free software

The other IT from another Europe

Also on Consortium News and Huffington Post

Over the last 10-15 years public IT in Europe has not developed in line with public interests, nor does it guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens such as privacy and freedom of expression. Tremendous opportunities in the field of economic development and employment have also been missed. Europe effectively outsources much of its information processing (software & services) to foreign parties at the direct cost of hundreds of billions of Euros (typically around 1% of GNP). The opportunity-cost to local economic growth and employment opportunities are much greater than that. Even more costly than either of these is the de-facto handing over of control of data of governments, businesses and individual citizens to foreign spies who use it for political manipulation, repression of citizens' freedoms and industrial espionage. Although the warnings about the negative consequences of current policies date back at least 15 years, these aspects have been documented in irrefutable detail over the last year by the revelations of Edward Snowden. 12 months later there has not even been the beginning of a policy response.

It could all have been so different ...

In the first 21 months of the 21st century, the dot-com bubble burst and then three skyscrapers in New York collapsed. Between these two events a largely forgotten report to the European Parliament appeared in the summer of 2001. This report described the scale and impact of electronic espionage in Europe by the U.S. and its 'Echelon' partners (Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Besides a detailed problem analysis, the report also gave concrete examples of IT policies that governments could take to significantly limit foreign intelligence spying on Europe.

In the same period was U.S. government won one of the largest anti-trust cases its history, against Microsoft, and the EU followed this victory by launching a similar case that would also be won leading to the highest fine to a company for economic crimes in the history of the EU.

It was against this background that thinking about strategic versus operational aspects of IT in the public sector changed. The report on Echelon made it clear that reducing IT into a merely operational exercise had disastrous consequences on the sovereignty of European states with respect to, in particular, the United States (and perhaps in the near future, China, other technically capable countries or non-state organizations). The economic consequences of industrial espionage against many high-tech and R&D-intensive companies became a major concern for the government.

Letter to Parliamentary Committee on Gov. IT projects

Letter below has been submitted to the Temporary Committee on Government IT. This document is a translation from the Dutch original.

Dear Members of the Committee on ICT ,

On June 1st, 2012 I was invited by your predecessors to contribute to the expert meeting of the Parliamentary Working Group on ICT projects in government. The written submission that I made at that time is here, including a video of those hearings (in Dutch).

As an IT architect but also as a concerned citizen, I have been actively involved with the IT policy of the government since 2002, focusing on the areas of electronic health records, security and open standards / open source software. On the latter issue I was the initiator of the 2002 Parliamentary 'Motion Vendrik' that advocated greater independence from dominant software suppliers. Last year I also served as a technical expert on the Committee of Minister Plasterk who advised on the (im)possibilities of electronic support for the electoral process.

Although this motion Vendrik from 2002 was translated into the Heemskerk Action Plan in 2007, this policy was quietly killed in 2010/11 by the lobbying power of large software vendors and the U.S. government. Even the Court-of-Audit was pressured to *not* ask certain questions in its 2011 report on the policy. Since 2002, the Netherlands has spent about 60-90 billion on foreign software, for which in many cases free, equally good or better alternatives are available. Their use is, however, actively hindered by both the Ministries of Education and Interior, as well as the VNG supported by the lobbying apparatus of major suppliers and the U.S. government.

This despite Justice Minister Donner's 2004 letter to Parliament in response to the Motion Vendrik where he admitted that:

  • the government's dependence on Microsoft was very great;
  • that this was a problem ;
  • and that by introducing open standards and the use of open source that could be solved.

This dependence has since become much greater and more than one billion Euro was spent on Microsoft licenses over the last decade. That money would have paid for 10,000 man-years of expertise to migrate away from Microsoft products. A large part of the money spent would have remained in the Dutch economy and returned to the state through tax and VAT. Not that 10,000 man-years would have been needed. The Municipality of Ede did it against the odds for a fraction of the cost and now saves 92 % on software expenses (and 25% on overall budget). The rest of the government has yet to take steps. Why is an important question.

Why Freedom, Eben Moglen keynote in Berlin

Eben Moglen explains the biggest and most important fight for civil liberties in the next decade. Nothing the Free Software Foundation has not been saying for over 20 years but now more important than ever. Freedom requires freedom of thought and this requires freedom of media and communications. These cannot be guaranteed if private interests, controlling or controlled by governments can interfere with the functioning of the information networks and devices. Freedom requires free technology (where free means free as-in-freedom) where the people using the technology control what is does for them and how it does it. I talked about this in 2010 and many times before and after on this blog.

ACTA and SOPA are great!

<originally a Dutch Webwereld.nl column>

Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.

It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they've been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?

But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.

Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus.  A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?