Disappointed (so far) by Italian Open Legislation experiment

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In may 2009 I announced on the P2P Foundation blog what I believe is the first collaborative law writing experiment in Italy:

"Two senators of the Italian Democratic party, Vincenzo Vita and Luigi Vimercati, have written a law proposal which defends Net Neutrality and promotes non proprietary formats and software in public administrations and Universities"

In May and July 2009 I contributed several changes to the open wiki specifically set up to discuss and collectively improve the text of the proposal. A few days ago I read online that that law proposal had just been formally presented to the Italian Senate. Unfortunately, when I downloaded that last version I found a couple of disappointing things in it.

What should the purpose of an Open Internet be?

The first disappointment comes from something that was already missing from the first version I had seen on the wiki last May. For some reason I honestly can’t explain I hadn’t realized back then what I’m going to explain now, otherwise I’d have said it earlier. Here’s the problem. The first draft of the law proposal I had seen online in early April 2009 stated (Article 1, section (b) that one of the general goals of the law itself was:

to guarantee the new rights of active citizenship and their full and conscious practice from everybody in the collectivity, with the goal of strengthening participation and the democratic decision-making process

That paragraph is one of the many reasons why I got interested in contributing to the Wiki. Making active citizenship and actual control on government actions possible for everybody is one of the biggest and most important opportunities the Internet has to offer (if you don’t believe it, please read points 5 and 10 of the Online Loser Guide or the reasons why everybody should watch TV on a computer). Unfortunately, that paragraphs is absent both from the version actually presented to the Senate and from the first draft published on the wiki in May 2009.

The removal of that paragraph isn’t negligible. The remaining goals (guarantee Net Neutrality, fight the Digital Divide, promove Free Software and Open Digital Standards) are great anyway, but without the explicit will to guarantee active citizenship and participation what remains is a lot less like the Internet and a lot more like TV. I mean, mere access without discriminations to all “information sources”, including reality shows and advertising, is what we’ve already had for decades through any television, isn’t it? Pity, don’t you think?.

Who decides which alphabets can be used?

File formats are like alphabets and software programs like pens. Everybody can read a letter written with a patented, very expensive pen, because the alphabet is free. For the same reason, if a file format is completely known and can be actually supported by any program, that file is accessible to everybody, even if it was written with a secret, very expensive software program. That’s why, in May 2009 I had observed on the law proposal wiki:

By definition, real pluralism in ICTs is what happens... insisting above all on the exclusive usage, as far as Public Administrations and their relationships with other parties are concerned, of really open file formats and communication protocols.

For this very reason I had recommended in April 2009, that is even before the wiki was open, to change two articles that said that Public Administrations and Universities “must accept and process digital documents from citizens, businesses and other entities, in whatever format those documents are delivered”.

In May 2009 I had explained again in the wiki that leaving such sentences as cited above would have been enough to make all that part of the law pretty much useless. Telling Public Administrations and Universities that they must accept whatever format a file is in means forcing them to pay for who knows how many years, with public money, licenses and/or maintenance of who knows how many proprietary software and non-standard formats (that will become unreadable sooner or later), if even one citizen or company in a thousand refuses to use open, standard formats. Accordingly, I had changed those paragraphs in the wiki to say “in whatever OPEN format those documents are delivered”

The result is that, eight months after I explained this, articles 9, section 3 and article 12, section 3 of the law proposal as presented to the Senate still say that Public Administrations and Universities are required to accept and process digital documents in whatever format those documents are delivered.

If you know software programming well enough to write a new word processor with a secret file format, do it now, put it on sale and price it one million Euro per seat. Should that law be approved as it was presented in late January 2010, you’ll just have to send Christmas greetings to all Italian Public Administrations to force them to buy your software, since they will be required by law to “accept and process” the files they receive, in whatever format. With any luck, you won’t make as much money as Bill Gates: you’ll make enough to directly buy him.

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