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<title>WSIS and the Software Challenge</title>
<h1>WSIS and the Software Challenge</h1>
<a href="/about/people/greve/greve.html">Georg C.F. Greve</a><br />
Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), President
<br />
<h3>Introduction: The role of software in our digital world</h3>
Software is codified power in the digital domain. In other words -- to
quote Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig -- Code is a regulator that
governs cyberspace in ways similar to Law governing the real world.
In the Northern world, most people are already depending upon software
for very basic tasks of communication, education and work. The grade of
dependency is generally lower in the Southern world today. But if the
digital literacy and inclusion projects show the intended effect, the
dependency will be as high, potentially even higher, as many areas aim to
skip the intermediate steps of analog infrastructure and directly enter
the digital world.
Much of this interaction with and dependency upon software remains
unreflected and in fact unnoticed -- fulfilling a prediction that
Professor Weizenbaum of MIT made many years ago. Unless sitting in front
of a physical machine explicitly marked as "Computer", the majority of
users will often remain unaware of using software. A common example for
this are mobile phones. With the trend towards ambient computing, this
effect is likely to increase.
While access to software determines our ability to participate in a
digital society and governs our ability for communication, education and
work, software itself represents a reservoir of codified skill.
Software allows humankind to collectively refine and exercise sets of
codified skills that most of the individuals do not possess.
An example are graphical applications, which in the scope of complex
image editing make complex mathematical transformations like Fast Fourier
Transformation (FFT) available to everyone capable of understanding the
applications' menu symbols.
While the issues of software are centrally connected to many of the
issues discussed during the World Summit on the Information Society, the
lack of awareness on all sides for software as the cultural technique of
the digital age often complicated the situation.
<h3>Clash of the software models</h3>
While most governments often see software from a purely economic
perspective, some large industrial players have begun understanding the
amount of political power embedded in it. By propertizing the software,
they gain almost absolute control over the users -- be they private
people, other companies or governments -- and the rules these have to
Proprietary software always remains under control of the licensor of the
software, not the user. And in a networked world, that control can even
be remotely exercised -- independent of whether the user of the software
is an individual or a government.
That dependency on proprietary software is infectious.
Protocols are kept secret, standards are being broken. These protocols
are not secret because they are valuable, they draw their value from
being secret. The company Microsoft poses a very good example for both
cases, as the
<a href="/activities/ms-vs-eu/ms-vs-eu.html">European Commission antitrust
and the
<a href="">modification
of the Kerberos standard</a>
have shown.
The countermodel to proprietary software is based on breaking that
dependency and putting an equal amount of power into the hands of all
people. It is defined by four fundamental freedoms: the freedom of
unlimited use for any purpose, the freedom to study, the freedom to
modify and the freedom to distribute the software both in original and
modified form.
The original name for this model is
<a href="/freesoftware/freesoftware.html">Free Software</a>.
It is sometimes also referred to as &quot;Open Source&quot;, a marketing
synonym proposed in 1998 to attract venture capital that is frequently
abused these days to sell proprietary software under the guise of Free
Other synonyms frequently encountered are "FOSS" -- for "Free and Open
Source Software" -- and "FLOSS" -- for "Free, Libre and Open Source
Software" -- which, besides being redundant terms, seek to spread the
ideology that software should not be seen as a political issue.
As all these are synonyms and in the interest of clarity, this paper is
using the original term, Free Software.
<h3>Free Software at WSIS</h3>
The Free Software groups became truly involved in the WSIS during the
<a href="/activities/wsis/debriefing-paris.html">Intersessional Meeting in
Paris in July 2003</a>.
At this point, the proprietary software advocates had almost succeeded in
eliminating the political issues around software from the documents by
portraying them as a purely technical choice of software development.
Within Civil Society, software issues were part of the
<a href="">Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks
(PCT) Working Group</a>,
which centrally dealt with all issues around
<a href="/activities/wsis/issues.html">intellectual poverty as well as
equal and inclusive access to software, the digital cultural
In a concerted effort between the PCT working group and a handful of
governments, most notably Brazil, it was possible to put an end to
further erosion of software issues from the documents and revert the
This positive trend continued in the following Preparatory Committee
Conferences, during which Free Software and Patents, Copyrights and
Trademarks (PCT) were among the most controversial issues.
While there was still a dialog going on within Civil Society to explain
the <a href="/activities/wsis/fs.html">connection of Free Software to
other fundamental issues of Civil Society during the WSIS</a>,
in a motion coordinated by the PCT working group, global Civil Society
took a strong position for the WSIS to take a
<a href="/activities/wsis/ps-20030923.html">clear position on the software
issue in general and Free Software in particular</a>:
<p class="indent">
&quot;Software is the medium of and structuring entity for the digital
domain. The information age will rest upon it. Having been denounced as a
technical development model, Free Software is much more than that. It is
a paradigm that secures equal chances and freedom for governments,
economy and civil society alike. It provides a truly sustainable model
for all areas of society, bringing back competition and furthering
innovation for a prosperous and inclusive information and knowledge
society for all.&quot;
and later
<a href="/activities/wsis/cs-benchmarks-03-11-14.html">chose Free Software
as one of its essential benchmarks</a>:
<p class="indent">
&quot;Software is the cultural technique of the digital age and access to
it determines who may participate in a digital world. Free Software with
its freedoms of use for any purpose, studying, modification and
redistribution is an essential building block for an empowering,
sustainable and inclusive information society. No software model should
be forbidden or negatively regulated, but Free Software should be
promoted for its unique social, educational, scientific, political and
economic benefits and opportunities.&quot;
Despite the massive presence of proprietary software support from both
industry and several governments, in particular the United States and
several European Union states, such as the UK, this made it impossible to
deny the political consequences and impact of software.
In the finally adopted version, both the Declaration of Principles and
the Plan of Action have adopted the denomination of 'software model' and
the Plan of Action asks all governments to
<a href="/activities/wsis/debriefing-geneva.html">"Encourage research and
promote awareness among all stakeholders of the possibilities offered
by different software models, [...]"</a>
<h3>After WSIS</h3>
Free Software gained much political visibility during WSIS, but while
Civil Society has adopted it widely as a principle, many organisations
still use proprietary software themselves. The effect of this practice on
developing countries has never been subject of deep research, but seeral
consequences are to be expected.
The psychological damage of organisations telling others to follow
policies that they ignore themselves can be considerable. Especially in
Southern countries, this can easily create the impression of a policy
trying to satisfy people with breadcrumbs while keeping the more valuable
things to themselves. That would be tragic, as the opposite is indeed
More severely, by showing to use proprietary software themselves or even
advocating use of proprietary software in Southern countries,
organisations can involuntarily destroy the effect of their work.
While trying to rid Southern countries from dependency on the North and
strengthening democracy, they do the opposite. To gain a seeming
short-term improvement of the situation, they create strong mid-term
dependencies for participation in the Information Society.
That is why Sergio Amadeu da Silveira, president of the National
Information Technology Institute (ITI) in Brasil likened the proprietary
software model to that of drug dealers -- the first shot is gratis.
So while much progress has been made, there is still need for further
development on all sides: Governments, Industry and Civil Society. As is
already inherent in the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action,
all sides will need to develop a practice of evaluating the political,
social and economic side of software along with its technological
To uphold their political independence and democratic basis, Governments
will need to make deliberate efforts to further economic and social
empowerment based on commercial and non-commercial Free Software. To
protect their commercial interests, Industry based on and active in Free
Software will need to provide a counterweight to proprietary software
voices. And to maintain its credibility, Civil Society will need to
consistently use Free Software as well as advocate it.
<p class="indent">
<strong>This article was published in:</strong><br />
ICT Task Force Series 8 (2005):<br />
The World Summit on the Information Society -- Moving from the Past into
the Future.<br />
Opening Statement by Kofi Annan, Preface by Yoshio Utsumi<br />
Edited by Daniel Stauffacher and Wolfgang Kleinwächter
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