How should we manage the Vendola-Puglia-Microsoft deal?


Last week Nichi Vendola, leader of Italian left party SEL and current president of the italian region of Puglia signed a Berlusconi-like deal with Microsoft. In the same day Vendola announced that, in this very week, the Puglia Regional Council will issue a regional law on Open Source Software. The way this story is evolving is relevant for all citizens (including those who couldn’t care less about software!), both in Puglia and abroad. That’s why I found useful to put together the summary below and to make the proposals at the end of this page. Of course, an extra reason for the English translation is that the more (with your help, of course) this story is known outside Italy, the greater the input that Vendola and Region Puglia can receive about how to properly handle the deal.

Some background first

On November 24th, 2010, Nichi Vendola signed a deal between Puglia and Microsoft that I and the whole italian community of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) started to criticize before we even read it. We did so (or at least I did) because the target of the critics was not so much the deal in and by itself, but the lack of transparency around it, the way Puglia arrived to it and the partner it chose. Today those first critics seem justified (see below) by the first reactions from Vendola. And this, being a general method issue, is the reason why all citizens should be concerned. The fact that this particular deal was about software is the smallest part of the problem.

Don’t change the subject, please!

Almost immediately after the first critics, Vendola answered… by changing the subject. Some FOSS activists noted that his slogans were nothing but almost verbatim quotes from assorted articles of the italian edition of Wired magazine. In any case, a good part of those first answers can be summarized as “hey folks, why don’t you just let me take care of Microsoft and software? I mean, don’t you know that our real problem here in Puglia and all of Italy is lack of fast Internet connectivity, and my dream is to fix that?” Too bad that (as anybody who knows the basics of computers and ICT networks can confirm in a couple of minutes) software and physical infrastructures for Internet access are completely distinct issues.

Therefore, nobody can justify what they’re doing about one issue with what they’re doing about the other. Here’s a practical explanation of what Vendola did for non-ICT savy readers: it’s just like if you had remembered to a qualified nurse that everybody should wash their hands before entering the operating room and he had answered “but I dream of a world where AIDS has been defeated!”. When people pointed this out to Vendola in several blog posts or in person, he answered changing the subject in the very same way, just worse. This is not the right method, regardless of what is the topic of a discussion. Because if a person does this on one topic, he or she could do the same in other occasions.

The passivity of a Public Administration

Another, very general thing that doesn’t look good in this business is that, so far, one of the biggest regions of Italy appears to have been just a passive subject. Instead of first deciding autonomously general policies and then inviting everybody (including Microsoft, of course, why not?) to implement them together, so far Puglia is giving the impression to have just let somebody else (and not a generic somebody, mind you, but the least plausible candidate for this kind of job) to write the rules alone, without cooperating with any other stakeholder. Luca Menini, of the Italian Linux Society, explained this very well in a post whose gist is:

  • why didn’t Puglia invite Assinform (the Italian association of ICT companies) and other groups to write the deal?

  • why the actual implementation of the deal is to be delegated to a “Committee” (“Comitato d’indirizzo” in Italian) composed only of Puglia and Microsoft delegates?

Oh, and here’s another pearl that I myself didn’t see earlier, sorry: when Vendola announced the deal last week he defined it as an application of “technological neutrality”. Well, the funny thing is that the actual deal, now available online contains no definition whatsoever of “technological neutrality”! It just says that, whatever it is, it will respected. Ah, well. Maybe it would have been better to first issue the Open Source law to define this and other ground rules, and only after that start signing deals, wouldn’t it now?

How sustainable is this model for Puglia?

Last week Renzo Davoli, president of the Italian Association for Free Software, casually met Vendola at a conference and explicitly asked him “why did you sign this deal?”. Davoli reports that Vendola answered (since part of the deal is that Microsoft will open an R&D center in Puglia): “I cannot refuse any opportunity to create jobs in Puglia”. Personally I have problem with such an answer, politicians must be pragmatic. I mean it! If Vendola will succeed in making Microsoft create new and stable jobs in Puglia I’ll be happy! Watch out, however! Microsoft can in any moment close shop and reopen it abroad even better than other multinationals, because all its products are immaterial and are normally protected by those software patents that five years ago many politicians (including Vendola) officially asked to forbid in the European Union. Therefore, it would make a lot of sense to ask Microsoft (as also Italian FOSS expert professor Meo did last week!) to demand from Microsoft that all the work from this R&D center in Puglia be released as FOSS, without patents or other “locks” (just as Italian car maker FIAT does… in Brazil, not in Italy). Otherwise, the jobs in that design center risk to last just a few years, just like those of many other R&D centers in Italy in these years.

The missing parties: Assinform, unions and teachers

Another interesting side of this story is who’s still missing from it. As of 12/1/2010, there is no announcement or comment of this deal on the Assinform website: fear of messing with the alpha male? I also searched online for any reaction from Puglia unions and teachers, but all I got is a report, written with rose-colored glasses, that the happiest and luckiest school in Puglia is the one participated in a Microsoft pilot. Is there anything else? I don’t know yet.

Working on this together

Personally, I still think that the most likely case is that Vendola and his staff simply didn’t think this through and walked in the deal considering it an harmless, no brainer step. But we’re still in time to make the best out of the deal, or at least control the damage: while I write the Puglia Open Source Law must still be issued and all the activities mentioned in the protocol must still be defined and carried on by that “Committee”. All the FOSS advocates in Italy offered to help with that and the offer is still valid (as long as nobody tells us again “yeah, right, but isn’t it cooler to speak about fibers and fast Internet access?”). Here are three things that I hope to find in the upcoming Puglia Open Source Law, and if they won’t there I suggest to add them as soon as possible:

  • Official adoption of OpenDocument as the only acceptable format for official texts, presentations and spreadsheets that the Region of Puglia must archive or exchange with any third party. Because the real technological neutrality is based on exclusive usage of open formats and ICT standards.

  • Courses in Puglia for the European Computer Driving License can get money, official endorsement or any other support from the Region only if they are entirely based on Free Software

  • Application of the principles of the Italian Manifesto for Open Government of the Dossier Scuola ( report on the benefits of FOSS for Italian schools), because the greater risk of the protocol is that it promotes cocaine-like dependencies

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