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Why US gov reps mugged pro open source declaration

And why there's a clash with developing countries brewing

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In the middle of last month a US delegation to an international conference clearly signalled US policy as regards open source by de-fanging a pro open source declaration. The conference, the Asian regional meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) had been poised to "support" open source software in a closing declaration, but the US government delegation dug its heels in and had it watered down to "encourage."

And you can read the finished version here, where you'll note the key wording is: "Development and deployment of open-source software should be encouraged, as appropriate, as should open standards for ICT networking." We at El Reg would hazard a guess that debarking as far as "encouraged" would not have been sufficient to secure Uncle Sam's support - but the addition of "as appropriate" sorts that out, leaving plenty of scope for certain software vendors to argue that appropriate scenarios are few and far between.

The diligent work of the US reps wasn't widely noticed at the time, but was reported by the thorough people at IDG.net, and this was picked up and published somewhere deep inside Infoworld, which unfortunately seemed to be having one of its turns at time of writing.

IDG's reporter says: "The US opposition was largely perceived to be support for its domestic software companies and in particular Microsoft Corp, said officials from other governments on the sidelines of the conference on Wednesday." But while this is true enough, and it's clearly a matter of US policy, it's not US policy to mug open source to death.

Not exactly, anyway. The Microsoft-sponsored Initiative for Software Choice* effectively follows and promotes the policies of Microsoft and (we'd guess) the vast majority of commercial software companies as regards open source mandation. They are happy for open source to compete on what they see as a level playing field, but fight any attempts by governments and legislatures to mandate the use of open source. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's a point of view, and if you happen to be a major commercial software company then it's surely perfectly reasonable to object to proposals that would stop you selling to government at all.

Note, though, that as far as the US government is concerned, the ISC has got to be pushing on an open door here. Sure, US government departments and agencies might use open source, sure, they might think it's a good idea to use more open source, but they're not going to be allowed to promote open source, because The Market should Decide. Which again is fair enough, it's a point of view, and it's one US governments almost inevitably support for practically everything.

But whether or not the market does decide after the playing field has been so levelled is perhaps debatable. You may have noted certain companies deploying a very great deal of money on marketing, unbiased market research, freebies and lobbyists, in addition to their playing field levelling activites. One might wonder how this facilitates a market decision based purely on respective merits.

In this particular case the counter-argument from the proponents of the original declaration text would run something like this. If the objectives of the WSIS are to be fulfilled for the developing world, then software has to be affordable, and sufficiently open for developing countries to build their own products, and have derived revenues spent locally, rather than exported to the developed world.

Which is also a point of view, and a pretty reasonable one. In supporting rather than just encouraging open source "where appropriate," these delegations were taking on board the need to localise expertise and revenues, and to provide a counter to existing commercial software, which is already established as a standard. Not many people actually pay for Windows in much of Asia, but they sure as hell use it, and in that sense it's difficult for open source to compete unaided. So both sides see themselves as trying to level the playing field, and that will surely result in tears.

Nor is that the only area the US government and the software industry will find themselves ranged against developing countries. Elsewhere in the declaration, under "Ensuring balance between intellectual property rights (IPR) and public interest," we read:

"While intellectual property rights play a vital role in fostering innovation in software, e-commerce and associated trade and investment, there is a need to promote initiatives to ensure fair balance between IPRs and the interests of the users of information, while also taking into consideration the global consensus achieved on IPR issues in multilateral organizations.

"Copyright holders and distributors of content should be cognizant of the need to ensure that content is accessible for all, including persons with disabilities. In this connection, access requirements should be included in legal, regulatory and policy frameworks, where appropriate."

We're pretty sure the words "copy left" didn't appear anywhere in the draft before the US team got to it, but you can see a storm brewing here. Wonder what they could possibly mean by "access requirements"? IP recognition is again an area where Microsoft et al and the US government will tend to work as a team, as the government, obviously, is going to support US companies in their efforts to stop rampant theft of their products. But the more successful they are, the more expensive the products get, so the more the open source issue gets foregrounded. ®

* A while back we noted the ISC's strangely large and geographically diverse membership list. For some strange reason, that page now declares itself under reconstruction, and the initiative members have retreated into the shadows of anonymity. Spoilsports.

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