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<title>Internet Governance Forum (IGF) - Sovereign Software, by Georg Greve</title>
<h1>Sovereign Software</h1>
<h2>Open Standards, Free Software, and the Internet</h2><br />
<div align="right">
<a href="/about/people/greve/greve.html">Georg C.F. Greve</a><br />
Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), President<br />
written for <a href="" target="_blank">substantial contributions to the first IGF</a>
[<a href="SovereignSoftware.pdf">PDF Version, 91k</a>]
<p>Software issues are issues of power and fundamentally shape the
societies we are living in. Even to those who had not followed digital
policy issues before this became increasingly evident throughout the
<a href="/activities/wsis/">United Nations World Summit on the
Information Society (WSIS)</a>. Two fundamental questions characterise
this battlefield: Who controls your data? Who controls your
<p>The first question generally revolves around Open Standards, and in
particular how they should be defined and upheld. All players in the
field speak out in favor of Open Standards, but some wish that term to
be understood in ways that they still control your data and retain the
power to lock out competitors at will.</p>
<p>The second question has been one of the key controversies throughout
the WSIS, it was highly controversial during the WGIG, and remains
controversial throughout the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This
issue is one of software models, of proprietary vs Free Software, and
has been oddly polarised between for-profit and non-profit in the WSIS
<p>This may have been due to the specific situation that mainly the largest
proprietary software multinational followed the WSIS intensively while
the large multinational vendors of Free Software generally did not
participate and were thus not represented in the CCBI. [<a name="ref1" href="#1">1</a>]</p>
<h2>Open Standards</h2>
<p>Having been preached as commonplace statement in the information
technology industry for many years already, Open Standards only
recently made their entry into the center stage of public policy. One
of the places where this happened was during the WSIS, and will be of
major importance for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). But why are
Open Standards so important?</p>
<h3>Background on formats</h3>
<p>All computers store and transmit information in encoded form. These
used to be very simple representations where certain numerical values
stand for a certain character, for instance. And while their
complexity has been increasing steadily with the power and complexity
of computers, certain basic rules always apply.</p>
<p>The first important rule is that any such choice of encoding is an
arbitrary, and not a natural choice. The number 33 may represent the
letter 'a' or 'z' depending on the convention for this standard. There
is no right way of doing this, there are only possible ways.</p>
<p>The second important rule is that once data has been encoded in a
certain format, it can only be read by software that implements this
format, and implements it exactly. Even slight deviations from the
conventions of the format will easily cause massive data corruption. A
common and mostly harmless form of this is lost or broken formatting
in text processing software. In the worst case the data will be
<h3>Formats and market failure</h3>
<p>From a market point of view, such a situation generally brings about
market failure: Customers who saved their data in one format quickly
find themselves unable to choose another vendor that was not able to
implement the same format, or unable to implement it well enough. If
the only way to migrate is to lose years of data there is a very
effective vendor lock-in that practically makes it impossible to
choose software according to its merits.</p>
<p>Additionally, strong network effects dominate today's computer world.
If a company invested heavily into a desktop infrastructure in the
past and this infrastructure uses certain communication protocols,
they find themselves faces with two alternatives: Get only such
software that implements these protocols perfectly or write off the
investment and replace the entire infrastructure, obviously at a high
additional investment.</p>
<p>A third party vendor that wishes to enter this market is faced with a
situation similar to someone finding themselves in a room of people
speaking a foreign language, with no dictionary and syntactic help
available. Human languages are collections of arbitrary decisions just
like computer formats and protocols. There is no inherent natural
reason to call a table a table, or call a chair a chair. For someone
not speaking that language and without a dictionary or at least
someone willing to explain the language it becomes very hard to
<p>In information technology, some people have been able to divine
information about such protocols and file formats merely by watching
others use that language. This is called protocol analysis and has
helped mitigate the negative influences of the systematics above
somewhat.[<a name="ref2" href="#2">2</a>] It
is also the reason why some dominant vendors start inserting
cryptography into their protocols, preventing further protocol
analysis in the future.</p>
<h3>Public Policy implications</h3>
<p>All of this is obviously a major concern for public policy for various
reasons and has been discussed in various fora, e.g. the Danish
parliament for its motion <b>B
103</b>[<a name="3" href="ref3">3</a>]
in which the following reasons are elaborated.</p>
<h4>Healthy procurement policy</h4>
<p>It is obviously not sustainable to make investments that will become
subject to the effects explained above. There is virtually no market
and a single vendor is in the position to vitiate the entire
investment. As this is not in line with the principles of efficient
and sustainable procurement by the public sector, such situations have
to be avoided.</p>
<h4>Protect democracy from networking effects</h4>
<p>The same networking effects that were described above take place when
the software needs to communicate with citizens. Only citizens that
choose the one vendor implementing that proprietary protocol would
then be able to communicate with their administration, violating the
basic principle of citizens being able to freely communicate with
their governments. Using proprietary formats and protocols would
instead force them into the same vicious cycle of investment and
increasing stakes explained above.</p>
<h4>Ensure open competition</h4>
<p>Such a situation is obviously contrary to the principles of
open competition and markets and will quickly bring issues of market
concentration and stifling of innovation. As this is contrary to the
goals of any government, governmental procurement should support open
and competitive markets.</p>
<h4>Merging effects, ensuring accessibility</h4>
<p>In the scope of more efficient administration, many municipalities and
different parts of administration are starting to pool resources. If
this is attempted with proprietary formats, it usually means that
unless all parts have already been using the same software,
significant investments by one or several of the administrations would
be lost.</p>
<p>Also all of this will have to take into account the rights of people
with disabilities, who may have special requirements in software that
the implementation of that proprietary format may not meet. In this
situation there will be no possibility for people with disabilities to
communicate with their governmental services.</p>
<h4>Commercial-political perspectives</h4>
<p>Ultimately there are strong political issues with storage of data in
proprietary formats. What if those data become inaccessible in the
future due to problems with that particular vendor? Can a government
really rely blindly and without alternative on the goodwill of any
singular commercial entity?</p>
<h4>Long term commercial aspects</h4>
<p>Also, with all of the above, increasing choice and freedom to choose
in an open market will bring additional long-term commercial benefits.</p>
<h3><a name="os" />What is an Open Standard?</h3>
<p>There are various definitions for what should or should not be
considered an Open Standard. The aforementioned Danish motion
describes it as:</p>
<li>well documented with its full specification publically available</li>
<li>freely implementable without economically, politically or legal
limitations on implementation and use, and </li>
<li>standardized and maintained in an open forum (a so-called standards organisation) through an open process.</li>
<p>This is relatively similar to the definition of an Open Standard by
the European Commission in its European Interoperability
Framework.[<a name="ref4" href="4">4</a>]</p>
<p>Both these definitions were criticised by the vendors that profit
commercially from the dependency cycles explained above, as well as
organisations representing their interest. The usual argumentation for
this criticism is generally oriented along the lines of patents that
were granted on such a format or protocol, and for which the patent
holder might choose to generate license revenue. The euphemism du jour
for this is usually ''Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory'' (RAND)
<p>This is but a euphemism because patents are by their nature limited
monopolies granted by law to a single entity. This entity will always
have the upper hand in any dispute, and indeed there are plenty of
stories about formats and protocols that are theoretically known, but
remain proprietary due to patent issues.</p>
<p>That all other vendors not holding this patent are put in an equally
bad position may indeed seem non-discriminatory, but it does not
fundamentally change the balance of power of the situation.</p>
formats and protocols are fundamentally arbitrary in nature, but must
be followed precisely for the data that was stored in them to be
<h3>Open Standards in practice</h3>
<p>In theory, the definitions of the European Union or the Danish
parliament would be sufficient to define an Open Standard. In practice
things have proven to be more complicated because the situation with
proprietary formats described above is immensely profitable for the
vendor in control of that software.</p>
<p>So ultimately, a proprietary vendor with a certain amount of market
penetration has an economic incentive to violate the Open Standard and
turn it into a de-facto proprietary one. This indeed has happened
repeatedly in history. The European Commission antitrust investigation
against Microsoft provides testimony to how deviating from an Open
Standard (CIFS, the ''Common Internet File System'') allowed Microsoft
to leverage its desktop monopoly into near total dominance on the
workgroup server market. This has proven so profitable that Microsoft
appears more inclined to pay billions in fines than to stop this
practice.[<a name="ref5" href="#5">5</a>]</p>
<p>Often this is also done by slightly changing the implementation in
ways that are hard to pinpoint or can be debated within the limits of
human interpretation, but make sure that the implementations of other
vendors will not integrate flawlessly anymore. The economic incentive
for this is huge for proprietary players that bypass a certain
threshold in size.</p>
<h3>How to maintain an Open Standard</h3>
<p>The only way to prevent this sort of thing seems to add one more
criterion to the definitions above: ''The standard must have at least
one Free Software implementation and all implementations that seek to
be compliant with the Open Standard must be regularly tested against
the Free Software implementation(s), which act as the common reference
<p>Because Free Software[<a name="ref6" href="#6">6</a>] is, inter
alia, defined by the freedom to study its implementation, this allows
all players in the market to study the common reference base not only
in specification language, but also in language, and regular tests
against that base can help curb deviations from the Open Standard.</p>
<p>Free Software also provides the freedoms of use, modification and
distribution, therefore most vendors can also simply include that
implementation in their own software, further reducing
interoperability barriers.</p>
<p>So while there is in theory no connection between Open Standards and
Free Software, in practice Free Software becomes a necessary component
to maintain an Open Standards against economic incentive to
propertise or deviate from an Open Standard.</p>
<h3>Open Standards and the WSIS/IGF</h3>
<p>A good example for this is the internet. Before the internet became
what it is today there were various different attempts to establish
something similar. Why did the internet succeed? Because the
implementations of basic internet protocols such as TCP/IP were Free
Software and therefore equally available to all.</p>
<p>The World Wide Web repeated this story when Tim Berners-Lee waived all
patents on the protocols and formats, and they were implemented in
Free Software. More than 60% of the world's web sites run on Apache,
one of several Free Software web servers.</p>
<p>Sadly enough, the language on Open Standards adopted in the WSIS and
subsequently carrying into the IGF would not be sufficient to build
something like the internet. Formats and protocols going by that
definition would be subject to all the effects elaborated above.</p>
<p>So it is important that the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) now goes
beyond this insufficient language and works out true international
consensus that will protect the internet from ''propertisation creep''
in all its protocols and formats. Open Standards are an essential
building block of the internet -- they must be maintained for the
internet to not fall victim to a tower of babel syndrome.</p>
<h2>Free Software</h2>
<p>The practical connection between Free Software and Open
Standards has already been elaborated, but there are other, genuine
Free Software issues that have no direct connection with Open
Standards. These are issues of software model and ultimately of
control over your own computer.</p>
<p>Free Software is software that gives all users and developers the
following four freedoms:</p>
<li>The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.</li>
<li>The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.</li>
<li>The freedom to make and redistribute copies.</li>
<li>The freedom to improve the program, and release improvements.</li>
<p>It is important to note that any of these activities can be
commercial, indeed there are large international companies for which
Free Software is a very profitable business, IBM, SUN, HP and others
among them.[<a name="ref7" href="#7">7</a>]</p>
<h3>The difference of software models</h3>
<p>So commerciality is not the dividing line between proprietary and Free
Software. In the ultimate abstraction the issue of software models
comes down to one fundamental question: Who has control over the
software that runs your computer?</p>
<p>With proprietary software, that is always and exclusively the
proprietor of the software. The owner of the computer generally gets
some usage permissions for certain purposes, but these can usually be
revoked and the user never owns or controls the software in any
meaningful sense. With Free Software, the user is put in charge and
control of their own software.</p>
<p>This shift in power from ''one over everyone else'' to ''everyone over
themselves'' fundamentally affects how national economy, enterprises,
science, education, politics and society as a whole works. A full
elaboration of these issues would be beyond the scope of this paper,
so it will focus on a few selected issues of governance and
<h3>An issue of control</h3>
<p>Although this may seem like an obviously falsehood, there is
widespread common belief that the user controls their computer. In
reality, it is only the software that actually controls the computer,
taking some hints from the user if so programmed. This is an important
fundamental distinction, because it makes clear that only by
controlling the software can users control what their computer
actually does.</p>
<p>There are plenty of examples of software doing things secretly, and
without the knowledge of the user. One recent example includes a piece
of software that comes with SONY CDs and informs SONY every time that
CD is played, and on which machine. All of this happened without
visible signs on the computer, and without any information for or
agreement by the user. Indeed, the user was falsely informed by SONY
that this did <b>not</b> happen until someone was able to prove them
wrong.[<a name="ref8" href="#8">8</a>]</p>
<p>Similar stories exist for various other proprietary software
solutions, including collaboration and conferencing software that was
allegedly safe and highly encrypted and most likely used by
governments for confidential activities around the world.</p>
<p>Because there is no way to know for sure what your software does
unless you have full control over it, the German Agency for Security
in Information Technology (BSI) has a recommendation for Free
Software.[<a name="ref9" href="#9">9</a>] Indeed, the German embassies
around the world are networked with the German government through Free
Software, using the GNU/Linux based SINA box.[<a name="ref10"
href="#10">10</a>] </p>
<h3>Issues of political mandate</h3>
<p>Even though there has been considerable movement on the issue, Open
Standards in public administration are still the rare exception. And
in the proprietary world, which is still the norm in many governments,
generally only one vendor can provide software that will be able to
access those data and processes. So effectively much of public
administration and governmental processes are controlled by software
which in turn is controlled by only one vendor that the government has
no meaningful control over.</p>
<p>Free Software is the only way to ensure that governments actually
control their own data and processes, including critical
infrastructures. Free Software also avoids the aforementioned
"propertisation creep" on Open Standards: There is no profit in this,
as generally any vendor can choose to supply or maintain that
<b>Only Free Software is ever truly Sovereign Software.</b>
<h4>Free Software and the WSIS/WGIG/IGF</h4>
<p>Free Software and the internet go hand in hand. It was Free Software
that critical to making the internet possible, and indeed Free
Software continues to shape and run the internet. At the same time,
Free Software and its representatives has been all but excluded from
the WGIG and the IGF processes thus far.</p>
<p>If the Internet Governance Forum is to become a truly inclusive forum
to discuss internet related issues, Free Software and its
representatives should be included in all relevant fora and all
political levels of the IGF. Otherwise there is a possibility that the
people who actually continue to build the internet will simply take
their discussions elsewhere.</p>
<hr />
<p class="footnote">
[<a name="1" href="#ref1">1</a>] Some people see the two issues connected, other argue they should
always be treated separately. As will become clear later on, the two
issues are indeed not connected in theory, but have a connection in
practice. In order to understand this, it is important to consider
them isolated and individually first.</p>
<p class="footnote">
[<a name="2" href="#ref2">2</a>] This is how OpenOffice (<a
href=""></a>) came
to its ability to generally read most documents written with Microsoft
Word, for instance, or how the Samba (<a
href=""></a>) software became
able to replace large parts of the functionality of Microsoft
workgroup servers.</p>
<p class="footnote">
[<a name="3" href="#ref3">3</a>]
<a href=""></a></p>
<p class="footnote">
[<a name="4" href="#ref4">4</a>]
<a href=""></a>
<p class="footnote">
[<a name="5" href="#ref5">5</a>]
<a href="/activities/ms-vs-eu/"></a>
<p class="footnote"> [<a name="6" href="#ref6">6</a>] For a full and
concise definition of Free Software please consult the ''<a
href="/activities/wipo/fser.html">Free Software Essentials
Reference</a>'' also supplied in the <a
contributions</a> to the IGF.</p>
<p class="footnote"> [<a name="7" href="#ref7">7</a>]
A more complete and elaborate definition of Free
Software and a clarification of the most common misunderstandings is
available on the ''<a href="/activities/wipo/fser.html">Free Software Essentials Reference</a>'' sheet also in
the substantial contributions to the IGF.</p>
<p class="footnote"> [<a name="8" href="#ref8">8</a>]
<a href=",1848,69601,00.html">,1848,69601,00.html</a></p>
<p class="footnote"> [<a name="9" href="#ref9">9</a>]
<a href=""></a></p>
<p class="footnote"> [<a name="10" href="#ref10">10</a>]
<a href=""></a></p>
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