[LINK] Why US gov reps mugged pro open source declaration

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd@austarmetro.com.au
Tue, 04 Feb 2003 09:27:49 +1100

Why US gov reps mugged pro open source declaration
By John Lettice
Posted: 03/02/2003 at 17:51 GMT
The Register

In the middle of last month a US delegation to an international conference
clearly signalled US policy as regards open source by de-fanging a pro open
source declaration. The conference, the Asian regional meeting of the World
Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) had been poised to "support" open
source software in a closing declaration, but the US government delegation
dug its heels in and had it watered down to "encourage."

And you can read the finished version here, where you'll note the key
wording is: "Development and deployment of open-source software should be
encouraged, as appropriate, as should open standards for ICT networking."
We at El Reg would hazard a guess that debarking as far as "encouraged"
would not have been sufficient to secure Uncle Sam's support - but the
addition of "as appropriate" sorts that out, leaving plenty of scope for
certain software vendors to argue that appropriate scenarios are few and
far between.

The diligent work of the US reps wasn't widely noticed at the time, but was
reported by the thorough people at IDG.net, and this was picked up and
published somewhere deep inside Infoworld, which unfortunately seemed to be
having one of its turns at time of writing.

IDG's reporter says: "The US opposition was largely perceived to be support
for its domestic software companies and in particular Microsoft Corp, said
officials from other governments on the sidelines of the conference on
Wednesday." But while this is true enough, and it's clearly a matter of US
policy, it's not US policy to mug open source to death.

Not exactly, anyway. The Microsoft-sponsored Initiative for Software
Choice* effectively follows and promotes the policies of Microsoft and
(we'd guess) the vast majority of commercial software companies as regards
open source mandation. They are happy for open source to compete on what
they see as a level playing field, but fight any attempts by governments
and legislatures to mandate the use of open source. And there's nothing
wrong with that, it's a point of view, and if you happen to be a major
commercial software company then it's surely perfectly reasonable to object
to proposals that would stop you selling to government at all.

Note, though, that as far as the US government is concerned, the ISC has
got to be pushing on an open door here. Sure, US government departments and
agencies might use open source, sure, they might think it's a good idea to
use more open source, but they're not going to be allowed to promote open
source, because The Market should Decide. Which again is fair enough, it's
a point of view, and it's one US governments almost inevitably support for
practically everything.

But whether or not the market does decide after the playing field has been
so levelled is perhaps debatable. You may have noted certain companies
deploying a very great deal of money on marketing, unbiased market
research, freebies and lobbyists, in addition to their playing field
levelling activites. One might wonder how this facilitates a market
decision based purely on respective merits.

In this particular case the counter-argument from the proponents of the
original declaration text would run something like this. If the objectives
of the WSIS are to be fulfilled for the developing world, then software has
to be affordable, and sufficiently open for developing countries to build
their own products, and have derived revenues spent locally, rather than
exported to the developed world.

Which is also a point of view, and a pretty reasonable one. In supporting
rather than just encouraging open source "where appropriate," these
delegations were taking on board the need to localise expertise and
revenues, and to provide a counter to existing commercial software, which
is already established as a standard. Not many people actually pay for
Windows in much of Asia, but they sure as hell use it, and in that sense
it's difficult for open source to compete unaided. So both sides see
themselves as trying to level the playing field, and that will surely
result in tears.

Nor is that the only area the US government and the software industry will
find themselves ranged against developing countries. Elsewhere in the
declaration, under "Ensuring balance between intellectual property rights
(IPR) and public interest," we read:

"While intellectual property rights play a vital role in fostering
innovation in software, e-commerce and associated trade and investment,
there is a need to promote initiatives to ensure fair balance between IPRs
and the interests of the users of information, while also taking into
consideration the global consensus achieved on IPR issues in multilateral

"Copyright holders and distributors of content should be cognizant of the
need to ensure that content is accessible for all, including persons with
disabilities. In this connection, access requirements should be included in
legal, regulatory and policy frameworks, where appropriate."

We're pretty sure the words "copy left" didn't appear anywhere in the draft
before the US team got to it, but you can see a storm brewing here. Wonder
what they could possibly mean by "access requirements"? IP recognition is
again an area where Microsoft et al and the US government will tend to work
as a team, as the government, obviously, is going to support US companies
in their efforts to stop rampant theft of their products. But the more
successful they are, the more expensive the products get, so the more the
open source issue gets foregrounded. 

* A while back we noted the ISC's strangely large and geographically
diverse membership list. For some strange reason, that page now declares
itself under reconstruction, and the initiative members have retreated into
the shadows of anonymity. Spoilsports.

You are what you do when it counts.
-- The Masao


Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia