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- From: "Frederick Noronha (FN)" <fred@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- To: fsf-friends@xxxxxxxxxx
- 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 benefit.
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 free.
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 countries.
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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