it have pre-empted Asus's move and cornered what became today's burgeoning netbook market? Would OQO have become one of the computer giants? We'll never know....

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How Open Access Beat the Inquisition

One of the reasons the idea of open access is so powerful is that it plugs straight into the basis of science: that results and methodology should be available to all so that they can be verified. This idea goes back a long way, but I'd never really thought of them going back this far:

Galileo is often remembered as a martyr of free intellectual inquiry--browbeaten by the Inquisition, confined to house arrest, forced to recant. But he could afford to placate the knowledge mafia because by that time, the 1630s, any censoring by authorities was too little too late. He'd already succeeded in proving Copernicus right and spreading the word enough that the new epistemology had taken root. Those religious authorities wouldn't have been so upset if Galileo's Open Access campaign hadn't already succeeded.

Of course Galileo didn't call his campaign for spreading scientific knowledge "Open Access publishing," but Galileo was following the same principles that animate today's movement to liberate scholarly knowledge. Most in his day were operating within a different paradigm--one that privileged the restriction of knowledge. That paradigm has proven as limiting to the advancement of learning as the Ptolemaic model was for understanding the galaxy.

It's a great piece, well worth reading.

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The Free Software Pact

As regular readers of these posts will have noticed, political issues are starting to impinge more and more on the world of free software and openness in general. I think that's the result of two trends.

One, is that politicians are starting to wake up to the fact that openness is hot, and are beginning to talk about it - not always sincerely - in the hope of looking vaguely trendy. The other is that supporters of free software and the rest are beginning to realise that the main obstacles to spreading openness are increasingly political, rather than technical. This means the fight must be taken to the politicians directly.

One way to do that is to write to MPs and MEPs, and that's also something that I've been advocating more frequently recently, as important legislation with an impact on openness comes before national and European parliaments. Clearly, though, it would be good to be able to bring free software and related areas to the attention of politicians in other ways. The recently-launched Free Software Pact is one possibility:

What is the Free Software Pact?

The Free Software Pact is a citizen initiative to coordinate a European scale campaign in favour of Free Software. We will provide material and software to any volunteer who want to contribute to the initiative.

What are the objectives of the Free Software Pact?

The Free Software Pact is a simple document with which candidates can inform the voting public that they favor the development and use of Free Software, and will protect it from possible threatening EU legislation. The Free Software Pact is also a tool for citizens who value Free Software to educate candidates about the importance of Free Software and why they should, if elected, protect the European Free Software community.

You can find the text of the Pact (in various languages and formats) here, although I can't see a version that politicians can sign online. Either it doesn't exist - which would be foolish, since it's by far the easiest way to sign - or else it's badly signposted on the site. Either way, it needs fixing.

The coordinator for the Free Software Pact in the UK is Mark Taylor, a familiar name to this blog, and one of the most selfless defenders of free software around. Getting him on board is an excellent start for this fledgling movement, and I wish him and it well in their efforts. You can contact him about the Pact at mtaylor@freesoftwarepact.eu.

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Open Source Consolidation: Less is More?

The open source startup scene is certainly very vibrant, but it's also clearly still relatively immature. Company histories are short, and turnovers are still quite low compared to traditional players. Another reflection of that immaturity is the fact that there are simply too many players in each sector. That means that consolidation is inevitable, creating fewer but bigger players with more clout in the marketplace, and broader product offerings. Just recently, we have started to see that happening....

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 May 2009

Intellectual Monopolies Kill: Two Examples

One of the reasons I object to the term "intellectual property" is that its cuddly familiarity makes it hard for people to understand that intellectual monopolies kill thousands of people every year - something that seems unlikely for "property". Here are just two of the many ways in which they do so - both involve patents on genetic material.

First example:

This week, genetic patents came under a full-bore legal assault when groups representing more than 100,000 doctors and researchers, working together with lawyers at the Public Patent Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the PTO and Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based genetic testing company. It's a lawsuit two years in the making.

The suit's immediate goal is to invalidate seven patents that give Myriad the sole rights to administer tests and do research connected to a pair of genes closely connected to breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 (pronounced "bracka-one" and "bracka-two.") Should the plaintiffs prove successful, though, their strike against the PTO would have far-reaching implications.


Myriad is a ripe target for a several reasons. First, the patents it holds are on tests that diagnose breast and ovarian cancer. That got the attention of ACLU lawyers who focus on women's rights. Second, Ravicher says that—unlike some corporate patent-holders that widely grant low-cost licenses to researchers—Myriad has aggressively enforced its patents, making them particularly harmful.

"They have gone around and shut down researchers who are doing BRCA1 and BRCA2 research and providing clinical services," Ravicher says. "That includes universities like the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. They send cease and desist letters, and threaten to sue people."

This affects people directly and adversely:

Six named plaintiffs in the case are women who have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer and have been unable to get proper treatment because of Myriad's patents. Lisbeth Ceriani, for example, is a single mother from Massachusetts who was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2008; she can't her blood samples processed by Myriad because they won't accept her coverage from MassHealth, a Medicaid insurance program for low-income people. Another plaintiff, 39-year-old Genae Girard, wanted a second opinion after she tested positive for a dangerous mutation under Myriad's test—but because of Myriad's enforcement of its patent rights, is unable to get that second opinion.

If people with breast cancer genes are demonstrably suffering in this way, statistics tells us that some of them will be dying as a direct result of Myriad's aggressive defence of its unwarranted intellectual monopolies.

Example two:

Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?

Vandana Shiva:
Over the last decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. The 1,500 figure is for the state of Chattisgarh. In Vidharbha, 4,000 are committing suicide annually. This is the region where 4 million acres of cotton have been grown with Monsanto's Bt cotton. The suicides are a direct result of a debt trap created by ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals and constantly falling prices of agricultural produce.

When Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.

Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds.

This is a particularly clear example of how intellectual monopolies take away at every level: they make seeds *less* useful, more controlled and more expensive. For hundreds of thousands of the farmers, who had managed to eke out an existence using natural seeds, the shift to those with built-in DRM and protected as part of an intellectual monopoly has not just been disastrous, but literally fatal.

So when people extol the virtues of "IP", remember that these monopolies may only be "intellectual", but they have very real blood on their virtual hands.

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Cisco Becomes Infected by the GNU GPL

When it was first announced that the FSF had filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Cisco, some were predicting that this was going to be the definitive test of the power and legality of the GNU GPL. I was more sceptical...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Firefox *Finally* Straps on the Extension Jetpack

One of the most frustrating things about free software is that it frequently fails to build on its strengths beyond its code-base.

This is probably because programmers are keener to produce the next cool hack than to worry about meta-tasks that seem more akin to marketing....

On Open Enterprise blog.

GNU/Linux's Secret Weapon: USB Drives

I've always been a huge fan of live CDs/DVDs: effectively, they let you try out distros before you install them - and try out multiple offerings. This is something that Windows can't do, of course. It hadn't really occurred to me that live USBs might be even more powerful, but this story about schools switching from hard disc installation to live USB drives makes sense:

The Kremser Bundesgymnasium uses this system since two years on all computers in the computer science classrooms. Now they decided to switch from local installations to live systems on USB sticks. The advantage: The pupils can carry their system around with themselves. They can use it at school, at home or at any computer they want. About 50% of all pupils uses the system regularly at home. It seems like especially the young pupils using the system quite naturally and have no reservations. Further Rene Schwarzinger explains: “We don’t want to encourage our pupils to create illegal copies just to be able to work at home with the same programs as at school”. Of course the natural solution to avoid this is to use only Free Software at school and pass it down to the pupils.

In autumn they want to introduce netbooks together with the GNU/Linux USB stick to the pupils.

I really like the idea using USB sticks instead of normal installations on hard disks. Live systems are nothing new but I think it makes much sense in this scenario. With the USB sticks the pupils can work with their systems and their data wherever they want without having to convince their parents to install a new operating system at home which could be quite challenging, both technically and philosophically.

As well as the natural advantages this system offers, described above, there is also the bonus that Windows simply can't compete: you can't transfer Windows to USB drives and hand them out to all and sundry. This seems to me to be an hugely important aspect: instead of fighting Windows where it is strong - on the desktop - GNU/Linux should be deployed where it offers unique solutions, and unique benefits.

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20 May 2009

Norwegian National Library Inches Forward

Here's an interesting experiment that shows the way for all national libraries:

Kopinor and the National Library of Norway signed a contract regarding a pilot project for digital books on the Internet.

Through the project, called Bokhylla.no (’Bookshelf’), the library will make all Norwegian books from the 1790s, 1890s and 1990s available on the Internet.

All titles from the 1990s and some titles from the 1890s – together approx. 50.000 books – are under copyright. These books will not be prepared for print or download, but will be made available to Norwegian IP-addresses.

There are things to fault - like limiting it to Norwegian IP addresses, and the fact that only some years are available - but it's a useful start.

Opening Up in the Netherlands

It's really heartening to see this openness/transparency meme blooming everywhere. But the forces of ignorance are fighting a rearguard action. Here's news from Sun's Simon Phipps of the Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter, who is battling for the truth in the Netherlands:

Brenno has been trying to get details of local government procurement published on the web, so that the resulting transparency can drive better decisions. Since most local authorities haven't wanted to do that, he's been filing bulk Freedom of Information requests (the Dutch abbreviation is apparently WOB) to get the data.


I got a note from him yesterday telling me a new problem has come up. Despite the fact that the local authorities - like all in Europe - have a legal duty to provide the information, they have started sending Brenno big bills for the administrative work involved, in a kind of denial-of-service attack on his campaign.

He's pretty sure that if he takes all the claims to court he can get them struck down, but to do that he needs a fighting fund. There's an event in Amsterdam on June 11th where Scriptum Libre will be raising funds for him, and you can contribute by visiting their payment page and designating Brenno as the beneficiary of your donation. Worth supporting - pass it on.

Indeed: please pass on if you can.

Nobody Buying Windows XO Laptops?

One of the most vexed questions at the moment is the state of the netbook market. What are the returns for GNU/Linux-based systems? And is it true that Windows XP is all-conquering here? Unfortunately, despite all this sound and fury, there are few data points to provide much guidance. So some news from the the OLPC community is particularly interesting.

As you may recall, one of Microsoft's bigger "victories" was getting OLPC to offer Windows XP versions alongside the original Sugar-based system, running on GNU/Linux:

It was almost exactly one year ago that Nicholas Negroponte announced an agreement between OLPC and Microsoft to bring Windows XP to the XO-1 to great turmoil. I vividly remember the late-night flood of e-mails and IRC chats where everyone was trying to figure out just what that announcement really meant.

Someone from the One Laptop Per Child News site has had the excellent idea of following things up:

I've been wondering about what ever happened to these Windows XP-based OLPC trials. I haven't really heard anything about them in quite some time. Now more recently I've asked around and found there is a good reason why I haven't seen anything: countries are choosing Sugar over Windows XP for their XO deployments.

Apparently the conversations are going pretty much as many of us had expected: Initially country representatives inquire if Windows XP runs on the XO laptop. That doesn't really come as a surprise - for many people Windows is the definition of a computer. However, upon further investigation every country decided to stick to Sugar.

So, is this evidence that XP is a damp squib in the OLPC world? And what implications does it have for netbooks?

Newham and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Yesterday I had another meeting with Richard Steel, CIO of Newham, who was generous with both his time and information. After our introductory session a few weeks ago, we got down to the nitty-gritty – the server side. I was impressed by spaghetti-like complexity of the diagram showing the links between the disparate services and their databases: running a borough is clearly an incredibly complex job, and it's clear that we are still in the early days of automating that process.

Two things emerged during the morning, one good, and one bad...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Making an Ars Technica of Itself

This review of "Burning the Ships" is perhaps the most clueless thing I've ever read on Ars Technica:

Phelps' point throughout is that such deals were possible thanks to Microsoft's IP, which gave it something valuable to offer in cross-licensing agreements that brought companies together as partners, not just as totally independent rivals. That's the way it has to be for companies today; technology has grown so complex that a "fortress mentality culture and go-it-alone market strategy" simply won't work anymore. Collaboration and partnership are the new name of the game, and IP is the glue that seals such deals.

That's like saying giving people manacles is providing them with some nice bling. The point is they are manacles - just like intellectual monopolies are manacles. They are only valuable in the eyes of slave traders; any civilised society would ban them.

To call this "collaboration" is a perversion of language: it's about *enslavement*, pure and simple. It's just that Microsoft has become subtler.

19 May 2009

Move over Jefferson, St. Augustine's Hot Now

One of the favourite passages invoked by people who believe that sharing does not diminish ideas (and by extension digital content) but enhances whatever it touches, is the following from Thomas Jefferson:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Now Larry Lessig passes on the news that the idea goes back even further (no surprise there) to that fab bloke St. Augustine, who wrote the following poetic par:

The words I am uttering penetrate your senses, so that every hearer holds them, yet withholds them from no other. Not held, the words could not inform. Withheld, no other could share them. Though my talk is, admittedly, broken up into words and syllables, yet you do not take in this portion or that, as when picking at your food. All of you hear all of it, though each takes all individually. I have no worry that, by giving all to one, the others are deprived. I hope, instead, that everyone will consume everything; so that, denying no other ear or mind, you take all to yourselves, yet leave all to all others. But for individual failures of memory, everyone who came to hear what I say can take it all off, each on one's separate way.

Who could possibly gainsay that?

18 May 2009

Transparently Wrong

At a time when transparency – or lack of it – is in the air, here's another demonstration of how not to do it, this time from the European Union. It concerns the valiant efforts of an Italian MEP, Marco Cappato, who had a few questions for the European Commission about its use of free software....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Remember What "Patent" Means?

It means to make clear, or obvious. Like this?

1. A system that facilitates rich interaction with and/or management of environmental components included in an environment, comprising:a housing with a face;a communication component that manages a set of I/O components, the communication component is configured to receive an input by way of an input component from the set of I/O components and to transmit an instruction by way of an output component from the set of I/O components;a presence component that employs a set of sensors to determine an orientation of the housing;a command component that determines the instruction based at least in part upon the orientation; andan advisor component that is configured to provide guidance in connection with the orientation.

2. The system of claim 1, the set of I/O components includes at least one of a keyboard, a keypad, a button, a switch, a touchpad, a display, a speaker, a microphone, a receiver, or a transmitter.

3. The system of claim 1, the instruction is configured to update a state of an environmental component, the environmental component is configured to receive the instruction and to update the state.

4. The system of claim 3, the environmental component is at least one of a light device, a thermostat, a media device, a game console, a computer, a controller device, or a component of one or more of the foregoing.

5. The system of claim 1, the orientation is at least one of a direction of the face or a gesture, the gesture is a recent trajectory of the housing.

6. The system of claim 1, the orientation indicates an environmental component targeted by the face.

7. The system of claim 1, the set of sensors includes at least one of an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a camera, a laser, a biometric sensor, a transmitter, or a receiver.

8. The system of claim 1, the command component further employs the input to determine the instruction.

9. The system of claim 1, the advisor component, in order to provide the guidance, facilitates articulation or display of at least one of the instruction, a targeted environmental component, a suitable orientation to produce the instruction, or a suitable orientation to target a particular environmental component

10. The system of claim 1, the advisor component provides the guidance by way of an associated avatar, the avatar is presentable by way of an audio output, a text-based output, a video output or display, a holographic output or display, or combinations thereof.

This comes from a new Microsoft patent:

The claimed subject matter relates to an architecture that can facilitate rich interaction with and/or management of environmental components included in an environment. The architecture can exist in whole or in part in a housing that can resemble a wand or similar object. The architecture can utilize one or more sensor from a collection of sensors to determine an orientation or gesture in connection with the wand, and can further issue an instruction to update a state of an environmental component based upon the orientation. In addition, the architecture can include an advisor component to provide contextual and/or comprehensive guidance in an intuitive manner.

The long, detailed and dull description of this wonder is so obscure and unclear that people are speculating what exactly it might be or do. But the whole point of a patent is to explain what you have invented, and what it does, so that you can lay claim to it as a new and wonderful creation. If it's not even clear from your patent, then you've clearly failed, and it ought to be rejected out of hand.

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CCTV is Great - For Car Parks

One of the Great Lies of the Labour's surveillance society is that being watched - specifically by the greatest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world - makes us safer. Guess what - it doesn't:

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

Actually, I'm being unfair: CCTV is useful for one particular application.

The authors, who include Cambridge University criminologist, David Farrington, say while their results lend support for the continued use of CCTV, schemes should be far more narrowly targeted at reducing vehicle crime in car parks.

So there we have it: the vast majority of CCTV cameras are a waste of money. They should be removed - or at least deployed to where they serve some purpose: to car parks.

17 May 2009

Openists of the World, Unite!

As I have observed recently (probably ad nauseam for some readers - apologies, but it needs saying), the openness that lies behind open source, open access and the rest feeds naturally into at least partial solutions for the political malaise affecting many countries, including, notably, the UK.

So it's great to see some of my fellow openists coming to the same conclusions:

I would not normally write about politics on this blog but Non-Brits may not have caught the raw anger of the UK electorate about the betrayal of trust by their elected representatives (members of Parliament). I believe that “web democracy” is now essential for modern government. By web democracy I mean the processes that so many of us have developed in our own work. I am not suggesting that conventional government is replaced by Web processes but that web processes should be used to supplement the process of government and be baked into that process. That is why Net Neutrality matters so much.

Heartening, too, that mainstream media are starting to join the dots, and are realising that the enemies of openness are precisely the ones with something to hide:

An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has established that backers of a Bill two years ago which aimed to exempt Parliament from the full force of the Freedom of Information Act have benefited from thousands of pounds paid under the second home expenses system.

Openness, everywhere, now.

15 May 2009

Microsoft's Neo-Colonialism in Africa

Microsoft is stitching up Africa in the cruellest way:

Microsoft is on its way to becoming a dominant brand in Africa, mainly through the deals made with various governments.

“We are very conscious of the environment in which we do business, where our employees and customers live, we always try to empower those communities," said Dr Diarra.

“Africa is really the last frontier in not only developing technology that is specific to people's needs, but eventually even developing new business models that will enable the emergence of local software industries, such as young people who have the skills to be able to write their own applications for their own community,” he said.

Fine words, but the reality is that if those "local software industries" do indeed emerge, they will be formed from programmers who are completely dependent on American software for the livelihood: it's neo-colonialism, pure and simple.

As the free software advocate puts it in the same story:

“Today we're seeing growing open-source programmer, developer communities in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and other African countries.

“Clearly, if you have this informal programming sector coming up, access to source code is almost critical if they are going to be able to take advantage of these new tools that are emerging," he said.

Exactly; pretending anything else is cynical in the extreme, condemning, as it does, Africa to a wasted generation of software development - something it can ill afford.

"Transparency will Damage Democracy"

Great to see Heather Brooke getting at least *some* recognition for the huge service she has done transparency in this country by fighting for access to details of MPs' expenses, thanks to her fascinating piece in the Guardian today, which lets her tell the real story behind recent events. Do read it if you can: it's an extraordinary tale of dogged refusal to give up in the face of unremitting parliamentary arrogance. Best quotation:

"Transparency will damage democracy."

I just hope she gets at least a juicy book deal out of all this - I'll certainly buy a copy, and will promote it as much as I can. After all, it's the Telegraph that is getting most of the glory for this, when she did 99.9% of the work, which is downright unfair ("Unsung hero" is the all-too apt title of her Guardian feature).

Amazingly, and to her eternal credit, she's remarkably lacking in bitterness about this:

As a campaigner I was thrilled to see the details finally put into the public domain. This is important information that the public have a right to see. But as a journalist, I was livid. I asked myself - what is the point of doing all that work, going to court, setting a legal precedent, dealing in facts, when every part of the government conspires to reward the hacks who do none of these things?

But I don't begrudge the paper. It is getting the story out in the most cost-effective way possible. What's unforgiveable is that the House of Commons repeatedly obstructed legitimate requests and then delayed the expense publication date and that MPs went so far as to try to exempt themselves from their own law. I wonder, too, how much we would have actually seen if we'd waited for the Commons to publish, given that MPs were given a free hand to black out anything that was "personal" or a danger to their "security". These terms have been so overused by MPs that I've no doubt that items such as cleaning the moat would have been removed for "security" reasons, as would the house-flipping scandal, as an invasion of MPs' privacy.

Kudos to all involved.

Georgia Learns Why Open Source is Better

Georgia has some concerns about closed-source code:

Kaspersky anti-virus, one of the most popular software programmes worldwide, has unofficially been declared a spy programme in Georgia. State organizations are avoiding installing Kaspersky, afraid of information leaks.

“The reason is that Kaspersky anti-virus is projected by Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab, who is of Russian origin. Officials from the Ministry of Defence are afraid that with the help of Kaspersky software it will be possible for the leak of confidential news to occur,” George Kofenlu, Product Manager of UGT, told The FINANCIAL.

Maybe they'd like to start using ClamWin: free and open to scrutiny.

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Can the Director of Digital Engagement Open up UK Government?

Recently, several posts on both of my blogs have been circling around issues of government transparency, especially in the light of the current MPs' expenses scandal. As I've suggested, it may well be that this is a singularly propitious moment to push for real openness in government: it would go a long way to allaying fears that the British public has about what exactly is happening in Parliament, while simultaneously providing a simple and fair self-policing mechanism for MPs and other officials.

So the Cabinet Office's appointment on Wednesday of Andrew Stott to the new role of Director of Digital Engagement, a position created to take forward the Power of Information report – whose approach I praised a few months back - is very fortunate timing....

On Open Enterprise blog.

What is an Open City?

How do you applies principles of opennes to an entire city? Ask Vancouver, which has posted the following motion on open data, open standards and open source:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of Vancouver endorses the principles of:

* Open and Accessible Data - the City of Vancouver will freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns;

* Open Standards - the City of Vancouver will move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media;

* Open Source Software - the City of Vancouver, when replacing existing software or considering new applications, will place open source software on an equal footing with commercial systems during procurement cycles; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT in pursuit of open data the City of Vancouver will:

* Identify immediate opportunities to distribute more of its data;

* Index, publish and syndicate its data to the internet using prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats;

* Develop appropriate agreements to share its data with the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) and encourage the ICIS to in turn share its data with the public at large

* Develop a plan to digitize and freely distribute suitable archival data to the public;

* Ensure that data supplied to the City by third parties (developers, contractors, consultants) are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations;

* License any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.

If adopted, this will be pretty extraordinary - and a template for other cities who wish to re-invent themselves for the 21st century. Kudos to all involved: let's hope this goes through, and that others follow.

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14 May 2009

Is this Cool-er than Amazon's Kindle?

Amazon's Kindle runs GNU/Linux, which is no surprise given its suitability for these kind of consumer systems. The Kindle is fast establishing itself as the leading ebook platform, so, at first blush, that might seem unalloyed good news for free software.

Sadly, though, Amazon has also proved that it is no great friend of freedom - first, by embracing DRM for its books, and secondly, by cravenly disabling the text-to-speech capability because The Authors' Guild has eighteenth-century ideas of what copyright is about.

Against that background, new entrants to the e-reader market that run GNU/Linux are particularly welcome, since they offer hope that not all ebooks will be viewed on locked-down devices.

Here's one, with the rather hubristic name of Cool-er, which has the bonus of being British (although it doesn't seem available here yet). It's too early to say how hackable it will be, and whether it will be able offer features like text-to-voice, but it's likely to be the first of many such alternatives to the Kindle, and that's got to be cool.

Update: @codepope has reminded me that the FAQ seems to suggest that the Cool-er reader isn't compatible with GNU/Linux. In fact, I checked, and this only refers to anyone benighted enough to want to use Adobe's DRM; for texts that don't have manacles, GNU/Linux works fine, I am assured.

The Common Thread: Open Data, Open Access

Sir John Sulston is one of this country's - and the world's - heroes. Already a one-time Nobel prize winner for his work on worms (well, cell death, more precisely), he stands a good chance of winning another one for his work on the human genome project. But his contribution there is even greater: he was one of the main people behind making the human genome data freely available immediately, with no strings attached - one of the first, and still biggest, wins for open data.

One knock-on effect was that this made patenting genes harder in those jurisdictions benighted enough to allow it - something that Sulston has railed against loudly. As it happens, there is currently a major court case in the US is trying to undo some of the stupid earlier decisions in this respect: this is a biggie, so let's keep our fingers crossed.

But Sulston is not resting on his considerable laurels; he's at it again, working this time with a traditional publisher to edit a major new series of books that will be freely available online under a CC licence:

Sir John Sulston, Nobel prize winner and one of the architects of the Human Genome Project, has teamed up with Bloomsbury to edit a new series of books that will look at topics including the ethics of genetics and the cyber enhancement of humans.

The series will be the first from Bloomsbury's new venture, Bloomsbury Academic, launched late last year as part of the publisher's post-Harry Potter reinvention. Using Creative Commons licences, the intention is for titles in the imprint to be available for free online for non-commercial use, with revenue to be generated from the hard copies that will be printed via print-on-demand and short-run printing technologies.

As for the topics:

Sulston and Harris's series, Science, Ethics and Innovation, will be aimed "at a very wide market", covering subjects from "the interplay between science and society, to new technological and scientific discoveries and how they impact on our understanding of ourselves and our place in society", and the responsibility of science to the wider world. Authors they will be looking to commission will range from academics to policymakers, opinion formers, those working in commercial scientific roles, "and maybe even politicians". "They'll be non-technical books which will appeal to any intelligent person," said Harris. "The proverbial Guardian reader."

This is whole area of openness is one where Sulston has been active for decades. Indeed, alongside open data and open access he is also a big supporter of free software, and hugely savvy about the ethical aspects of this movement. If you want to find out more about this extraordinary man and his amazing career, I strongly recommend his autobiography: The Common Thread.

13 May 2009

Is Transparency Coming Out into the Open?

Maybe something good can come out of the unholy mess of the MPs' expenses:

Mr Brown said that politicians had to "prove themselves worthy of the public trust" and said the allowances system must be reconstructed to ensure transparency.

At the first Prime Minister's Questions since the expenses scandal broke, he gave his support to a proposal from David Cameron for all future claims to be posted on the internet by the Fees Office.

Now, that would be be truly wonderful, because it would not only solve most of the problems associated with the expenses, but it would provide a beachhead of transparency that people - we - can build on for the future.

And if that sounds hopelessly optimistic, here's another extraordinary straw in the wind:

Minister of Justice Michael Wills has told ZDNet UK that the UK's Freedom of Information Act is to be extended. Currently requests under the act can only be made to public bodies, but Wills said that the government had been considering modifying it to allow requests to private companies working in the public sector.

"We are going to announce the result soon. There is going to be an extension", he told our reporter Tom Espiner at the Private Data, Open Government conference today in London.

Keep those transparent fingers crossed.

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Linux.com Gets Community Religion

It's widely accepted that one of the core engines driving the success of free software is the central role the community has there, be it the community of coders or the community of users. The power of the community, even outside the world of software, is demonstrated by the 200 million+ users of Facebook, and the steep ascent of Twitter, not to mention the hundreds of other social networking sites.

So it's deeply ironic that the free software world has no central point where that community can come together, albeit virtually. That lack has been remedied now, at least to a certain extent, with the unveiling of the new Linux.com site. This has been revamped, and now places the concept of Community at its heart. Other sections include News, DistributionCentral, Learn and Directory. Everything's pretty adumbratory at the moment, but that's to be expected.

Two things strike me as particularly good omens. One is that emphasis on community, and the other is the ambition: Linux.com obviously wants to become the first place people should turn to find out more about this strange thing called GNU/Linux, and where people return in order to interact with fellow explorers. It's not quite the be-all and end-all for free software, which obviously extends well beyond GNU/Linux, but it's a good start.

So What's the Net Net on Net Neutrality?

Viviane seems confused:

From the governance point of view "Net Neutrality" is essential. New network management techniques allow traffic prioritisation. These tools may be used to guarantee good quality of service but may also be used for anti-competitive practices. The Commission has taken steps to empower national regulators to prevent such unfair abuse to the detriment of consumers. These measures are at the heart of the new telecoms regulatory package

Well, no, not as such. The provisions in the Telecoms Package actually *gut* net neutrality. So either you don't understand what the current proposals say (not difficult, since they are meant to be misleading) or you don't really care about *real* net neutrality.

So which is it?

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12 May 2009

Rumour: Microsoft to Buy SAP?

I don't normally comment on rumours, but this one is too plausible:

Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Steve Ballmer on Tuesday said speculation the company may buy German software firm SAP (SAPG.DE) was a 'random rumour.'

"I have nothing to say about rumours of acquisitions ... positively or negatively," he told reporters in Mumbai, when asked about an acquisition of SAP.

"It strikes me as a random rumour."

Microsoft, the world's top software firm, on Monday sold a $3.75 billion debt issue, sparking talk that it could be readying a bid for the German firm.

SAP's Co-Chief Executive Leo Apothekar said on Monday he believed the business software maker should stay independent, following the fresh speculation in European markets that Microsoft could bid for it.

Irrespective of rumours, Microsoft would be the perfect suitor for SAP since the latter is one of the last major bastions of proprietary software in Europe, and favours software patents.

That's no surprise, since Enterprise Resource Planning - SAP's heartland - is one of the few software sectors where open source has failed to make significant headway yet, and software patent monopolies are a great way to lock out up-and-coming free alternatives to high-priced closed-source solutions.

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11 May 2009

Filtering an Inclusionist Wikipedia

Why didn't somebody think of this before?

Wikipedia for schools is ... a free, hand-checked, non-commercial selection from Wikipedia, targeted around the UK National Curriculum and useful for much of the English speaking world. The current version has about 5500 articles (as much as can be fit on a DVD with good size images) and is “about the size of a twenty volume encyclopaedia (34,000 images and 20 million words)”. It was developed by carefuly selecting for content, then checking for vandalism and suitability by “SOS Children volunteers”. You can download it for free from the website, or as a free 3.5GB DVD.

The following point is even more interesting:

I also see this as a potential future model for Wikipedia — allow people to edit, but have a separate vetting process that identifies particular versions of an article as vetted. Then, people can choose if they want to see the latest version or the most recent vetted version. To some, this is very controversial, but I don’t see it that way. A vetting process doesn’t prevent future edits, and it creates a way for people to get what they want... material that they can have increased confidence in. The trick is to develop a good-enough vetting process (or perhaps multiple vetting/rating processes for different purposes). This didn’t make sense back when Wikipedia was first starting (the problem was to get articles written at all!), but now that Wikipedia is more mature, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a new need to identify vetted articles. Yes, you have to worry about countries to whom “democracy” is a dirty word, but I think such problems can be resolved. This is hardly a new idea; see Wikimedia’s article on article validation and Wikipedia’s pushing to 1.0. I am sure that a vetting/validation process will take time to develop, and it will be imperfect... but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

Indeed. What this means is that different organisations could pass the whole of Wikipedia through their particular prisms - like that filtering stuff for children. This is a very strong argument for Wikipedia being inclusionist - having as much stuff as possible - and letting the filters take out stuff that particular groups don't want. These would then offer their seals of approval to that particular cut - even if many people would disapprove of the choices made. That's freedom for you, I'm afraid.

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Has HADOPI Driven the French Insane?

One of the things I have been unable to understand is why the French, well known for their love of liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that jazz, seem hell-bent on getting rid of large chunks of said liberté in the digital sphere.

I refer, of course, to the infamous HADOPI law, which aims to deprive French citizens of their Internet connection purely on the say-so of French media companies. Doesn't sound like much égalité, fraternité there, does it? That's bad enough; but it seems that this bad legislation is leading to even worse knock-on consequences.

For example, it's emerged that the Head of the Web Innovation Centre for the French television company TF1 was fired for daring to write to his MP to express his opposition to the HADOPI law. Here's a good summary of what happened:

Yesterday’s Liberation carried a detailed report on the dismissal of a TF1 (Télévision française 1) employee for having expressed his opposition to the law. TF1 is a private TV network, whose boss Martin Bouygues is a close friend of Sarkozy. Jérôme Bourreau-Guggenheim was employed there in the web innovation unit. In February he wrote a personal mail to his MP, Françoise de Panafieu (UMP), expressing his opposition to the law and outlining his reasons as well as explaining his involvement in the sector. At the beginning of March he was summoned by his boss at TF1 online, Arnaud Bosom, who read his letter back to him, verbatim. Bosom explained that the letter had been forwarded to TF1’s legal adviser, Jean-Michel Counillon, by the Ministry of Culture! In April he was summoned to a disciplinary meeting and was sacked on April 16th.

Note that this was a personal opinion, expressed from home, and yet he lost his job because one of the strongest supporters of Sarkozy's drive against file sharing, Martin Bouygues, seems to think he has the right to tell his employees what to think, even outside work.

That's clearly outrageous, and I imagine that TF1 will regret the storm of protest it has provoked, and that maybe even a politician or two will find themselves in trouble. But other side-effects are more subtle – and more insidious.

The same site that carries the post about the TF1 sacking has this useful explanation of another knock-on effect of HADOPI:

An element of Hadopi which hasn’t received much or enough attention as yet, is a section which specifies steps that can be taken by computer users to ensure that they will not be found liable under the new regime. The following is a rough translation of the relevant sections, taken from the text of the law in its current state, as found here. Bear with me, it is torturous, some explanatory notes are added in bold…

« Art. L. 331-30. – After consultation with those developing security systems designed to prevent the illicit use of access to a communication service to the public online (internet!), or electronic communications, people whose business it to offer access to such a service as well as those companies governed by title 2 of the book (Intellectual Property Code) and rightsholders organizations (ie SACEM etc), the High Authority will make public the pertinent functional specifications that these measures must comprise so as to be considered, in its eyes, as valid exoneration of the responsibility of the access subscriber (internet user!) as defined in article L. 336-3.

At the end of a certified evaluation procedure, and taking into consideration conformity with the specifications set out in the previous paragraph and their effectiveness, the High Authority will issue a list certifying the security software whose use will validly exonerate the access holder (internet user!) from their responsibility under the terms of article L. 336-3. This certification will be periodically revised.

Mmmh. So what the law intends is to set up a meeting between security software vendors, antipiracy organizations and ISPs to decide what software you need to install on your machine, so that they can be sure that you behave yourself. If you don’t fancy installing their device, then you’ll just have to swallow any liability consequent to someone else using your machine or accessing your connection.

Now, one aspect not evident from the legalistic mumbo-jumbo above is that this spyware may well not support GNU/Linux:

The Assembly also postponed a handful of amendments that sought to exempt the subscriber if the system is not interoperable with software security, with the first assumption that it uses a system that is too old. An "old" Windows with expensive software installed on, for example. Or a free software ...

An amendment sought to nip in the bud the potential for discrimination technological and financial background of interoperability ( "the means of secure, freely available to consumers, are interoperable). But again, it was rejected by the rapporteur implacably Franck Riester and the Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel.

Now, normally I would assume that good sense would prevail, and that this casting into the outer darkness of GNU/Linux users would be rectified by those rational French people (after all, France is one of the biggest users of free software in the world). But given the rampant insanity that has broken out around HADOPI, I'm no longer confident that is the case. Instead, I fear that France is about to consign itself into the digital dark ages. Quel dommage.

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Heather Brooke: Breaking the MPs' Silence

If any one person deserves credit for bringing openness to MPs' expenses, it is Heather Brooke, who almost single-handedly has fought for their publication. As she points out in her latest post, the MPs haven't given up, or even conceded the principle that we, the electorate, have a right to see what they spend our money on:

Some have asked why I haven’t updated my site to take into account the publication Friday in the Daily Telegraph of MPs’ expenses. Frankly, I’ve just been too busy. I was speaking at a conference for members of the Information Tribunal Friday morning and then doing all the television news rounds that afternoon and evening.

One highlight - debating Stuart Bell of the Members Estimates Committee on Channel 4 news (scroll down to watch). In the Green Room before the show, Bell told me Labour’s latest reactionary plan to hive off the auditing of expenses to a private company ‘like Capita or CapGemini’. These companies apparently picked at random by him. I assumed these were just his initial brainstorming thoughts. But no, apparently this was the government’s latest ruse to stop us, the people, getting a look directly at MPs receipts.

More interesting, perhaps, is the following:

I have a plan which I hope to announce in the coming days. I’m going to set up some mechanism to register the public’s demand for change in Parliament. We need a new system for MPs expenses. One that is simply, transparent and gives the final scrutiny to those people in the best position to provide it - the constituents.

Much more to say, but the demands of work are pressing upon me and unlike MPs I have no taxpayer-funded staff to help me.

Ask, and I'll do my bit - both directly, and in terms of getting the message out to others.

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Open Mapping Considered Harmful

If you want further proof that openness is inherently subversive, try this:

China's Bureau of Surveying and Mapping (BSM) has warned foreigners to turn off the GPS functions on their mobile phones, or risk arrest.

The bureau warned foreigners using GPS devices on mainland China that they could be detained if suspected of conducting illegal mapping.

The bureau has launched a crackdown on “illegal surveying”, the South China Morning Post reported, with foreigners the main targets.

Hmm, nobody seems to have told the OpenStreetMap people, who are merrily mapping China.... (Via James Fallows.)

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Patent Differences: Canonical vs. Microsoft

I make no apologies for returning to the subject of the European Patent Office's referral of a “point of law” concerning software patents. Dull as many might find the intricate theoretical arguments, the outcome will have very real consequences. If software patents become easier to obtain, it will have a hugely negative effect on free software, which will find itself subject to more attacks on the legal front....

On Open Enterprise blog.

09 May 2009

Should Software Developers Be Liable for their Code?

Should Microsoft pay for the billions of dollars of damage that flaws in its software have caused around the world? It might have to, if a new European Commission consumer protection proposal becomes law. Although that sounds an appealing prospect, one knock-on consequence could be that open source coders would also be liable for any damage that errors in their software caused....

On Linux Journal.

08 May 2009

Media Vacuums Will Be Filled, Blogs Will Win

Great point here from Adam Tinworth, about why traditional publishers are suffering so badly at the hands of the bloggers:

the new breed of publisher - the ones doing it for pure passion, at virtually no cost - will and up wounding us where we're weakest. Because we've neglected parts of our audience, pandered to our own prejudices and missed opportunities.

*That* is why blogs have succeeded, and will continue to succeed until the gentlemen's club formerly known as publishing has an epiphany and sorts itself out.

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