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Shaping Collaborative ICT Development and Initiatives for Global Prosperity

by Robert J. Chassell

[From a presentation given at the Second Global Knowledge Conference
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 7 March 2000.]

The title of this presentation is ‘Shaping Collaborative ICT Development and Initiatives for Global Prosperity’ and the themes of this conference are ‘access’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘governance’.

What I want to do today is take one specific technology and talk about the way we have shaped that technology to make it accessible and empowering, how we have placed it in an economic and institutional framework that encourages people to work collaboratively, and how to use the technology for better governance.

The technology is software. The shaping has to do with copyright licensing terms — its legal and institutional framework.

As a founder of the Free Software Foundation, I have been working for 16 years with the legal and institutional framework in which we use and develop software. GNU/Linux, a complete software system, is the outcome of these efforts.

ICT, the information and communications technologies, are made up of hardware and software components. I am speaking here only of software. However, I hope we can extend our experience from this to other technologies.

When I speak of software, I am speaking both about the programs that run the computer, that is to say, the operating system, and about applications, such as electronic mail and other communications, spreadsheets, electronic commerce, writing tools, sending and receiving FAXes, Web site creation, engineering, research, mathematical computations, modeling, image manipulation, and networking.

Over the last few years, the prices of computer and telecommunications hardware have dropped to the point that many more people are using them. Indeed, our conference organizers estimate that as many as one out of every thirty people in the world have computer-based, online telecommunications access.

While one out of thirty is still a small portion of the world's population, this technology is popular, growing, and becoming more important in our daily lives. In addition, we expect that computer and telecommunications prices will continue to drop for at least another generation, so many who currently lack resources will eventually benefit.

As with any technology, software can be employed well or badly.

At the moment we see both. On the bad side, we see machines that crash unnecessarily, email messages that waste their recipients money, systems that are vulnerable to simple viruses, and programs that do only part of what you want.

The key to good use of software is to ensure freedom. In software, this leads to collaboration, lower prices, reliability, efficiency, security, and fewer barriers to entry and use.

For a good use of software technology, people must have the legal right to copy, study, modify, and redistribute it. All else flows from this.

GNU/Linux software gives people these rights. Programmers benefit, and more importantly, people who are not programmers benefit.

For example, people in an area with lousy or no telephone service can use a rugged package called UUCP for communications. I recently read of an Oxfam group that did this.

People with older machines, even with the very old 80386 chips, can run efficient programs that do as much as programs that require a modern Pentium chip and expensive memory. And they can use these machines as servers for Web pages and as routers — for communications' infrastructure.

People with just one computer can attach one or two additional terminals to it, and provide two or three seats in place of one, for very little extra cost. I have done this: a friend visited and we both wanted to work on my computer at the same time. Email, Web browsing, writing, remote system administration: we did all these at the same time.

A community group, or business, can set up its own mailing lists or news groups, private or public. The groupware is there. Two or more people can work on the same document at the same time, even if they are in different countries. The last time I did that, I was working with a fellow on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

What script do you want to write in? Hindi, Chinese, Thai? All these are possible, and in the same window as English or Cyrillic.

Individuals or groups can set up their own Web sites. A publisher can typeset his own books. An accountant can analyze a budget. Blind people can listen to text read out loud to them by the computer.

You can enjoy choosing among several graphic user interfaces, a fancy one, another that looks and behaves rather like Microsoft Windows, or a third, that is simple and practical.

Except for the blind person's speech generation, which requires audio that I never installed in my machine, every application I have just mentioned runs on my home computer. And people I know have installed audio and listen to it.

All these applications came on a CD-ROM that was, as it happens, given me at no charge. I have also paid for CDs with a different version of the software — sometimes it is more convenient just to buy. And if you have a fast Internet connection, you can readily download the software, paying only your connection costs.

This wealth of software is available and can be used anywhere in the world.

To return to the question of how this technology was shaped: the key, as I said, is freedom, the legal right to copy, study, modify, and redistribute the software.

The specific legal tool we used to create these freedoms and the resulting benefits is a specially drafted copyright license, the GNU General Public License.

This license gives you more rights than plain copyright does, and more rights than many other kinds of software license. In essence, it forbids you to forbid. It permits you to do everything else.

Let me go through this list of rights: copy, study, modify, and redistribute.

First, the right to copy.

Not many people own a factory that would enable them to copy a car. Indeed, to copy a car is so difficult that we use a different word, we speak of ‘manufacturing’ a car. And there are not many car manufacturers in the world. Far fewer than one in thirty people own or have ready access to a car factory.

But everyone with a computer owns a software factory, a device for manufacturing software, that is to say, for making new copies. Because copying software is so easy, we don't use the word ‘manufacturing’; we usually do not even think of it as a kind of manufacturing, but it is.

The right to copy software is the right to use your own means of production (if you will pardon my use of an expression that has gone out of fashion). Millions of people, a few percent of the world's population, own this means of production.

Naturally, there have been efforts to take away your rights to use your own property as a factory that you own.

Second, the right to study. This right is of little direct interest to people who are not programmers. It is like the right of a lawyer to read legal text books. Unless you are a lawyer, you probably wish to avoid such books.

However, this right to study has several implications, both for those who program and for everyone else.

The right to study means that people in places like Mexico, or India, or Malaysia can study the same code that people in Europe or the United States use. It means that these people are not kept from learning how others succeeded.

Bear in mind that many programmers work under restrictions that forbid them from seeing others' code. Rather than sit on the shoulders of those who went before, which is the best way to see ahead and to advance, they are thrown into the mud. The right to study is the right to look ahead, to advance, by sitting on the shoulders of giants.

Moreover, the right to study means that the software itself must be made available in a manner that humans can read.

Software comes in two forms, one readable only by computers and the other readable by people. The form that a computer can read is what the computer runs. This form is called a binary or executable. The form that a human can read is called source code. It is what a human programmer creates, and is translated by another computer program into the binary or executable form.

The next right, the right to modify, is the right to fix a problem or enhance a program. For most people, this means your right or your organization's right to hire someone to do the job for you, in much the same way you hire an auto mechanic to fix your car or a carpenter to extend your home.

Modification is helpful. Application developers cannot think of all the ways others will use their software. Developers cannot foresee the new burdens that will be put on their code. They cannot anticipate all the local conditions, whether someone in Malaysia will use a program first written in Finland.

Finally, of these legal rights, comes the right to redistribute.

This means that you, who own a computer, a software factory, have the right to make copies of a program and redistribute it. You can charge for these copies, or give them away. Others may do the same.

Of course, several existing, large software manufacturers want to forbid you from using your own property. They cannot win in a free market, so they attack in other ways. In the United States, for example, we see newly proposed laws to take away your freedom.

The right to redistribute, so long as it is defended and upheld, means that software is sold in a competitive, free market. This has several consequences. Low price is a consequence. This helps consumers.

But first and foremost, these legal and economic rights lead to collaboration, one of themes of this conference.

This outcome is contrary to many people's expectations. Few expect that in a competitive, free market, every producer will become more collaborative and that there will be no visible or felt competition among competing businessmen.

The more competitive a market, the more cooperation you see. This apparently counter-intuitive implication is both observed and inferred.

This is because people are not harmed by doing what they want to do. People like to help their neighbors.

Consider a small farmer, one among a million. My friend George, back in the United States, is one such.

His harvest is so small, that there is nothing he can do to effect the world price. His neighbor is in a similar situation.

Consequently, if George helps his neighbor, his neighbor benefits, and George himself loses nothing on the price he receives for his harvest.

Since George will not hurt himself, he has every other reason to help his neighbor. Not only is George kindly, he also recognizes that when he helps his neighbor, his neighbor is likely to return the favor.

This is what you see in a competitive free market: cooperation.

Visible competition indicates that the market is not fully free and competitive. Visible competition means that at most you have a semi-free market.

Moreover, and this benefits people who are not programmers, if software is sold in a free market, competition among vendors will lead to a lower price.

Put another way, the price of software is determined primarily by legal considerations: by the degree to which customers enjoy freedom. If customers are forbidden to buy a product except at a high price, and that prohibition is successfully enforced, the product will be expensive. This is what occurs with much proprietary software today.

On the other hand, if software is sold in a free market, competition among vendors will lead to a lower price.

Indeed, in some circumstances the cost will be so low that companies or other organizations will give away CD-ROMs containing the software; others will make copies for their friends; and yet others will provide downloads over the Internet at no charge.

This means that software itself, a necessary supporting part of a business or community project, will be both inexpensive and legal.

Think of this from the point of view of a small business or community supported group. The organization can use restricted-distribution, proprietary software, and either pay a lot of money it does not have, or break the law and steal it.

On the other hand, free software is inexpensive and legal. It is more accessible. It is also customizable in ways that restricted software often is not. This is empowering.

We shape the development of this technology, we create collaboration, through the use of a legal tool, a license, that gives you more rights than you would have otherwise, that forbids you to forbid, that in this case, gives you the right to copy, study, modify, and redistribute the software.

Because of the freedoms associated with it, this software is called ‘free software.’

While I am speaking of this phrase, let me clear up a verbal issue that sometimes confuses English speakers.

The low price of free software leads some English speakers to think that the word ‘free’ in the phrase ‘free software’ means they can obtain it without cost. This is not the definition, which is about freedom, but it is an easy misunderstanding. After all, I have been talking of frugal use of resources, software that is inexpensive.

The English word ‘free’ has several meanings. As a Mexican friend of mine — and leader, by the way, of a major free software project — once said to me,

English is broken; it does not distinguish between ‘free beer’ and ‘free speech’.

Spanish, on the other hand, distinguishes between ‘gratis’ and ‘libre’. Free software is ‘libre’ software.

Likewise, the language of our hosts, Bahasa Melayu, distinguishes between ‘pecuma’ and ‘kebebasa’. Free software is ‘kebebasa’ software.

Incidentally, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens invented the phrase ‘open source’ a few years ago as a synonym ‘free software’. They wanted to work around the dislike many companies have of free markets. The phrase is popular; Eric and Bruce succeeded in their purpose.

However, I prefer the term ‘free software’ since it better conveys the goal of freedom; the proposition that every man and woman, even a person who lives in a third world country, has the right to do first rate work, and must not be forbidden from doing so.

I mentioned that a business or community can use software that is inexpensive and legal.

Now let me turn to the software industry itself.

Because competition in a competitive market forces down the price of free software, no one enters the software industry to sell software as such. Instead, and this is often not understood, a business enters the industry to make money in other ways.

Companies and people in the ‘software industry’ do not sell software itself, but services associated with software or hardware or other solutions.

This is what happens in the medical and legal professions. Both medical knowledge and law are freely redistributable. Physicians and lawyers sell their services to solve problems.

What services do I mean? Most directly, help in using a computer, or, to take more specific examples, help in setting up a packet radio network where there is no telephone, or help in creating and nurturing a warehouse data base.

Less directly, and increasingly, hardware companies that sell telephones or desalinization plants, add software to their products to make them more attractive to buyers.

Incidentally, programmers themselves write software for four main reasons: first, because they are hired to solve a problem, just as a lawyer is hired to draw up a contract. Second, as part of another project. Third, because it enhances their reputation. And fourth, because they want to.

I have spoken about shaping this technology for collaboration. The key is freedom, and creating the legal framework that supports freedom.

Now let me talk about initiatives that lead to prosperity.

One issue with development is resources, or rather, the lack thereof.

As I said earlier, free software reduces barriers to entry, both in the software industry itself and in other industries and activities.

Free software, and the culture and ways people tend to think when they collaborate, reduces operational costs.

Let me take an example that comes directly from this conference. First I should tell you that I have correspondents all over the world. They are not all in rich countries. They or their supporting institutions are not always rich.

The first messages about this conference that I received took up more than four and a half times the resources needed to convey the information. The messages were sent in a bloated form.

Next time you budget for a project, consider paying four and a half times its cost. Then consider whether you would fund it.

Next time you pay at a restaurant, take out four and a half times the money…

For me the resource use was not an issue because I don't pay by the minute for telecommunications, as many do. But I know that my correspondents around the world prefer that I take care in my communications that I do not waste their money or that of their supporting institutions.

A notable feature of free software is that many applications run well on older, less capable machines, as I mentioned earlier. For example, a couple of months ago I ran a window manager, graphical Web browser, and an image manipulation program on my sister's old 486 machine. These worked fine.

Text editors, electronic mail, and spreadsheets require even fewer resources.

This frugality means that people can use older equipment that has been tossed out by first world companies. Such equipment is inexpensive and often donated. The computers need to be transported. Sometimes you need to start a local project to refurbish the hardware and load it with inexpensive, customized, free software. These machines cost the end user less than new machines.

At the same time, manufacturers are building modern, low end computers that do as much as the older ones, and are not too expensive.

There is no need to acquire expensive, new hardware to run your software.

In conclusion —

I was asked to speak on

‘Shaping Collaborative ICT Development and Initiatives for Global Prosperity’

Over the past 16 years, I have worked with people who shaped software through a legal tool that gives you many freedoms: the freedoms to copy, study, modify, and redistribute the software.

This tool shapes software technology to make it more accessible and more empowering; it encourages people to work collaboratively, and provides a technology for better governance.

This legal tool means that companies in the ICT industry compete not to sell software itself, but to sell services associated with it, or to sell hardware, or other solutions.

This legal framework means that companies will provide more reliable and efficient services.

Freedom, ensured by a proper license, means that people who use computers and telecommunications as tools can enter their industry more easily.

It means that all users can reduce their entry and operational costs. It means that people in poorer countries are not shipping off their money to a rich country, but are keeping their money in the local economy.

Moreover, as I said above, restricted-distribution software licenses often force people to choose between violating the law and paying money they may not have.

As a matter of good governance, a country should not force people who are trying to do a decent job into making such decisions. Too often an otherwise law-abiding person who lacks resources will choose to violate the law.

Instead, a country should arrange matters such that acting in a law abiding manner is without doubt the best action, for legal, moral, and practical reasons. People always hope their neighbors will be law abiding and honest; free software encourages that.

Free software empowers people who previously were kept out.

 [FSF logo] “Our mission is to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of Free Software users.”

The Free Software Foundation is the principal organizational sponsor of the GNU Operating System. Support GNU and the FSF by buying manuals and gear, joining the FSF as an associate member, or making a donation, either directly to the FSF or via Flattr.

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