<originally a webwereld column in Dutch>, <also on HuffPo UK>
Over nine years ago, I was talking to Kees Vendrik <Dutch MP) about the broken Dutch software market. Not only was it impossible to buy a top brand laptop without buying a Microsoft Windows licence, it was also impossible to visit many websites (municipalities, Dutch railways and many others) without using Internet Explorer. The latter area has greatly improved and I can lead my life using my OS and browser of choice. Only occasionally do I have to just swallow a Windows licence when buying a new laptop. Not much has improved in that area. Our national dependence on products such as MS Office has not really diminished either, despite all the wishes of our Parliament and its related governments policies.
Meanwhile, the technological seismic shift that frightened Bill Gates so much back in ’95 (the web makes the operating system irrelevant) is fast becoming reality. Almost all new developments discussed by IT power players and specialists are web-based or based on open specifications and the most commonly used applications are running quite well as service in a browser.
So while the 15-20 year old problem of software dependency is not yet solved (our government, with its tens of thousands of IT workers, is still unable to wean itself off the familiar Microsoft technology stack) its impact is becoming less relevant. Meanwhile, new dependencies based on cloud providers are promising to be even more detrimental.
While excessive use of proprietary software creates the risk of foreign manipulation and potential attacks on critical infrastructure (eg Stuxnet). But at least if your systems are attacked in this way, there are some ways to track this. If you are working on the computer that does not belong to you, that is based in a foreign country and is managed in ways you cannot know, it will be very difficult to have any control over what happens to your data.
The old assumption, that using local servers could be part of the solution, seems unfortunately to be an illusion. All cloud services offered by companies based in the US are subject to US legislation, even if the servers are physically in another country. And US law is now somewhat, shall we say, problematic. With no evidence, but with an allegation of involvement in "terrorism", systems can be closed down or taken over – without any warning, or the possibility of adversarial judicial review. The term ‘terrorism’ has been stretched so far in that anyone who allegedly breaks US law, even if they’re not a US citizen and even if they’re not in the US can still a deemed "terrorist", just on the word of one of the many three-letter services (FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, DHS, TSA, etc.). The EU is not happy about this but does not want to go so far as reccomending its citizens and other governments to no longer use such services.
The long arm of the US Patriot Act goes even further than merely the servers of US companies on European soil. Thus domains can be "seized" and labelled: "this site was involved in handling child pornography". Try explaining that as a business or non-profit organisation to your clients and (business)partners. Just using one .com, .org or .net extension as your domain name now makes you liable under US law. All Europeans can now be seized from their homes for breaking US law. So a .com domain name makes your server effectively US territory.
We were already aware that proprietary platforms like Windows and Google Docs were not suitable systems for important things such as running public or critical infrastructure. However, now it turns out, that every service delivered through a .com / .org / .net domain places you under de facto foreign control.
Solution? As much as possible, change to open source software on local servers. Fortunately there quite a few competent hosting companies and businesses in the Netherlands and Europe. Use local country domains like .nl/.de./.fr or, if you really want to be bullet proof, take a .ch domain. These are managed by a Swiss foundation and these people take their independence seriously. Wikileaks today is running on wikileaks.ch after its domains such as .org got a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.
If you still want to use Google Docs, Facebook, Evernote, Mind Meister, Ning.com, Hotmail or Office 365 – please do so with the awareness that you no longer have any expectation of privacy or any other form of civil rights. Good for the administration of the tennis club but completely unsuitable for anything that really matters.