Tuesday May 19, 2009

Fighting Fund for the Big WOBber

Burning Gold

You'll remember my recent posting about the fine work journalist Brenno de Winter has been doing in his spare time, bringing a little healing daylight into local government in The Netherlands.

Brenno has been trying to get details of local government procurement published on the web, so that the resulting transparency can drive better decisions. Since most local authorities haven't wanted to do that, he's been filing bulk Freedom of Information requests (the Dutch abbreviation is apparently WOB) to get the data.

The local authorities haven't exactly been helpful. They have been slow, obstructive and have sent image PDFs instead of parseable data. Brenno knows his rights, however, and has pressed the point every time and has seen great results, posting data on his Big WOBber website.

I got a note from him yesterday telling me a new problem has come up. Despite the fact that the local authorities - like all in Europe - have a legal duty to provide the information, they have started sending Brenno big bills for the administrative work involved, in a kind of denial-of-service attack on his campaign.

He's pretty sure that if he takes all the claims to court he can get them struck down, but to do that he needs a fighting fund. There's an event in Amsterdam on June 11th where Scriptum Libre will be raising funds for him, and you can contribute by visiting their payment page and designating Brenno as the beneficiary of your donation. Worth supporting - pass it on.

Thursday Mar 26, 2009

Forcing Dutch procurement to be transparent

You may remember last September I published an interview with crusading Dutch IT journalist Brenno de Winter. During our meeting, we discussed the sorry state of ICT procurement in Europe and the findings from a research group that many tenders illegally specified products rather than technologies.

Brenno decided to do something about it and started a project using Holland's freedom of information act to force disclosure of tenders. I had the chance to meet him again yesterday and to record another dueling podcast (Brenno's version is on his site) discussing his progress so far, especially the collaborative website where. Impressive and unusually energetic and imaginative journalism that I'd like to see elsewhere.

[MP3 | Ogg]

Sunday Feb 22, 2009

"Because our copyrights are worth more than your human rights"

Monday is the last day of the internet blackout campaign organised and in support of it I have blacked out my avatars on Twitter and Facebook as well as on this page. Why? It's to appeal a very badly thought-out law that's been passed in New Zealand, one that the media lobby would love to see introduced in Europe too - it's already been introduced by threats in Ireland and we had a near-miss in the UK and in Germany. We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the kiwis. If the media lobby gets away with it over there, the rest of us will be picked off one-by-one via the global reach of the WTO and WIPO.

Bad Law

What's wrong with this law? It's not just that companies who built their business by using the commons now want to strangle it (although they hypocritically do want that). It's not that those same companies want their faltering business models shored-up by chilling effects, framing the celebration by their customers of the culture they are trying to create as akin to murder, rape and theft ("piracy"). It's not even that the new law in New Zealand gives a bunch of businesses who have shown themselves to have severely asymmetric morals the power to simply accuse without proof to get results.

Cultural Conduit

No, as I said when I was in Wellington, the problem is much deeper than the campaign against "Guilt Upon Accusation" in New Zealand would suggest. Our society has changed fundamentally in the last decade. The emergence of the world-wide web pushed the Internet from research curiosity into endemic facility, present in every office, then every home and now every pocket.

It is now the medium for culture, for education, for finance, for politics, for engagement with government services. Just this weekend we've seen RyanAir announce that the only way you can fly with them will be if you have an internet connection to check-in as well as to buy the ticket - no more check-in desks. We will increasingly see the Internet be the only way things can be done. Access to the Internet is no longer the casual frippery that this law believes. It is already integral to modern life. It will become a fundamental part of every aspect of our lives, as basic as electricity, telephones or pavements/sidewalks, the primary conduit for democracy, commerce, culture and social interaction.

Disproportionate Punishment

What crime do you have to commit in your country to be forbidden use of electricity (not just disconnected)? To be forbidden use of a phone? To be forbidden to walk on the streets? Yes, the lack of due process in this bad New Zealand law is a worry, but much more of a concern is its calculation that the infringement of a copyright justifies the removal of the main conduit of social engagement from a citizen. This cannot be allowed to stand.

This is not a matter for a "voluntary code of conduct" either. As use of the Internet becomes more complex and more fundamental, it's becoming clear in the UK that the Internet Watch Foundation - a group set up by ISPs so they wouldn't be regulated over every politician's excuse for bad legislation, "protecting children" - is harmful to us all, cracking small nuts with pile drivers and lacking transparency and accountability. It's great New Zealand has a temporary stay on the new law, but the reason - development of a voluntary code of conduct so citizens rights can be repeatably infringed in support of media business models - is still unacceptable, still agrees that citizen access to the internet is worth less than media business models.

It Shall Not Stand If We Stand Together

That's why S92A has to be struck down in New Zealand, why similar laws have to be resisted worldwide and why the media lobby needs to wise up and pipe down. We may not have reached a point where Internet access is an essential right, but it's too close now for us to tolerate its abridgment for any reason or set a precedent we then have to argue to undo. Infringing copyright is not something to be condoned, but there is no sense in which anyone's copyrights are more valuable than our 21st century human rights.

Spot On

Best summary of the New Zealand Blackout that I've seen:

Wednesday Dec 10, 2008

Celebrating Anniversaries

This has been a time for anniversaries. It's been 25 years since Richard Stallman started the GNU Project, 40 years since Doug Engelbart demonstrated the future of computing at "the Mother of All Demos." Both of these are profoundly important moments in the future of technology, but the anniversary I think is most important to celebrate - and which has appeared least in my news feeds this week - is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.


This document is one of the most important documents created in the 20th century, delimiting the unarguable rights of every person, and doing it in cool, clear prose. Flowing out of revulsion at the excesses of the Second World War, it sets a benchmark that is still vibrantly relevant to world society. For example, it makes clear that the Guantanamo concentration camp that the US is still running is abhorrent (see articles 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 - even arguing articles 3 and 28 implicitly allow it is dealt with in article 30). It casts light on the US wiretaps and the UK's surveillance society (article 12 supported by articles 7 and 11), on the TSA (article 13), on internet filtering (articles 18 & 19) and on so many more issues.

The more I look at it, the more convinced I am that this visionary document, born from the lessons humanity wanted to learn after the horrors of 1939-45, is a source text that can guide so much we're all trying to achieve. As we're working on the future, be it Web 2.0, rebuilding our political life in the west  or freedom for Tibet, I'm struck that the Declaration is a primary source document against which to measure our intent and action.

Wednesday Mar 26, 2008

Happy Document Freedom Day

Happy Document Freedom Day! Today, March 26th, is the first such global celebration of open documents. When I look back to 2002 and the ridicule that we faced when the first proposed that the world needed a stanard for office productivity documents, it's amazing to see those same mocking voices six years later advocating XML-based open document formats as if they thought of the idea!

We still have a long way to go. There is more to this than just standards. Our freedom depends on being able to implement, being able to influence future evolution and on having collective ownership of document standards. Today, only ODF offers the hope of that so here's to the ISO 26300 Open Document Format today, Document Freedom Day.

Friday Mar 07, 2008

Responding to the EU on DRM

CDG T2F

In response to a request from the European Union concerning DRM and interoperability, Sun has submitted a lengthy written response. Preparing for and reviewing the response with colleagues took me back to my earlier article, DRM and the Death of a Culture. My tendency is always to look for a guiding principle rather than to seek a set of rules, and in this case it's about quantization of discretion. Here's what I wrote:

People talk of "fair use" but what they actually mean is that we all depend on the exercise of judgment in every decision. Near the "bulls-eye" of copyright we're all clear what is what, but as Lessig eloquently explains in Free Culture, in the outer circles we have to make case-by-case judgments about what usage is fair and what usage is abuse. When a technologist embodies their or their employer's view of what's fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step and freedom is quantized.

It strikes me that the inherent quantization of rights is what makes DRM at best undesirable and at worst a guarantee of cultural Alzheimer's. I was thus delighted when a very senior Sun executive insisted that the position paper include the following paragraph:

Before we discuss interoperability in detail, we would like to emphasize this last point. Sun believes that DRM should be a solution only when necessary. DRM should never restrict the user's ability to utilize the content in legally-permissible ways. With this in mind, any DRM system must be open, fully interoperable, and free from hidden IP licensing burdens that effectively re-close the system economically. Indeed, in the spirit of the company that supports OpenOffice.org, Sun believes that the Commission's stance should enable it to be possible to create a free version of any DRM system used in the EU!

Of course, I am personally among those who believe it is never necessary to apply Digital Restrictions to content, but I'm very pleased that Sun is taking a position that DRM should not be assumed to be automatically a part of the entertainment business.

Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Roman Canaries

DFIR Meeting

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a large and distinguished international audience in Rome, DFIR, considering the creation of a "Bill of Rights" for the Internet as a part of the ongoing IGF process. Many presenters spoke about privacy, about access to knowledge, about the need to build on the well-established corpus of wisdom in existing statements on human rights. Listening through the morning, it became apparent that most people were taking for granted the technical basis on which the Internet was created.

Thus in my speech I decided to take the opposite approach, taking as given the obvious need to establish human rights of privacy, access, free speech and non-discrimination and look at the technical foundations. The Internet exists because of three realities - informally constituted but still consistently real. We have to remember the heritage of the net if we are to protect higher-order rights for its future. Those are

  • Open Standards - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure interface interoperability within every layer of the Internet's architecture, including the “application layer” and its myriad file formats, protocols, schemas, and application programming interfaces.
  • Open Source - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure that is it legally, technically and practically possible for software applications to be equally available under both open source and propriety source code models.
  • Open Access - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure the ability of any end-point on the network to connect to any other correctly configured end-point is available to every other end-point without unreasonable obstruction.

The Sentinel Principle

Romulus and Remus

And so to canaries. It struck me during this that Free software plays an important role over and above delivering the liberty to use software one can inspect and alter. It also serves as the canary in the coalmine for the word "Open". Standards are truly open when they can be implemented without fear as Free software in an open source community. Open source communities are very sensitive to and wary of aspects of a standard that limit or otherwise harm their freedom. As the case of SenderID proved, they spot things for which others have a blind spot or have been gamed.

Whether or not you use the Free software itself, if it doesn't exist then the standard you're considering may well involve the sort of harmful, invisible agent that canaries were used to detect in an earlier age. I know there's plenty of discussion about the precise definition of "open standard" - maybe the best approach is not to define it but rather identify when it is not present using a sentinel.

I'd not want to confuse "Open Standards" with "Open Source" - their only link is that open standards implemented as open source create optimum freedom - but this additional sentinel role for software freedom just might be the answer to a tricky semantic issue in the current public policy arena.

No canaries were harmed in the preparation of this posting.

Sunday Apr 22, 2007

Last Chance on Euro-DMCA

I wrote to my MEPs last week (that's Members of the European Parliament) using the wonderful Write To Them about IPRED2. Here's what I said, in a personal capacity:

Dear Daniel Hannan, Peter Skinner, Ashley Mote, Caroline Lucas, James Elles, Sharon Bowles, Nirj Deva, Richard Ashworth, Nigel Farage and Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne,

I note that the IPR Enforcement Directive comes to vote soon at the European Parliament. I am very concerned with this legislation and with the chilling effect it is likely to have on the emerging culture and economy of the Internet. By providing established large businesses with a new tool to exploit, we risk the dampening of the innovation that is happening online.

This is an unproven area, and as the US experience with the DMCA shows, unleashing powerful sanctions at the behest of existing businesses results in random abuse rather than its prevention. This directive may have aspects which lobbyists from the drug, software and communications industries can make sound appealing, but it will restrain open source software development in Europe and the pioneering of new European businesses. It is only pro-innovation for those with existing monopolies or near-monopolies.

If this directive had been in place before, Oracle could have crushed MySQL, Microsoft could have crushed OpenOffice.org and Skype would never have happened. Please vote against it.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Phipps

I said "against" since the e-mail was already long enough without articulating the pros and cons of each proposed amendment - I know they will get the point! So far I have had placeholder responses from Lucas, Bowles and Mote and a real reply from Farage. I've offered to discuss the legislation with any of them that want to contact me direct.

As Glyn and Cory both point out, if you are a citizen of a country that is a member of the EU, today is probably your last chance to beg your representatives not to cave to the unholy alliance of drug, media and software companies that wants to make criminal sanctions available against copyright and patent abusers. It needs to remain a civil matter, and the proposed amendments do their best to keep it that way.

Monday Aug 14, 2006

Branding Scar

While it's currently fashionable to knock Google, I can't help agreeing with both The Register and GMSV in supporting them over the defence of their brand. Anyone with even the most passing understanding to trademark law will be familiar with both the problem of a brand becoming generic and how you prevent it.

It happens when, through the neglect of the brand owner, a term gets used colloquially as a part of speech rather than in specific relation to the product or company it refers to. Famous losers in the US are kleenex (as in "I blew my nose in a Safeway's kleenex") and xerox ("go make a xerox on that computer will you"), and famous winners are Coke (which is why asking for a coke in a restaurant that sells only Pepsi gets you corrected every time in the US).

Every marketing professional with half a brain knows that a brand owner has no choice but to send a letter asking anyone they notice mis-using their brand to stop doing it. They may not want to, and it may not be a 'cool' thing to do, but there's no choice - defend it or see your failure to do so in any particular case being used to prove you don't care about your brand. In this case, Google has been as cute about it as possible, using humour so subtle some people aren't spotting it. They are also being consistent, having sent polite and not especially threatening letters to pretty much everyone since at least 2003.

So if this is obvious, common practice, required by law, and consistently carried out in a reasonable way since 2003, why are obviously experienced marketeers like Steve Rubel and the Boing Boing gang attacking Google over it? Seems to me it's more to do with their agenda than Google's behaviour.

Sunday Aug 13, 2006

Breach of Contract?

They are my personal views, so I have made sure you can't possibly mistake them for Sun's views by writing about software patents over on Webmink.

Monday Apr 17, 2006

Is DReAM A Nightmare?

Reading Cory Doctorow's article discussing the junction of DRM1 and Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) and then Andrew Orlowski's interviews in The Register over the weekend, I have to say that I agree with much of what Cory has to say2 concerning Sun's Project DReAM.

In my view, the project has unfortunately conflated two different debates. By invoking F/OSS it automatically brings with it the worldview that implies. In the dialectic of that world, software is considered to either promote liberty or to promote monopoly, with F/OSS always promoting liberty. By associating DRM (which can never promote liberty) and F/OSS (which always does), anyone is guaranteed to come across as initially clueless, it is a semantic inevitability. This is the justified attack that Cory makes and he has my respect and broad agreement in making the point.

However the experimental project is licensed3, it doesn't change the fact that Sun groks software freedom. We've realised that the business of software doesn't depend on keeping the source code secret - in the networked era that simply limits the opportunities. Freeing the source code and opening up development to communities is becoming an instinct - one the DReAM team has rightly followed.

Is There A Place for Pragmatism?

But to my eyes, Project DReAM is not an open source play. I can't help believe that DRM will be a fact of life for at least the next five years. My view is that it's a disaster for modern culture, not least because it destroys "fair use" rights by quantising discretion. But, like death and taxes, it seems inescapable. So given we have to head into this void, the DReAM approach is to try to create a system that is the least worst option.

The truth remains that as people create IPTV systems and music distribution systems and more, they will use DRM, even if it is bad for the customer. It seems churlish to let the stuff Big Media is churning out place a generation of culture out of the reach of the ordinary citizen - to not play is to guarantee that, if Tim is wrong and this stuff takes hold, it's all the domain of the bad guys. As comes across from David Berlind's interview with Tom Jacobs, surely there is room for technology experimentation to see if it's possible to find a way to defend fair use in a world hell-bent on eliminating it? That seems to be the point Lawrence Lessig was making:

We should have laws that encouraged a DRM-free world. We should demonstrate practices that make compelling a DRM-free world. All of that should, I thought, be clear. But just as one can hate the Sonny Bono Act, but think, if there’s a Sonny Bono Act, there should also be a Public Domain Enhancement Act, so too can one hate DRM, but think that if there’s DRM, it should be at least as Sun is saying it should be.

I agree with Lessig (and Richard Stallman). Within that frame, I've been happy to support the (definitely incomplete) experimentation that Project DReAM represents - flat refusal to explore the space is unsatisfyingly dogmatic. I'll carry on watching, with an open mind, but for now I'm mostly with Cory.


  1. Digital Restrictions Management is the term I prefer to expand this acronym as the technology is about using one's "rights" to restrict others access.
  2. Mind you, some might regard this as special pleading in a context that's had a problem coming for ages. In the F/OSS communities we've spent way too long focussing on licenses and legalism and not nearly enough time considering the governance of communities or the nature of "content". This is being addressed in GPL v3 but until that's current, complete with a DRM prohibition, I see no reason why any field of endeavour can't be F/OSS licensed within the current rules and outlooks. This isn't an "older outlook", Cory, this is what happens when F/OSS is only defined in times of licenses. But I agree we as a community need to address it.
  3. Frankly, I would rather have Project DReAM under a Free software license (as it is) than a proprietary license.

Tuesday Feb 07, 2006

Limited Indemnity?

Help me here. I thought one of the key advantages of buying software from a corporation was they protect you from patent claims - part of something called "indemnification". It's what Sun did with Kodak when Kodak managed to persuade a Rochester court that a patent they bought was valid and infringed by the Java environment (despite the prior art). Sun took the $90M bullet and saved Java developers and deployers from having to change anything.

So why exactly are all Microsoft's customers being told to upgrade Office or face a lawsuit? Microsoft lost the case, paid damages but does not appear to have bought a license to the patent. So all its customers remain at risk from a patent lawsuit themselves, unless they update their software to use Microsoft's work-around. Did one of the world's richest and most aggressive companies just fail to indemnify their customers? Surely not.

Saturday Jan 28, 2006

Open Media Commons Workshop

I notice that the Open Media Commons (the initiative to create open and open source DRM) has announced a workshop in California on March 15-16. Looks worth investigating and registering early - and they are inviting presentation proposals too.

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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