[glugot] [Frederick Noronha (FN)] [Fsf-friends] Tere Vaden: Information wants to be free (long)

  • From: Joe Steeve <joe_steeve@xxxxxxx>
  • To: GLUG Madurai <glug-madurai-discuss@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 12:14:36 +0530

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  • From: "Frederick Noronha (FN)" <fred@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 00:51:06 +0530 (IST)

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Tere Vadén Professor, Hypermedialab University of Tampere

   The possibilities that Free/Libre and Open  Source Software (FLOSS)
   offers for development in information and communications technology
   (ICT), in general, and for the developing countries, in particular, have
   recently gained increasing attention and importance. The following report
   provides encouraging examples of the role FLOSS has already had or can
   have in the developing countries and developmental co-operation.  The
   reason for the increased attention is simple: the philosophy, economy and
   software development model of FLOSS have in the past 20 years or so made
   an ineradicable impact on how information technology is conceptualised,
   used and developed. Since FLOSS does not rely on concepts like
   intellectual property or copyright but rather on concepts of voluntary
   co-operation and copyleft ("copyright turned around"), it has been seen
   as an ideal tool for bridging the so-called digital divides. What has
   made an even stronger impression on some researchers has been the fact
   that in the case of FLOSS fun and ethics seem to travel hand in hand, at
   least part of the way.  The developers of FLOSS, the hackers, often
   "scratch their own itch", that is, do what is fun. It appears that in
   most cases this fun can be had only if the software the hackers are
   interested in having fun with is free and open. The background
   motivations that the hackers have for engaging in FLOSS development can,
   indeed, be quite varied, and still the result contributes to a freely
   distributable, modifiable and usable pool of good quality software.  For
   instance, the philosophical and social motivations of the Free Software
   movement and the Open Source movement are quite different, even
   antithetical at places, but the movements can still share-and-share-alike
   when it comes to creating software that excels in its technical
   qualities. It seems that this kind of co-operation is precisely what
   bridging the digital divides on the software side needs. The question of
   whether ICT development is necessary or whether it should be prioritised
   when it comes to countries that have severe problems with providing for
   the basic needs of their citizens may be debated. It seems clear,
   however, that if and when ICT development is, for instance, a part of
   developmental co-operation, the basic concepts and day-to-day practises
   of using and developing FLOSS offer a footing that may be used with

   Because the background motivations for creating and using FLOSS are
   varied, the arguments for FLOSS are also diverse. They range from the
   purely technical (e.g.  speed of development, security and privacy,
   technological independence, ease of use) to the deeply economic, social,
   political and philosophical (e.g.  price, co-operation, equality,
   commitment to the right to know). This spectrum of arguments can be
   stratified by thinking about the different levels on which digital
   information has an impact. Underlying all the discussions on ICT and its
   effect on the emerging information societies is the fact that by its
   nature information is different from material things. Information is
   abstract in the sense that giving or sharing information does not
   diminish the amount of information that the giver or sharer has.
   Furthermore, the reproduction and copying of information can be done with
   much less cost than the reproduction and copying of material goods. These
   characterisations of the nature of information can be captured in the
   phrase "Information can be free". As a means of production and exchange,
   information is different from material things in that it can be free; as
   a resource, information is non-rivalrous. The different kind of "being"
   that information has compared to the "being" of material things means
   that the sharing of information is in its ontological nature unlike the
   sharing of material goods: this is the sense in which information "can"
   be free.

   The next level of argumentation is crystallised in the rallying-cry of
   hackerdom: "Information wants to be free". Information wants to be free
   in the sense that information, e.g.  computer software, as a tool is made
   better if it is free. This is the level of argument that the Open Source
   movement emphasises. The development of good quality software is faster
   and more efficient if the source code of the software is open and if
   everyone potentially interested in the code is free to contribute to the
   development. As a means to an end, software is best developed if it is
   free. The so-called Linus' Law, after the Linux-hacker Linus Torvalds, is
   often cited in this context: "Given enough eyeballs all bugs are
   shallow". The global society of hackers has through the internet
   harnessed its pool of skills and interests in a distributed working model
   that has produced software at a pace that has defied all economic theory
   and continues to baffle computer scientists.  Software as a tool makes
   best progress when it is free. Therefore it wants to be free; its goal as
   a tool is to be free.

   Information technology  as  a means  is,  of  course, used  towards  some
   ends.  The use and development of technology is embedded in practises and
   cultures. It is obvious that technology in general and information
   technology in particular are not culturally neutral: a given type of
   technology use and development always favours or disfavours different
   types of social arrangements. In the case of FLOSS, the position of the
   Free Software movement is formulated through considering the ends to
   which software contributes. From this viewpoint, the question to be asked
   about different models of using and developing software is what kind of
   society does this or that model promote. Like Richard M. Stallman, the
   founder of the Free Software movement, has emphasised, the goal of the
   Free Software movement is to create a society based on co-operation,
   equality and sharing, therefore software is instrumental only if it is
   free.  Software can be a means to the end of a co-operative and ethically
   sound society only if it is free in the sense of free speech; even
   openness of the source code is not enough. This third level of viewing
   software through its social and political goals can be expressed in the
   slogan "Information ought to be free".  The social commitment to
   supporting and creating a society that is not a jungle but a co-operative
   whole implies an ethical commitment to the freedom of information.

   This third level  of argument  can be  augmented. Following Aristotle,
   we may see the goals towards which we are striving as finalities, as
   goals-in-themselves that do not require any further motivation.
   Finalities do not require motivation, they are the motivation that give
   shape to the tools, practises and social arrangements that embody the
   finalities. It is this level of commitment that often means taking extra
   effort.  In this sense the (ethical) commitment to certain finalities can
   also be quite different from having fun, or from the technical
   considerations that have to do with the properties of software seen
   purely as a tool. For instance, democracy is often seen as a finality.
   Even though democracy might be inefficient and costly, the extra effort
   is worth taking, because of the ethical and social goods that democracy
   includes. Democracy is worth it for its own sake.  This level of
   motivation applies also to FLOSS, even though it can not be easily
   captured in a phrase. Maybe the verb "x" describing this fourth level of
   finalities in the phrase "Information 'x' be free" would have to combine
   the senses of the verbs "can", "wants to", "ought to" and "will".

   It is  also through  this fourth  level of  argumentation that  we reach
   one of the crucial questions that the so-called developed countries face
   when it comes to the use of FLOSS in developmental co-operation.  The
   global trend towards an "information society" gives an increasing role to
   information, knowledge and other immaterial assets in production.
   Therefore the economy is also seeking ways of controlling, identifying
   and using immaterial assets. This happens largely through the concept of
   intellectual property. In economic terms, the notion of intellectual
   property and the connected immaterial property rights are a way of
   regulating free markets, setting up limited monopolies in the name of
   economic incentive for innovation and creativity. This
   mega-company-driven trend towards an increasingly tight "intellectual
   property" regime conflicts squarely with all the above verbs. If
   information is made into property, it can not, will not and should not be

   Taken to its  extreme, the  notion that information  or knowledge  is
   owned and that its use should be controlled by the "owners" becomes
   absurd. An infant either has to be taught that information is owned or
   otherwise remains ignorant of the fact. In both cases information freely
   shared is the basis on which the ownership of information can be based.
   The absurdity can be seen in the following scenario: if all information
   is proprietary, then the information that information is proprietary is
   proprietary, too, and I can choose to stay ignorant of that information.
   As with material property, intellectual property relies on the goodwill
   of non-proprietary social functions and arrangements. Therefore its
   beneficiality is not a given.

   Through this perspective it is obvious that a very strict regime of
   intellectual property will lead to increased fragmentation and the
   unbalanced division of wealth in the world. It would not be too extreme
   to claim that certain forms and applications of so-called intellectual
   property rights are a way of protecting the "firstness" of the "first"
   world against the interests of the other worlds. At its worst, the
   concept of intellectual property works in ways that are analogous to the
   colonialising effects that the concept of material property has had in
   the previous centuries. It has always been known that "intellectual
   property laws" can be a hindrance to economic development. This was the
   reason why the United States decided not to recognise European copyrights
   and patents in the 19th century.  It is very likely that following a
   tight regime of intellectual property rights will be an obstacle to the
   economic development of the developing countries today, too. Therefore it
   is essential that the legislative system and the policies of the "first"
   world will allow for intellectual and software freedom.

   When it comes  to information technology,  the task is  to create a
   balanced environment for innovation, both social and technological. It is
   a well-known fact that things like software patents and the idea of
   "trusted computing" seriously threaten the possibility of FLOSS
   development. Therefore it is extremely troubling to see how a strong
   big-industry lobby is pushing the legislation and its interpretation in
   the "first" world towards an increasingly biased and restrictive
   direction.  Software patents have already become a burden on FLOSS
   development and the innovation of small and medium-sized software
   companies in the US, and currently the EU is thinking about having a
   software patent legislation of its own.  Software patents are a good
   example of "intellectual property rights" that are not only harmful to
   FLOSS in the "first" world but also to the use of FLOSS in developmental
   co-operation.  A healthy global information society needs a political and
   legal environment that gives possibilities to both independent FLOSS type
   development and proprietary software development.  Shutting one or the
   other out will only aggravate the existing digital divides.

   From the point of view  of finalities the question is:  "What is
   information technology for?" Answering this "why" question can give
   sustainable form to the "how" questions. For instance, economic and
   cultural "whys" may give different weights to different factors.
   Globalisation as a narrowly defined economic trend and the creation of a
   particular type of information society push towards a strict intellectual
   property regime.  This, however, does not mean that intellectual property
   as a concept or as a practice systematically favours equality, democracy
   or development - quite the contrary. Intellectual property rights might,
   in principle, protect the livelihood of indigenous populations and local
   cultural endeavours, but in practice they next to never do. This is
   because established organisations, institutions and companies have an
   upper hand when it comes to interpreting the concept and enforcing the
   laws that codify it.  "First" world countries like Finland can therefore
   advance the creation of a global sustainable information society by
   giving enough weight to social and ethical issues in the legislative
   framework that partly creates the international information environment.
   Especially so because there are also strong economic arguments that speak
   in favour of free markets and against the restrictions in terms of
   "intellectual property".

   The use of  FLOSS is  motivated through concepts  like freedom,
   independence and swantantra.  These concepts have at the same time their
   economic, technical and cultural meanings.  Freedom and independence in
   all of these senses are finalities, goals in themselves and in that sense
   very well in line with the ideals of a global sustainable information
   society. Making grand ideals like this happen is, of course, always a
   complicated thing. However, to be fair, FLOSS is not a dream, but a
   rapidly growing reality that has several success stories in its track
   record. As noted above, FLOSS is no one thing, either.  There are
   different sets of philosophical underpinnings, different models of
   development, different technological options and so on. There is no
   reason to downplay the internal variation of FLOSS or the different
   options in building an information society. The proof of the pudding is
   in the eating, and the proof of the bridge is in the crossing. Let us
   attend to the details.


   During the  last couple  of years  the  use of  Free/Libre Open  Source
   Software (FLOSS) has gathered momentum, which has surprised its
   proponents and opponents alike.  Looking at the figures, it would not be
   an exaggeration to say that the Internet is powered by FLOSS.1 (See.
   David Wheeler - Why OSS/FS?)

   Given such a huge  spread in the use  of FLOSS and its  very significant
   economic impact, the questions arising from the perspective of
   development aid and sustainable development are: Does FLOSS offer
   developing countries any significant alternative in addressing crucial
   problems, such as the alleviation of poverty, the democratization of
   society, the reduction of illiteracy, conflict reduction, access to
   knowledge, dealing with natural calamities and other emergencies, etc.?
   Does FLOSS have the potential to help bridge the digital divide?

   In our  view, the  answers to  most of  the above  questions is  a
   definite YES, but without attributing some magic wand status to any
   technology, especially Information and Communications Technologies (ICT),
   including FLOSS.

   The solutions to the problems facing developing countries are very
   complex, and ICT and FLOSS can at best provide a helping hand to humans
   determined to solve those problems. Lacking the political will and social
   forces necessary to solve problems, any technology is just another tool
   which may throw us into *techno-optimism*, that is, the belief that
   *future economic prosperity is dependent upon the rapid development of
   national electronic infrastructures* without actually meaningfully
   solving the burning problems facing the developing world.

   Commenting on the role and impact of Bangalore, capital of the Indian
   state of Karnataka, and that country's foremost hi-tech centre, noted
   economist and Nobel laureate Dr. Amartya Sen2 said: *New centres of
   excellence such as Bangalore can prosper and flourish.  Yet even 100
   Bangalores would not solve India*s poverty and deep-seated inequality.
   For this to happen, many more people must participate in growth. This
   will be difficult to achieve across the barriers of illiteracy, ill
   health and inequalities in social and economic opportunities.* (from The
   Oxfam Education Report Chapter 1)3

   Already at this stage, we  should note that the present  study is not an
   economics-based one.  The team responsible for it lack expertise in
   economics, and is not making any significant claims regarding the impact
   of ICT on economies.  Having said that, we can still refer to a number of
   studies and views which actually show that there is no direct link
   between computers and productivity. For instance, World Bank economist
   Charles Kenny, in his well argumented paper at a WIDER conference on New
   Economy in May 2002,4 believes that the **Solow paradox*5 * widespread
   evidence of computer use, little evidence of (widespread) productivity
   growth * continues, at least in modified form.*

   Warning against techno-optimism  and pinning too  many hopes  on the
   Internet and ICT, Kenny notes: *The Internet is a powerful technology
   that will have a long-term impact on the quality of life in developing
   countries* and *Having said that, our record in predicting the dynamic
   impact of technologies on development in the past has been very weak.  To
   take three communications-related examples, the railway was predicted to
   spark the dictatorship of the proletariat, the telegraph was predicted to
   engender world peace and the television to revolutionize education.
   Broadly, it appears that even while the role of technology in economic
   growth cannot be questioned, the dynamic impact of a particular, invented
   technology is never very large. It looks increasingly as if the impact of
   the computer on US productivity will be a good example of this. The
   impact has been limited so far, and might not increase in the future.*
   (Charles Kenny: The Internet and Economic Growth in Least Developed
   Countries.  A Case of Managing Expectations?)6.

   At the same time, however, we can note  that ICT, or rather thelack of
   it, does significantly impede access to information and knowledge for a
   vast majority of developing countries, especially their academic and
   educational institutions, students, government officials, economic and
   financial institutions, businesses, etc.

   The main objective of this report has been to analyse the significance
   and relevance of FLOSS for developing countries.i In doing so, we have
   tried to take a brief look at the the overall use of ICT and FLOSS,
   especially at some of its most significant and popular software, such as
   GNU/Linux, Apache, Mozilla, Open Office etc, as well as its possible
   impact on the societies, lives, and economies of the people of those

   As noted earlier, our  focus in this study  is more on  the wider impact
   of ICT and FLOSS on societies than on economics. That is why we have
   tried to look at a number of issues which hinder a more widespread use of
   ICT in general and FLOSS in particular in most of the developing world.
   Keeping in mind a host of social, political and economic factors,
   especially the overall huge cost of employing ICT (compounded in most
   cases by hard currency shortages), we contend that FLOSS offers an
   affordable and useful alternative to proprietary software for all the
   concerned parties in those countries: governments, public institutions,
   education, NGOs and the private sector.

   Another objective has been to  evaluate projects which utilise  FLOSS
   technologies and to see whether they have any significant impact on the
   democratization of countries, increased access to knowledge, enhancing
   the quality of education, andaiding sustainable development. We have
   tried to achieve that objective by going beyond the purely technical
   merits and use of FLOSS and look instead at the very nature of FLOSS (its
   philosophy of freedom, openness, community activation and collaborative
   nature) as well as make a link between FLOSS and any developmental effort
   dependant upon humans determined to solve problems.

   We let the reader determine  if we have succeeded in  achieving those
   objectives. We can only reiterate that FLOSS and developing countries
   make a great partnership.

   Helsinki, 28th February 2003
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