No. 59 September 3, 2001
Other articles on similar subjects
are published in English
in the monthly Offline column
Software freedom: a worldwide movement?
There seems to be a new worldwide movement. Not very
visible (or not yet) but beginning to gain momentum.
Governments and public institutions in several countries
appear to a bit more aware of the need for open software
and actually doing something about it. Not enough... but its
a beginning. They are many years too late, and so far they
arent showing enough determination. There are weak signs, so
far, of coordination or cooperation across borders. But
governments and public administrations in several countries
appear to be somewhat less blind than they were about the
need for software freedom. Before I get into the specifics,
please let me make four introductory comments.
- Though this is surprisingly ignored, or
understated, by media and information systems worldwide, its
pretty obvious that when one company has 80 percent of the
market thats a monopoly. And when the behavior of the
monopolist is as arrogant and questionable as it is, its
practically unavoidable to discuss the specific faults of one
company. However this is not simply a matter of being pro or
against Microsoft. Its a much wider issue. Principles and
concepts need to be set (and practiced) that define general
criteria regardless of which individual supplier is chosen
for a variety of services. The development of information
technology was largely based on academic science and open
systems. Even more so in the case of the internet. There is
nothing wrong with private or commercial
developments per se. But too many key controls are in the
hands of private interests that are deliberately trying to use their
leverage to reduce all forms of freedom. Economic, social, cultural
including the basic notions of free speech and privacy.
- This isnt just a matter of Windows vs.
Linux. As we stand now, Linux (as well as other
Unix-based opensource systems) is the best available alternative.
But the solution is not dictating the use of any
specific solution. It must be total openness. Setting general
principles of freedom, transparency and compatibility.
- This isnt just a matter of information technology or
networking. The domination of operating systems is being
deliberately used to integrate software
applications, including mail tools and web browsers. That
leads to a variety of tools being shamelessly used to control
networks, influence the behavior of people and companies,
invade the territories of information and culture, reduce
freedom and violate privacy. All f this is particularly
dangerous when source code is hidden and the content and
workings of programs cant be verified. Its abundantly clear
that the monopolist is doing many of these things and is
trying to do much worse. But if other companies were in such
a position they would probably do the same. Or, in any case,
they could and that is totally unacceptable.
- As the perception of the problem spreads around the
world, its sometimes tainted of anti-Americanism
(one of the unfortunate consequences of such attitudes is
that they could reduce even further the already too weak and
slow anti-monopoly actions in the United States). Thats not
the point. An exaggerated domination of one country in
technology and in the internet (as well as , more broadly, in
the economy and the information system) isnt good for
anyone. But the solution is not isolationism or
protectionism. Quite to the contrary, what we need is more
freedom. Including more open, aggressive and effective
competition by Europe and the rest of the world.
That said... lets get to the point. Several years too
late, the world seems to be waking up to the problem.
at the end of August 2001 indicate that there are several initiatives
in different countries moving in the same direction. In Brazil,
Argentina, Mexico and other Latin American countries there is
a movement called, in Spanish, software libre (that sounds
a bit like a well-known drink). This is not just a matter of stated
intentions. There is also practical action. For instance Brazil
is developing the useof opensource solutions in its health system
and Mexico in schools.
There are developments in some European counties and the
European Union is beginning to plan some specific action
(still weak and vague but at least, and at last,
acknowledging the problem). China is somewhat inscrutable,
and (as far as I know) there are no official
statements but there have been reports of plans to develop
a national opensource operating system. Legislation is
developing slowly in parliament in Paris, but there are
initiatives in several public service departments and the
French government is setting up an agency to encourage
public administration to use free software and open
standards. In Germany the government is continuing to
finance the development of Unix-based open systems.
There are several spontaneous initiatives
around the world, that dont just identify the problem but
come up with practical solutions. What has been missing so
far is coordination and mutual help a well as a shared
strategy. And there has been a lack of serious concern,
commitment and action by public services and governments, on
a national scale and worldwide.
There are also initiatives by private companies such as
IBM announcing an investment of 200 million dollars for the
development of opensource resources in Asia. Other companies
are making statements in favor of opensource, as a tool for
more open markets and competition (but not doing much about it).
In my country? We are lagging far behind. There are
several isolated spots in public administration in Italy
using opensource systems. A decision by the Florence
municipality in favor of free software (July 26, 2001)was
mentioned in international reports, but unfortunately its
only local. There is no organized action on a national scale.
The problem was stated very clearly by a number of NGOs,
especially by ALCEI
(Electronic Frontiers Italy) whose document on this subject
(January 29, 1999) was acknowledged several times by public
functions and formally included in the papers of the national
convention (June 1999) organized by the official government
on the use of information technologies in public administration
but ignored in practice.
Of course this is not only a problem of the public
sector. But thats a good starting point. Private companies
must be allowed to do as they wish, even when (as in this
case) they are damaging themselves and the economy as a
whole. But public administration should not be allowed to
force citizens to use expensive private software nor to
expose public records (including personal information on all
citizens) to the invasive control of private monopoly that
does not allow any control of what its doing. Hopefully the
example set by public services could be followed by private
enterprises. That would not only save billions of dollars (or
euros) but also prevent unacceptable invasions of personal
privacy and cultural independence.
Is there, at last, the beginning of a worldwide movement
to look into this problem and try to solve it? So far, its
too little and too late. But there is a serious need to do
something about it.
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||2. The mysteries of India|
Its been two years since I last published an
analysis on large low-density
countries on the internet. I might update it when new worldwide data
become available if there will be relevant changes.
In the meantime, lets take another look at the two
largest countries in the world. China and India.
At the end of 1998 there were 13,000 internet hosts in mainland China.
At the end of 2000 there were 90,000 (and probably, by now, over 100,000.)
Considerable growth but very small numbers. Density
is less than 0.1 hosts per thousand inhabitants. On the other hand, there is
remarkably high density in Taiwan, Hong Kong, etcetera. Chinese
communities worldwide have a total of 1.6 million hosts
probably, by now, over two million.
See the data about ten large communities
in issue 56. (A more detailed
analysis is online, with text in Italian
and Spanish but charts and
graphs are clear in any language.)
Of course in China there are limitations due to the vast territory
and limited economic resources of a large part of the population.
But the strongest limiting factor is political repression.
The case of India is very different. Three years ago the
Indian government issued some well conceived directives to
encourage expanded use of the internet. But nothing happened.
Those good intentions got lost in the intricacies
of bureaucracy, politics and the economy. India had 13,000
internet hosts at the end of 1998. Now 36,000 (or maybe,
according to other sources, 43,000.) Things arent
any better in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
Pakistan had 3,000 hosts in 1998, 6,000 in 2000. Surveys
cant find more than 3 in Bangladesh.
Is this unavoidable, because India is a poor
country? Not really. There are as many affluent people in
India as there are in France or in the United Kingdom.
Indias economy is as large as Germanys. More people
in India speak English than in the British islands. Many Indians have
good education and high technical competence. Under present
circumstances its not possible for India to have the same
density as Europe but there is no reason why it cant have the
same number of internet hosts at the Netherlands (a country with 1.5
percent of Indias population.) Thats two and a half million.
In the latest wordldwide
survey the Netherlands had 1.6 million internet hosts. But according to
more recent European statistics now they
have more than 2.5 million.
With all the big talk and debate about globality,
the fact remains that a very large part of humanity has no access.
Thats a very serious problem. Intelligent use of opensource
solutions and, in any case, more compatible, less expensive,
more efficient and more consistent over time could be one
of the key tools to improve the situation.
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||3. The internet in Italy|
For those international readers that are interested in
the situation in Italy, updated information is available in
two reports on this site. One is about the use of information
and communication tools in Italian families. Its summarized
in English see Cultural divide (not
digital). The other is specifically about use of
the internet (differences by age, sex, place of residence,
income, education level etc. are continuing to decrease.)
Its available only in Italian
(but, also in this case, graphs and figures are clear in any language.)
Use of the internet continues to expand in Italy, but growth
seems to be a bit slower in year 2001. Business use,
that was dominant in past years, now is static. Home use is
growing. There are no signs of saturation. For
instance 70 percent of the people with a home computer have
internet access, but only 64 percent use it and only 28
percent do so regularly. There is perplexity about the real
value of what can be found on the net. In the business
environment there is some discouragement, due to the
continuing press reports on the deflation of the stock market
bubble and to the dismal results of some poorly
conceived online activities. The potential, of course, is large and
growing. But many companies need to re-define their strategies.