Thesis - Open Technologies for an Open World
Open Standards, Open Source, Open Mind


How can the European governments and the European Community - in the scope of this analysis - recognise these needs, and how can them support this openness?


7. Politics

"Technology does not determine society. Nor does society script the course of technological change. (…) Yet, it can, mainly through the state, suffocate its development." Manuel Castells

In the previous sections, we discussed the social and economical viewpoints of the adoption of open standards and open source. The provisory conclusions are the need for open standards to guarantee the freedom of choice and a healthy market competition, and the advantages of open source code to guarantee the innovative pace of technology with benefits for the privacy and security. Now we will analyse the political aspects: How can the European governments and the European Community - in the scope of this analysis - recognise these needs, and how can them support this openness?

Let us base the analysis in Castells' opinion: "firms do not seek technology for the betterment of humankind, but for profit and growth of value of their stocks. And political institutions are normally oriented toward maximizing the competitiveness of their constituent economies. Thus, profitability and competitiveness are the actual determinants of technological innovation and productivity growth."

7.1. Openness by research

The academic environment is the natural root of the open standards, allowing the research initiatives to spread over different institutions and countries. As already discussed, this happened during the development of the UNIX operating system and the Internet Protocols . In opposition to commercial research - oriented by the market potentials of new products and technological features - academic researches are normally oriented towards innovation and quality - even when economic subsidies come from major companies like IBM. The political subsidies, whenever they exist, should stimulate this openness to continue in the centre of the research, and guarantee the quality of new technologies, which shall target the increase of social welfare.

This does not mean the suppression of proprietary architectures and closed software from the academic world. These technologies should continue to be investigated, and open bridges should be built between proprietary alternatives and Open Source. One of the possible solutions of the Microsoft antitrust case would be to allow selected academic institutions to have access to selected parts of the source of selected Microsoft products. This selectivity should be forced by political means to be increased to the whole bunch of software code responsible for the interfaces between the Microsoft operating systems and Microsoft products (e.g. Windows and Internet Explorer) and in parts of the code where potential security or privacy breaches may put the social or private security under threat by commercial companies or crackers. Academic research could then be conducted to help to avoid potential risks, where Microsoft already proved unable (or unwitting or even unwilling) to act effectively.

The main objective of research in open technology, however, should be to guarantee the open software to evolve and be able to compete with commercial software in the same level. This happen by the technological improvements made by academic research, and by teaching the usage of this software to the students.

7.2. Openness by usage

The wide usage of Open Source software and the increasing usage of open standards by commercial software may be stimulated by letting the students use, learn and disseminate this knowledge in their future working environments. As already discussed, the license costs may have a low importance in the total implementation of the system (around 5%), and the main part comes from training . The companies are more open to the implementation of pieces of software that are well known by current and future employees, as this may reduce the training costs of the technological departments and in the user community. This is the role of governmental institutions behind academic subsidies: wherever as possible, open software should be preferred to close and proprietary alternatives. Beyond the academic institutions, public entities could follow the same path.

The increasing importance of institutional projects in the IT market, in domains like e-government, education and health, is giving an important impulse in the usage of Open Source. As discussed before, mixed solutions integrating proprietary software and Open Source shall be considered, to guarantee the balance between the existing and new applications. This enforces the need for Open Standards, to be able to integrate both solutions, and to be able to easily migrate to new alternatives when there are economical or functional advantages.

The American government is highly influenced by the major IT players like Microsoft, Intel and CISCO, who lobby against Open Source . One of the arguments is the risk of reducing the profit - and consequently employment - of big companies part of ISC. The increase in the usage of Open Source software in Europe does not have any negative impact in the economy, as the owners of main proprietary software are not European companies. In the opposite, they may benefit the service companies, by reducing the software license costs and allowing more projects to be implemented. The European institutions and governments start to take advantage of this fact by using Open Source software in internal projects, and if the e-government initiatives really take shape in the next years, this may bring a real advantage for the open platforms.

As an example, after some Italian and Brazilian regions, the Region of Brussels (COCOF ) voted in February 2002 a proposal to impose the usage of Open Source software. The usage of proprietary solutions may only be authorized in areas where no open alternative exists, with the planned period for the full migration from proprietary to Open Source software being only three years. Agoria , a Belgian entity representing many software suppliers, considered that legal interference from the government in technological domains should not happen. During the writing of this document, ISC, the same group that is responsible for lobbying the American department of defense, is also pushing the Brussels government against such a decision. The arguments used by the ISC are purely juridical, and are quite incoherent with the practices of some companies in the very heart of the association (see below).

Another good example comes from the Belgian government, which voted on the 7th April 2003 a law to increase the transparency of electronic vote. The source code is available on the internet.

7.3. Openness by law enforcement

"We need a clear citizens' vision of the way the Net ought to grow, a firm idea of the kind of media environment we would like to see in the future. If we do not develop such a vision for ourselves, the future will be shaped for us by large commercial and political power holders." Rheingold

The most famous cases are always around Microsoft and the antitrust processes, run by the American and European governments. As this process has been extensively discussed , we will rather analyse the ISC arguments against the usage of open source by the Belgian governmental institutions. We will analyze each of the arguments and show how can have an opposite interpretation and become a clear pro-Open Source argumentation.

The first "Nefarious" situation would be the risk for those institutions to be restricted to a single type of software systems. This is really a risk, but far higher for proprietary solutions with closed file formats and protocols, and this is never mentioned by ISC. In the future, if the institutions would like to migrate to newer software solutions, the conversion of existing information and adaptation of technical interfaces could easily be performed, with the help of documentation from the internet or the source code.

The second risk appointed by the ISC is the economical impact to the "Belgian Software Industry". Considering that most of the profit made by pure Belgian companies comes from service, and service is always needed, independent of the origin of the software, this argument is difficult to be understood.

A third argument, purely juridical, is that actions forcing institutions to use Open Source software would be against OMC dispositions to ensure the freedom of international commerce. Without entering in a juridical debate, we can easily challenge this viewpoint by arguing the validity of agreements forcing hardware suppliers to sell PCs with built-in Windows systems, with an implicit and mandatory cost for the end-user.

The fourth ISC argument is that the software market is dynamic and competitive enough to be self-ruled by commercial and technological differences. This is a very valid argument that could be used against the public known fact that companies making part of ISC are blocking the usage of Open Source solutions by building commercial alliances.

The fifth argument, which comes from the ISC objectives, is to guarantee that all pieces of software can participate equally in the market, without preferences or legal restrictions. We should wait for the legal conclusions of the antitrust cases against Microsoft, to see if legal restrictions are very independent of commercial lobbies.

7.4. Openness by stimulation

"Whatever chance remains for the survival of anything good may be in the preservation and availability of information, the only commodity that will be cheaper and more convenient." Ted Nelson

We discussed before that a mix between proprietary and open source alternatives may be preferred to a monopoly situation from either side. Many companies are highly influenced by mutual agreements, and ban open source solutions completely from their IT environments. To compensate this fact, governmental institutions could favour Open Source solutions and force the exchange of information with other companies to happen by open protocols - like XML - instead of proprietary standards - like MS-Word or MS-Excel spreadsheets. This can happen in e-government domains like taxes and social security, starting to be implemented today, and where conversions of software and file formats are already taking place. Considering the perspectives of increasing demand by such services, they may boom the open standards and open source adherence by the companies, which can later expand the usage of such technologies in internal applications.

In Belgium, the first phase of a project to implement tax payment online, with the development of 500 intelligent forms - a third of them oriented to the general public and companies, two thirds for internal usage - has chosen XML as the format for data exchange since 2001. This may give an impulse in the usage of XML in other companies and citizens, for other applications.

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