What Are Other Countries Doing to Fight the Digital Dangers?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

A lot, even if it isn’t the kind of news which, until today at least, was likely to make the front page of the Enquirer. The following list, while very incomplete, should be more than enough to convince any parent that Free protocols, file formats and software are taken really seriously, are already moving or saving a lot of money and should be available and familiar to every child who should have all the possibilities to go far in the world.

Free software worldwide

China, Japan and South Korea announced an official initiative in 2003 to promote open source software and platforms such as Linux, in order to increase their self reliance in the Information Technology sector. In January 2007 the Government of the Indian State of Kerala proposed to make the State as “the Free Software destination in India”, establishing an International Center to develop Free Software technologies for social and economic advancement in developing countries.

The policy proposal also includes the will to use OpenDocument and similarly open standards just to avoid total dependence on a few software vendors. Vietnam has a Master Plan for “applying and Developing Open Source Software for the 2004-2008 period”. Starting from summer 2007, members of the French Parliament and their assistants will use the Ubuntu version of the Gnu/Linux operating system.

Are open formats coming?

They surely are raising more and more interest every day worldwide, in all fields. South Korea announced in May 2006 an overhaul of its national mapping system using open standards and software. Three months later, the Hong Kong Government recognized OpenDocument as the recommended standard for interoperability in the areas of collaborative editing of texts, presentations and spreadsheets. In the same month, the Danish Open Source Business Association estimated that the State and local Governments could save about 94 million US Dollars by migrating to OpenOffice.org and OpenDocument. One year before, the Norwegian Minister of Modernization had announced that his government “eNorge 2009” plan includes a transfer to Open Source by 2009, when “Proprietary formats will no longer be acceptable in communication between citizens and government”. As of March 2007, the “Precedents” page of the OpenDocument Fellowship, a volunteers organization devoted to OpenDocument promotion and development, lists almost forty countries where at least one central or local government body has decided to adopt office software supporting OpenDocument.

Does it always work perfectly?

No. There are cases, like the one of the Berlin Senate, which in June 2006 opposed a complete migration to Free operating systems after the software migration trials didn’t go smoothly. Actually this is a good proof of the fact that, when proprietary communication protocols and file formats are used, software, like nuclear plants, is dangerous even after you stop, or try to stop, using it. What matters more then it is to accelerate the transition to freely usable protocols and formats, to minimize the damages and put an end to them as soon as possible.

Luckily, even the copyright-related laws and regulations which contribute so much to create the Digital Dangers or extend their scope are starting to irritate some public officials, at least apparently. In March 2007, for example, a European Union Commissioner asked if it’s reasonable that a song purchased from one digital store cannot be played on any digital music player, adding “It doesn’t to me. Something must change.". In 2006 the Consumer Council of Norway filed a complaint against just this kind of practice. Similar initiatives are under discussion in several countries, but they may not see the light soon enough to be useful, if they aren’t backed by popular pressure.

What does all this mean?

It is especially interesting to note that many of these initiatives are not happening in countries which have been the most technologically advanced so far, but in those who are catching up, free of the burdens of false starts and antiquated infrastructures so common in “first world” countries. In many emerging countries a very large percentage of software programs is distributed and installed illegally. This is not going to continue forever, though. Partly, it is for ethical reasons, and partly because there is no point in stealing the apparently latest and greatest software if it still forces you to buy a much powerful computer just to boot up. Emerging countries have less money to waste and therefore are more motivated to find the really efficient solutions, that is to go in the right direction earlier.

Another important point is that many of these initiatives don’t come from hating the free market or anything similar. In most cases they don’t actually care about which software is used. They simply want to make sure that unrestricted access to public records in their original electronic format is possible even many years after the documents were created. This can be guaranteed only using non-proprietary communication protocols and file formats. When it comes to actually mandating the usage of Free Software, usually the reasons are purely technical, like the fact that it is essential to spot backdoors or privacy violations, and to not leave public offices depending on one or very few vendors.

In any case, all the facts mentioned in this chapter demonstrate that this is the right moment to fight all the Digital Dangers at the State level and that many countries are already doing it, or trying to do it, to jump ahead of the others. Even more importantly, these facts prove that it is essential, for any Government which cares about minimizing expenses, maintaining control of its own culture and data, and creating (and keeping at home) as many qualified jobs as possible to not remain behind in this particular race.