We supported the Internet Society this year in preparing a white paper describing “Considerations for Mandating Open Interfaces”. Both European and US legislators are concerned by the market and political impact of large technology companies like Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google, and a popular line of advocacy seeks legislation to regulate them through enforced interoperability.
At first sight, this seems highly desirable. Why should services like WhatsApp and Google Chat not be forced to interoperate so that users of one can chat with users of the other freely? Why should users of Twitter, Parler and Mastodon not be able to subscribe to each other’s posts and participate equally in their follower networks? But the devil as always is in the details. Means of achieving these things can easily turn out to be problematic, either for technical reasons like architectural incompatibilities or for more subtle competitive reasons. Indeed, it’s notable that the biggest critics of Google and Facebook are the almost-cartels of mobile telephony companies who see in these mandates a way to hobble their most dangerous challengers.
The resulting white paper raises as many of the issues as possible in its slim 32 pages, while also attempting to point at solutions for some of them. You can read the Executive Summary and download the full paper at the Internet Society’s resource page.
I spent last week in New York at the annual new-inductees face-to-face Board meeting of the Open Source Initiative Board (pictured below – Christine Hall is also a member but was unable to join us). Having spent the last 11 years working on refactoring OSI for a new generation, I had advised the Board in advance that I intended to step down as President to make way for fresh blood. The Board elected Molly de Blanc as the new President and Josh Simmons as Vice President, with Hong Phuc Dang bravely volunteering to be CFO. I agreed to serve as Board Secretary until someone else feels ready to play that role – no later than next April when my term ends.
OSI Board 2019-20.Standing: Simon Phipps, Elana Hashman, Pamela Chestek, Molly de Blanc, Faidon Liambotis, Chris Lamb, Hong Phuc Dang, Patrick Masson. Kneeling: Carol Smith, Josh Simmons.
The OSI I’m handing over to the new Board is very different to the one I first attended in 2008 (as an observer – I wasn’t invited to join until 2010). It is now elected rather than selected (albeit via an indirect mechanism to make California regulation easier to manage). The electors are over 60 affiliate organisations representing the majority of the world’s core open source developers and an ever growing community of individual members. OSI now has a viable income arising largely from a diverse range of around 30 sponsors. It now has a staff, including a full-time General Manager (Patrick Masson, far right). It now has maintained systems for managing donations, lists and outreach. And there’s more been achieved – those are just stand-outs.
All together that means OSI has a proven foundation for the new Board to build upon. Already built on that foundation there are a postgraduate curriculum, a programme to advocate open source in the world of standards, a programme to equip schools with recycled PCs, working relationships with peer organisations like FSF and FSFE and more. There are many people responsible for all this change, too many to name here, and I thank them all.
People always look forward rather than back and there are still plenty of issues to deal with which are the new Board’s focus. We are already working to improve the license review process, for example. But I’m really pleased with what we have all achieved over the last decade at OSI and am thrilled that there’s an energetic, more diverse and younger crew taking over.
The west is in a state of crisis due to the capture of the mechanisms of democracy by special interests. It’s time for change, and that change may well involve a shift from consultative or representative democracy to participatory democracy of some form. To support participatory democracy it’s essential to have enabling software that’s accessible to all citizens and transparent in its operation. I find it hard to imagine achieving that without open source.
Fortunately there is an excellent open source, free software project to support participatory democracy – the Consul Project. It provides tools for every function that a local participatory democracy initiative might need, including collaboratively devising legislation. The project is widely used around the world and is currently hosted by Madrid City Council.
Last week in Amsterdam, a broad range of democracy and rights organisations from around the world formed the Consul Democracy Foundation to act as the new home for the Consul Project. I was honoured to participate in founding the organisation as a representative of OSI. Consul is “the most complete citizen participation tool for an open, transparent and democratic government” and is open source, free software under the AGPL.
You may recall I attended a meeting in Paris last November where we worked on a statement about the cultural value of software. I am delighted to say it has now published both a call for action by UNESCO and a report explaining in more depth.
This is the first work of public policy of which I’m aware that explicitly recognises “that the source code of software used for the implementation of laws and regulations defines the experience of the law by citizens.” That important statement forms the anchor for much change in global legislation relating to digital rights, and as a UNESCO Call it will be considered by each and every future UNESCO policy and consequently by national policy of UNESCO members. Notably, it calls on all to “enable effective independent auditing of software source code used to make decisions that may affect fundamental rights of human beings and where possible ensure it is made available under an open source license.”
Software embodies the procedures by which the citizen engages with the state, through which the citizen and the market interact and in which citizens engage each other and enjoy cultural and leisure pursuits. Our ability to see society in action and guarantee the democracy that sustains it is increasingly dependent on our ability to review the software by which it is enabled at every level. When we have no right of review – let alone a right to directly participate in maintaining the software – we have lack the most import of the checks and balances of a 21st century democracy.
The Paris Call identifies software as a primary cultural artefact, requiring public access, demanding preservation and deserving cultivation. It sets a benchmark for the treatment of software as modern treasure. Now its the turn of the framers of wider policy to take that into account.
You’ll recall Simon was re-elected to the OSI Board after a year’s absence to satisfy term limits. Following the resignation of the excellent Allison Randal to focus on her PhD, he has now been re-elected as OSI President by the Board. More details can be found in Allison’s article.
As an example, we’ve been retained by Mozilla to compile a report describing the entities that could host the Thunderbird Project, and have two other (currently non-public) clients ready to go. We would welcome further engagements for 2016 and would be thrilled if demand allowed us to hire more staff.
In addition to those client engagements we have ideas relating to the thinking we’ve been doing around Community Interest Companies and open source communities, and hope to have news about that after FOSDEM.
But claims “Microsoft Loves Linux” are premature; this is just the Azure team throwing big money at credibility, not a decision by the whole company to end hostilities. To do that they would need to join OIN.
Next time you see your government proposing internet censorship laws of any kind, remember this incident where the Indian government crippled their own software industry so they could be seen to be doing something about terrorism. Their department of telecommunications has blocked 32 web sites — including archive.org and Github — as if to illustrate why it’s bad to allow anyone the power to block web sites arbitrarily (ETI claims it’s 60+). They’ve blocked entire slices of multi-purpose web infrastructure because one of their functionaries found something about ISIS somewhere on it, according to TechCrunch.
Perhaps it is happening because a person tasked with being seen to be doing something about terrorism found a broad and badly-drafted regulation with no checks, balances or oversight that she could use to satisfy her instructions at no personal cost. As a result, vast numbers of Internet uses that are neutral or positive to Indian culture and society are being inhibited in pursuit of a tiny number of cases that are negative. Certainly the sources ETI cites have no clue the damage they’re causing.
Laws and regulations don’t just get used for their intended purpose; they get used by anyone that is permitted to do so for any purpose that is not proscribed. So broad rules permitting censorship for open-ended durations and purposes can and will be used to silence opposition, score points and prove some functionary is tough on terrorism or paedophiles. Who cares if businesses, research and culture are harmed? Think of the children!
Draft regulations have been published in Britain that will finally end the anomaly where quotation, parody, caricature and pastiche are considered breaches of copyright. If approved by Parliament, they will come into force on June 1st, finally closing the loophole in copyright law that allowed copyright owners to chill criticism and stifle research in cases that are otherwise reasonable.