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<nettime> Tere Vaden: Information wants to be free
Frederick Noronha (FN) on Tue, 21 Dec 2004 09:42:39 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Tere Vaden: Information wants to be free



Tere Vaden
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 digita l 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
d one 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 ex
change, 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-o perative 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.

Introduction

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 a ny 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 an d 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 conferenceon 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 dy namic impact of
technologies on development in the past has been very w eak.  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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THIS IS THE FOREWORD to the report 'Free as in Education. Significance of
the Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Developing Countries'. Version
1.0 dated 13.05.2003 and available online at
http://www.maailma.kaapeli.fi/FLOSS_for_dev.html.

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