What Can I Do As A Citizen?
(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)
As Spiderman would put it, “with great power comes great responsibility”. This is an age where there is the possibility of improving your life and everybody else’s as well, through the better use of computers and digital technologies. In order for this to actually happen, however, it is necessary to act: sometimes with your wallet, sometimes behaving smartly and sometimes demanding laws that protect and stimulate initiative and talent but, above all, fair competition and equal opportunities with access and use of digital technologies.
The Pension Funds weapon
In general, each individual should have as much control (or information at least) on his retirement funds as possible. Now, as even Jeremy Rifkin pointed out in his book “The end of work”, pension funds depend on the stocks of the very companies that sometimes put people’s pensions at stake. The fact that a pension fund itself can create trouble for such companies threatening to sell or not buy the corresponding shares, should not be undervalued. So, whenever it’s possible, it can help to check if and how much your pension portfolio relies on commercial companies which perpetuate Digital Dangers. Teachers and parents have twice the reasons to do this, since their actions, or lack thereof, will affect and limit their students or children much more than themselves, regardless of what those children and students will do with their life tomorrow.
Vote for a reform (not abolition) of copyright
Copyright is heavily abused nowadays. There is no doubt about it. We have seen in great detail how many problems this causes:
- everybody on Earth is considered a thief and is forced to pay many times for this “guilt”
- it is almost impossible to become a full time artist without paying significant fees to people who didn’t contribute in any way to the creative works which influenced your own creations
- cheap digital devices which may be used in many legal and innovative ways are artificially castrated and reduced to fancy television sets
Abolishing copyright altogether just because it is heavily abused, however, would really be throwing the baby with the bathwater. Lobbying to reduce its extension and limit its scope, instead, as well as only voting candidates who commit to do the same, would be surely enough to restore balance. As long as people don’t forget to do it soon, of course.
Demand open technologies and research in, and from, Public Institutions
Public Universities are paid, at least partly, by taxpayers money and have a public mandate. Why not demand, then, that the software teachers in such institutions develop open formats and software with their students, so that it can be re-used in the common interest at the smallest possible cost for all citizens? The same applies to any Public Administration: such organizations should be, at the very least, obliged to share the software they produce at no cost among themselves, to avoid two departments paying two different developers twice to build from scratch two different (possibly incompatible) programs on two separate occasions, that do the same thing! Public Administrations should also, whenever they publicly release software, do so under an open license.
When it comes to using general purpose software already developed outside the organization, the two first and non-negotiable goals of a Public Administration must be:
- to guarantee that all public digital documents will remain completely readable in the near and far future and
- never impose the use of the same software programs they themselves use, on external partners, suppliers or all citizens
The first goal is what makes it possible to finally abandon the Papyrus age: the second is an essential condition for protecting and increasing competition in the software industry and guaranteeing all citizens the chance to interact via computers with the Administration they elect and pay, at the smallest possible cost.
Both goals can and must be achieved imposing the use of open, “Free as in Freedom” file formats and communication protocols.
This is not the only condition, just the only one within the scope of this book: there is no ethical or technical reason, with the exceptions discussed below, to enforce the use of any specific operating system or software program.
It is certainly right to punish those who create a monopoly or violate the law abusing their dominant position. However, actions limited to allowing or limiting the ways by which vendors of proprietary software can bundle all their products to make competition impossible, does very little to prevent the current offender, or the next wanna-be monopolist from doing the same rather more subtly, as soon as possible.
The right solution to preventing these cases is to realize that it is finally time that governments accept and deliver documents only in non-proprietary formats. This should be done because it is the right thing to do, not to punish any company. In this way everybody would be really free to use or not, any software product: monopolies would be impossible. Luckily, this has already started to happen in many countries, but it really needs the support and votes of all citizens.