27 November 2010

How To Say "Ooh, Look, a Squirrel" in Italian

There's a nice little argument bubbling away over in the south of Italy. It concerns the decision of Nichi Vendola, the president of Puglia, to sign a deal with Microsoft. The motivation, according to Signor Vendola, in the translation of Marco Fioretti, who has been tracking this episode, is that this:

“represents the beginning of an important collaboration partnership, whose goal is to promote innovation and excellence in creation, development and usage of ICT technologies and solutions, adding value to the role of the Region in direct relationships with the biggest international groups of that sector”.

So far, so depressingly normal you might think. Well, it would be, were it not for the fact that the party that Signor Vendola leads in the region, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL), has the following to say on the subject of technology:

Crediamo che parlare di copyleft, di software libero, di neutralità della rete sia una necessità per un partito moderno, così come lo è parlare di lavoro, ambiente, economia e diritti civili.


Per questo abbiamo ripreso l’espressione Ecologia della Conoscenza, perchè crediamo che tutti quei movimenti che si oppongono alla privatizzazione della conoscenza debbano essere unificati in un’unica istanza. Chi si oppone ai brevetti sul genoma o sul software, chi chiede una riforma radicale delle leggi sul copyright, chi sostiene il software libero condivide un’idea di base, che la cultura debba essere libera.

[We believe that speaking about copyleft, free software and Net neutrality is a necessity for a modern party, just as it is to speak about work, the environment, the economy and civil rights.


For this reason, we have adopted the expression "the Ecology of Knowledge", because we believe that all those movements which are opposed to the privatisation of knowledge must unite. Those who are opposed to gene or software patents, or ask for a radical reform of copyright law, and those who support free software share a common idea: that culture must be free.]

Fine words, but hard to square with a deal that places an entire region in the very unfree grip of Microsoft, hardly a great supporter of free software or opponent of software patents.

Understandably, then, Italian free software activist have been questioning this very inconsistent move, and now Signor Vendola has responded to the barrage of criticism:

La sottoscrizione del Protocollo d’intesa con Microsoft ha suscitato le perplessità di chi crede che con questa iniziativa si possa mettere in discussione il software libero e la libera circolazione dei saperi. La tentazione di lasciarsi andare a un impulso referendario è fortissima. Per la Puglia, per l’Italia il nemico è Microsoft? O uno qualsiasi degli altri colossi dell’informatica? A mio parere dovremmo guardare a queste dispute con lo stesso coraggio che ci aiuta a decifrare la politica di questi giorni bui. Combattendo i luoghi comuni.

[Signing the protocol of understanding with Microsoft has given rise to some perplexity in those who believe that this initiative could put in question free software and the free circulation of knowledge. The temptation to call for a referendum is very strong. Is Microsoft the enemy of Puglia, or of Italy? Or are the other giants of IT? In my opinion, we must look at this dispute with the same courage that helps us decipher the politics of these dark days.]

Whoa, hang on a minute: "courage"? We're talking about making a decision based on the technical facts. But anyway, let's go on and hear what the man has to say in explanation:

Dovremmo ammettere che in un secolo nuovo che si apre al cloud computing, all’open data government, alla neutralità tecnologica, al crollo dei prezzi delle Apps, il compito delle politiche pubbliche non è più tanto di scegliere tra competitori, ma quello di allargare le autostrade della società dell’informazione.

I veri nemici nel 2010 (e forse nel 2015 sarà più chiaro) non sono più Windows, Google, Leopard o l’iPad. Il vero nemico è il digital divide in cui il paese è prigioniero. Meno rame e più fibra.

[We must admit that in a new century that is opening up to cloud computing, open data government, Net neutrality, and to the collapse in the price of apps, the job of politics is no longer to choose among competitors, but to broaden the motorway of the information society.

The true enemies of 2010 (and perhaps it will be more clear in 2015) are not Windows, Google, Leopard or the iPad. The true enemy is the digital divide in which this country is imprisoned. Less copper and more fibre.]

What on earth is he talking about? After having made an unjustified choice to sign a deal with Microsoft (one whose terms haven't even been revealed, as far I can tell now available - see my detailed comments on the text), he tries to simply avoid the central question "Why?" by saying in true Tony Blair fashion that it is time to move on, and that it's not about competitors, but about the iPad and fibre optic cables, the price of apps and Net neutrality. He then changes subject yet again by bringing in the topic of Italy's digital divide.

Now, closing the digital divide is certainly a hugely important undertaking, but if anything can do that it is *free* software, which can be distributed to everyone in Puglia - to every school, and to every business. Microsoft's offerings are precisely the last thing that will close that digital divide.

Indeed, the divide is there largely *because* of Microsoft. By virtue of its monopolistic hold on the desktop market it has been able to impose artificially high prices on a sector whose marginal costs of production are zero. This implies that that natural price of software is also zero - as is exactly the case for free software. Anything higher than zero makes the digital divide deeper - which means that Microsoft's inflated prices have helped excavate not so much a digital divide as a digital chasm.

So Signor Vendola's bizarre "explanation" of his move - which, of course is a non-explanation, and the Italian equivalent of saying: "ooh, look, a squirrel" - is in fact a superb reason why he should in fact be supporting open source, just as his party professes to do on its Web site.

However, there is some good news here. And that is the fact that Signor Vendola felt impelled to offer some kind of explanation, however unsatisfactory. This means that he is feeling the effects of the outcry, and knows that he cannot simply ignore it.

The message is clear: Italian free software activists must (a) continue to pile on the pressure until he cancels this deal with Microsoft, and (b) non guardare lo scoiattolo.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Sassinak said...

(A follow-up)And here in Quebec, the most important govnt information manager breaks its own laws to avoid progress. Is this corruption, or what? http://www.cyberpresse.ca/le-soleil/affaires/jeux-et-logiciels/201011/24/01-4346099-nouveau-litige-autour-des-logiciels-libres.php So sick of this.

Glyn Moody said...

@Sassinak: thanks for the update - I'd followed earlier events in this saga.

I think the only think to do is to kick up as big a fuss as possible - they really don't like publicity, because they know that their actions don't stand up to scrutiny.

Sassinak said...

Really, after the whole thing went through the Superior Court in may ? Presently, the Forces-that-be are totally disregarding, indeed openly refusing, an inquiry into huge corruption allegations in regard to the construction industry. So intertwined are the govnt and the mafia that our local "GodFather" was very professionally ASSASSINATED 2 weeks ago (Rizzuto family), passing the power (the people's power?) over to the Calabrians. The Shepherds are merely working for the Warlords, if you ask me.
How to protest ? I keep spreading the word about Linux...When half the promising new students show disappointment at jobs interviews when informed they will have to do serious work on what is becoming a playstation OS, maybe the employers will stretch their necks out and look accross the pond at how "the Old World" is pulling off the migration to Free Software (or even just south of us, our other masters).

Glyn Moody said...

@Sassinak: yes, it's hard, but the dam will break eventually. And promoting GNU/Linux and open content, open data is a way of preparing for greater transparency.

Anonymous said...

schiaccianoci. p

Valdis said...

In Latvia Microsoft enhances its position through Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


To which my response was:

Glyn Moody said...

@Valdis: thanks for that. Yes, sadly, it's part of a larger plan to get them while they are young, or just curious. Terribly-written article, that, too - so uncritical and unaware of what's going on. Keep up the fight...

leonardo said...

Dear Glyn,
I've stubled upon your blog, having been pinged from ecologiadellaconoscenza.wordpress.com.
This issue has been debated quite enough in the italian FLOSS world and I'd like to add a couple of cents. Whatever opinion one can have on Microsoft, I guess that before trying to interpret the "spirit" of a deal (as Marco is doing on his blog) one really should at least read it. I'm saying this because in the deal there is no obligation to achieve, use, or even no agreement on prices for MS software for Puglia. This was not only the "spirit" but the base that our government signed with MS and that Marco compares with what happens in Puglia. The only agreement is on the creation of a common center for research and information on IT, and the whole text is preceded by statements where the administrations clearly outlines its will to keep technological neutrality.
About the "fine words" you quoted (and that accidentally, I wrote :-) ) it is not just words. In Florence where I live the administration is turning to FLOSS for a law we proposed.
Lastly, in the same bizarre explanation from Vendola you (or the ones who translated the answer to you) may also notice the last sentence that says "La giunta regionale, la settimana prossima, approverà un disegno di legge sull’open source quale sistema di riferimento per l’e-government regionale" which translates to "The regional council the next week will approve a law that will set open source as the standard for the region's e-governemt system". Sometimes people look for squirrels even when you could see something more interesting around.
Whatever this law will lead to (nothing, few, or everything), please, ask for a complete translation before taking any conclusions.


Glyn Moody said...

@leonardo: many thanks for replying here.

As to your point that I should read the agreement before commenting, well, that was what I would have liked to do. But as Marco pointed out, a big part of the problem was that this deal was announced *without* providing any details. Transparency is vital in all cases, but particularly so in sensitive cases such as this one.

Now that I have seen the documents, I will read through them carefully. I've skimmed through them quickly, and am troubled by what I see, since it confirms many of my fears: I'll explain exactly what I mean in another post on this blog shortly.

Glyn Moody said...

@leonardo: it's now up


leonardo said...

Before I look up to the new post you've done, just a quick note. The deal has been there from the day before the announcement, right after the Puglia council approved it, as any decision of any council on any subject in Italy (looks like even here in italy we have a low about transparency :-) ). It was three clicks away if you have some practice on how administrative things work.

Glyn Moody said...

@leonardo: OK, thanks.

A quick comment, then: it might have been a good idea to link to the full text in the announcement - that way, many of the comments about the non-availability - however erroneous - could have been avoided.