Subscribe to the Free Software Supporter — the monthly update from the Free Software Foundation
 [image of a Brave GNU World]
Brave GNU World - Issue #58
Copyright © 2003 Georg C. F. Greve <greve@gnu.org>
Permission statement below.

[DE | EN FR | JA | ES | KO | PT]

Welcome to another issue of the Brave GNU World, this time entirely in the context of the recently conducted World Summit on the Information Society. As such summits on a United Nations level don't happen very often and generally only once on a specific topic, it seems reasonable to give this a little more space. The last part will be a contribution to the discussion on the social understanding of software and an attempt to come closer to its essence.

Review of the world summit

From December 10th until 12th 2003, the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society took place in Geneva, Switzerland. Based upon the reports and information in the last issues of the Brave GNU World, this issue will give one summary of what has been accepted by the UNO as consensus for the information society and what this means for global power distribution.

New politics?

The "World Summit on the Information Society" (WSIS) [5] has given itself two perspectives. One of them was to deal with global information societies, the other was to come to a new understanding for "global governance."

A central issue in this regard is a percieved separation of the government from the function of governance. Was governance originally exclusively a function of governments, ideally legitimized by the peoples, the global context shows a disassociation of this direct connection. It appears that governance is really a function of a network with multiple actors.

Currently, these actors are usually summarized in one of three groups: government, private sector or civil society. This of course raises the question of how such a network should be designed, not only because the actors are quite different.

Governments are (in an ideal world) legitimized by their people and are elected to represent them and act in their best interest. Since countries are generally identified by their geographical borders, governments naturally have a very strong geographic, regional component.

This geographical component is not as strong for private sector and civil society, since both are essentially free to choose their geographical area of action. Both groups have actors of any imaginable geographical scale.

The private sector is endebted to its own survival and profit, which it seeks either at the expense or for the benefit of society, depending on the individual company. In this, private sector is not self-sustaining. By customer decisions to prefer one company over another, which has behaved less ethical in the past, or by similar decisions of employees to not work for certain corporations, society does have an influence on the private sector outside politics. But as this is rarely excerted and only rarely consciously used, it cannot serve as political legitimation.

Civil Society is the organized form of political movements within society. Without seeking profit, Civil Society organizations pursue certain goals, its actors coming from all areas of society, including governments and private sector.

Without profit, Civil Society organizations are usually dependent on support by governments, private sector and/or people in general. This support often takes the form of direct voluntary work or indirect voluntary work through donations. (see issue #46 of the Brave GNU World [6]).

The amount of supports determines about the action potential of a Civil Society organization. This is an important factor to understanding the legitimation of Civil Society in the political process, as its organizations only can only really claim to represent their members. The main legitimation for Civil Society is its work.

If you work with this separation into three parts, the question of how to distribute competence and influence arises immediately. At a closer look, it becomes obvious that the private sector often has a very strong permanent influence on politics, which is not legitimized and often unmonitored. But this depends a lot on the size of the companies. The larger a corporation, the more influence it has -- small companies often have no influence whatsoever. All the more so since the industry associations that claim to speak in their name are usually reigned by the large corporations.

Es for instance the debate on the introduction of software patents in Europe has shown, this is particularly problematic within Europe. The voice of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) was mostly ignored although they provide the vast majority of Europes economic power. Their only way to take influence was through Civil Society, the work of which they supported ideally and substantially.

All the while, the influence of Civil Society is often rather small, while its competence on the specific areas is often larger than that of governments or private sector. That is why Civil Society is often asked for advice by both governments and private sector, usually without hard means of influence, though. So Civil Society is always in danger of being abused as fig leaf.

Tripartism?

In this sometimes difficult field, the world summit sought to make significant progress and claimed the labels of "multi-stakeholder approach" and "tripartism" for itself, so it claimed to have involved all parties and allowed them participation on equal grounds.

It has to be conceded that steps in this direction have been taken and the display of political will is very much appreciated, but we also have to realize that up to and in Geneva, there was no "tripartism." After the preparatory process showed an erratic pattern of involving and excluding Civil Society from working groups, Civil Society was more or less decoration during the summit itelf.

A couple of small shacks were provided as offices for Civil society, in which there was insufficient supply of printers, photocopiers and -- ironically -- network access. No adequate room was reserved for the Civil Society plenary assembly, the most important body of Civil Society.

Even the speakers in the name of Civil Society during the summit ceremony were not determined by Civil Society itself. Within the Civil Society self-organized structures, a difficult and work-intensive process led to the generation of a list of speakers that was then submitted. But when Civil Society was informed December 1st about its speaker list, it had to realize that the summit secretariat had arbitrarily replaced two thirds of the names with other people -- some of them unknown throughout the process, one of them a mayor of a city.

In many ways is this exemplary for the process and only for lack of time and under the imminent danger of undermining the authority and message of the speakers has Civil Society decided not to impose any sanctions.

On the side of Switzerland, the Civil Society counter-summit, which had been planned, announced and for which rooms had been booked a long time before, was shut down by Geneva riot police on the day before the summit. The legal pretense was a violation of the terms of usage in the contract, which was changed to fire code violation when the landlord showed up and confirmed that the rooms were rented for that purpose.

But there were also positive developments, like for instance the meetings between Civil Society and the European Union. Several governmental representatives -- including those of Germany and other EU countries -- were pushing for stronger involvement of Civil Society and the partial opening of the processes that has taken place is to a significant extent a result of this.

So as far as the procedural part goes, it can be said that steps forward have been taken, which should be acknowledged, at the same time there is still a long road to go to a true and full involvement in the sense of "tripartism."

Assessment of the documents

Since the "Declaration of Principles" and "Plan of Action" for the Information Society have now been adopted by the governments at the UN summit, an analysis in relation to Free Software and related topics seems called for.

The global knowledge

Centrally connected to the topic of Free Software is the issue of global access to and control over knowledge. Currently, the vast majority of humankind has no access to its accumulated knowledge. As explained in other issues of the Brave GNU World, this is largely an effect of the legislation around limited intellectual monopolies (often misnamed "intellectual property", see issue #56 [7]).

Relatively early in the Principles you'll find §24, which says: "The ability for all to access and contribute information, ideas and knowledge is essential in an inclusive Information Society." So the empowerment for partaking in the global knowledge is acknowledged as essential.

But in order to be able to evaluate this, it is important to take a good look at the paragraph dealing with the monopolization rights, which has been among the most debated in the process. In fact the paragraph has seen significant change in the last weeks before the summit because of pressure by Brazil and other southern countries.

Under the very special number 42 the Declaration of Principles now states: "Intellectual Property protection is important to encourage innovation and creativity in the Information Society; similarly, the wide dissemination, diffusion, and sharing of knowledge is important to encourage innovation and creativity. Facilitating meaningful participation by all in intellectual property issues and knowledge sharing through full awareness and capacity building is a fundamental part of an inclusive Information Society."

Although the paragraph should be criticised for using misleading "intellectual property"-terminology and its very soft wording, two things are remarkable. For one the dissemination and sharing of knowledge are explicitly mentioned -- which is quite unusual. And secondly the international treaties are not reenforced, in fact not even mentioned.

This opens the door for a new orientation of the "World Intellectual Property Organization" (WIPO) away from the single-minded expansion of monopolization in its own right to a reform of the system. That such a new orientation isn't explicitly put out of question is already a step forward in comparison to prior positions which categorically refused to discuss the topic at all.

Although the step forward is miniscule, it goes in the right direction and others will hopefully follow in the next years.

Open Standards

As far as standardization is concerned, there has been no change since the last issue. Althought the summit found clear words to emphasize its importance, the documents don't further open standards. The current wording of "open, interoperable, non-discriminatory and demand- driven standards" still allows for the common proprietary pseudo-standards.

Standards could only be truly open when they are "freely implementable" and "publicly documented." But even though Civil Society has repeatedly asked for this, it wasn't heard. So there was no progress for standardization.

Free Software

Fortunately the situation looks better for Free Software. Because of the pressure excerted by the United States of America and its allies it was always clear that no recommendation for Free Software was possible. But they were also not successful in eliminating it from the documents as they had hoped.

The final version talks about promoting awareness for different software models. Two things are important and positive about this.

The Free Software Foundation has always seen creation of awareness as one of its main goals for a good reason. It was never our goal to force people to use Free Software -- because when people use Free Software without understanding the background, they will quickly give up their freedom again and switch to proprietary software.

If you have awareness for the advantages and implications of this choice, you won't easily give up your freedom and insist on using Free Software. Creation of awareness is the most important basic task to spread Free Software -- and furthering that awareness is exactly what has been agreed upon during the summit.

Of course one could have hoped that governments already had that awareness and would therefore agree upon stronger wordings in favor of Free Software, but realizing the necessity to learn more about a topic is already a very important step.

The second component is the classification of proprietary and Free Software as "software models," not "software development models." Although it seems a small difference, this wording acknowledges that the choice between Free and non-Free Software is not exclusively technical.

While development models for software are purely technical, the term of software model is broader and also allows taking into account the political, economical, scientific and social components.

The UNO has now taken into its official figures of speech that the choice between proprietary and Free Software is not only one of technical nature and quality of software.

Microsoft unhappy?

It was most likely because of these good developments in the fields of limited intellectual monopolies and Free Software that the grapevine had it that Microsoft was quite unhappy about the official governmental declarations; especially since they have apparently given the U.S. delegation clear instructions to remove any mention of Free Software from the documents.

So although there is no reason to pop the champaigne, we can await the next steps calm at heart. Now it will be the next step to make that UNO declaration -- which was adopted by all UN countries -- known on the local levels and ask for implementation of these policies. If you wish to get some more details, you can find them in the debriefing for Geneva [8] on the FSF Europe home page.

So there is still a lot of work waiting to be done.

Perspective

Regarding the further perspective of the summit (the second part will take place November 16th to 18th 2005 in Tunis), it will be less abstract and fundamental issue oriented and leaning more towards concrete work and implementation .

As far as Free Software is concerned, it will be necessary to root it firmly in the network of international Civil Society, as these are active in very different thematic areas all around the globe and often pursue similar goals -- they are our natural allies.

Software as cultural technique

Among the most interesting discussions in the recent past, particularly during the summit, was the question of how to classify software and its influence on society. Especially the issue of software as "cultural technique" led to an interesting dialog.

Generally, cultural technique are skills or sets of skills that are related to a certain cultural development. Classical cultural techniques are reading, writing, algebra, but also farming, which encompasses a large group of skills.

In relation to software, many people talk about knowing how to use it being a cultural technique, something often summarized as "media competency" -- although that term appears to be seeing some inflationary usage for many things including the weaknesses of traditional print media and a critical view of information sources.

The argument in this context is usually based upon the classification of software as a product similar to a book, which is related to the cultural techniques of reading and writing. The perception of software as a product is certainly related to the thinking structures put forward by the proprietary software paradigm, because only if these structures are widely spread can the proprietary license model find the acceptance of the user. As frequent readers of the column will most likely know by now, the model of thinking of Free Software is decoupled from such product orientation -- it is the performance, the benefit, the service that becomes basis of the economic transaction.

More abstract, the equalization with books turns a blind eye on the fundamental differences between software and books. Traditional books are pure transport media, they are passive and the thoughts contained in them only come back to life when they are read by a human being and incorporated into that beings' thought process. Never does a book become active on its own or serves autonomously as extension of the action potential of humans. This is quite different for software.

In fact software is often referred to as "frozen service," a view that is already somewhat detached from the product view and already gets much closer to what software really is. If we allow ourselves to not be too fixated on the conrete question at hand, we'll realize the computer as an incredibly sophisticated tool -- possibly the most complex tool ever in the history of humankind.

Its complexity allows us to transfer our skills into the tool. Viewed from the perspective of humankind, that tool allows us to excert abstract skills -- even those we do not possess ourselves -- and improve them collectively.

If you take for example the mathematical operation of Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), which allows transducing signals into frequency space. Most humans will most likely not possess the personal skill to perform that transformation. But when that skill is transferred into a computer, it becomes accessible to everyone with access to a computer.

Software is the shape that our skills take when we transfer them into a computer. So an even more fitting view of software would be that of "frozen skill."

Which means that software itself is skill in a special form, the usage, maintenance and creation of which requires personal skills, which also belong to the area of the cultural technique that is software.

Even though the social understanding of and for the effects of software is still very rudimental, this seems to get much closer to the core than other assessments.

Enough for now

That should be enough for this month, I hope that the often rather intransparent processes of global politics in general and the world summit in particular have become a little more transparent to you with the last issues. Maybe they even provided a few new perspectives.

I'd also like to apologize for the gap in publication of the Brave GNU World on its home page [3]. As savannah [9] was affected by similar problems to the Debian servers, updating the pages was not possible for a long time. I hope that the publication on the web will happen more smoothly again in 2004.

Other than that I can only ask for comments, ideas, suggestions via email [1] -- especially as far as projects go the column is intended to be an interactive medium. So should you have (discovered) an interesting project, please let me know.

Info
[1] Send ideas, comments and questions to Brave GNU World <column@brave-gnu-world.org>
[2] Home page of the GNU Project http://www.gnu.org/
[3] Home page of Georg's Brave GNU World http://brave-gnu-world.org
[5] Weltgipfel zur Informationsgesellschaft: http://www.wsis.org
[6] Brave GNU World - Ausgabe #46: http://brave-gnu-world.org/issue-46.de.html
[7] Brave GNU World - Ausgabe #56: http://brave-gnu-world.org/issue-56.de.html
[8] Debriefing für den Gipfel: http://www.germany.fsfeurope.org/projects/wsis/debriefing-geneva.html
[9] Savannah: http://savannah.gnu.org

[ previous issue | Brave GNU World home ]

Return to GNU's home page.

Please send FSF & GNU inquiries & questions to gnu@gnu.org.
There are also other ways to contact the FSF.

Please send comments on Georg's Brave GNU World (in English or German) to column@gnu.org,
send comments on these web pages to webmasters@www.gnu.org,
send other questions to gnu@gnu.org.

Copyright (C) 2004 Georg C. F. Greve

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this transcript as long as the copyright and this permission notice appear.

Last modified: Fri Jan 16 13:31:34 CET 2004