Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The U.N., Open Source and Repression

The United Nations helps governments use open source as a tool of repression, according to a group named the Inner City Press. Among their rambling and rumormongering, this group accuses the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) of aiding the government of Uzbekistan in using open source as an instrument to support systematic repression.

I would offer a few general comments on this:

1. The UN has not shown much leadership in technology policymaking. UNDP itself has been incoherent and contradictory toward open source. While UNDP’s former chief, Mark Malloch Brown, urged Microsoft to work with the open source community, its IT Department organized marketing presentations to staff by big proprietary vendors. The gulf between the words of UNDP management and the actions of staff is often wide.

2. At least one group within the UN system (and ironically under UNDP) does an excellent job in promoting forward-thinking ICT policies: the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP). Unlike many UN agencies, it is focused, principled, competent and physically separate from UN headquarters.

3. Let’s be honest. UNDP’s mandate is to work in poor countries. And many poor countries have un-democratic governments. Partnerships with such governments are always difficult, often problematic and sometimes compromising.

Specifically, about UNDP’s project in Uzbekistan ...

UNDP’s technology efforts in Uzbekistan fall under a new project assisting the Uzbeki government in the formulation and implementation of ICT for development policy. According to UNDP, the project aims to promote an “[e]nabling environment for civil society to participate actively in the development process.” This is normal, meaningless UNDP fare.

The project—which runs from 2005-2009 with a budget of $535,000—included financing a report on free/open source software. It also supports typical UNDP project activities like study tours, seminars and other capacity-building efforts.

UNDP frequently works with governments of all persuasions to develop ICT policy frameworks. Nothing wrong with that. Technology is one aspect of a country’s development efforts. However, it is reasonable to ask whether UNDP should have certain policy parameters or conditions to avoid technologies of repression?

In other words, should UNDP attach strings to its ICT projects?

This is a serious question. Possible conditions might include making UNDP funding of ICT projects contingent upon partner governments not blocking access to news sites, or establishing privacy protections for users. And certainly UNDP should not provide or pay for software used enable censorship or limit user freedoms. It needs to openly and strongly condemn such practices.

Perhaps all UN agencies should consider setting common policies for ICT-in-development projects.

Three disclaimers:
o In the past I have worked for UNDP projects in various capacities.
o UNDP-APDIP participated in the Open ePolicy Group, which I founded.
o I know one person in UNDP’s office in Uzbekistan, though we have not discussed this post or these issues.

Categories: OpenSource, government, UnitedNations

Monday, December 11, 2006

Standards Smackdown!

Technology rarely sparks public debate, let alone political intrigue. But a “no holds barred” fight has begun in the technology world over document formats. That means nothing to most people. But it is turning the IT world into the UFC. This fight is not just among geeky programmers. Industry heavyweights and governments are getting ready to rumble.

Ecma's approval of the Office Open XML (ooXML) standard this week sets up a big showdown. A competing standard – the OpenDocument Format (ODF) – is already ISO-approved.

I noted in a recent CNET article that Ecma's approval of ooXML will increase confusion in the marketplace. Consumers and companies now face two different document standards. One is a proprietary-encumbered standard, the other an open standard. Both are endorsed by standards organizations and industry allies.

The average person, even the average corporate customer will be confused. And when it comes to technology, the uninformed are easily abused. Politicians, often among the most technologically challenged, are already being targeted. It’s about to get worse. A giant PR blitz is coming. Corporate commanders are fueling the FUD missiles.

The ultimate question is which document standard will become the standard?

One group will greatly affect the outcome – the actual consumers of standards: programmers and IT developers. They are the people who use the specifications of these 2 standards. These developers (and companies that employ them) must deal with reality. Software development is hard work, and complexity drives up costs. It is true for software. It will be true for document standards.

According to a new study, in Asia today 70% of computer programmers use open source software in their work. Why? It’s cheaper than proprietary software and allows total access to the source code. Applying ooXML, a standard bloated with proprietary functions, will be difficult and costly. These will be serious disincentives to IT developers not employed by Microsoft.

All those Asian software developers using open source – 50% of them will use XML next year. Will they be willing to endure to pain and costs of using ooXML instead of ODF, a simpler, more open standard?

Welcome to the standards smackdown. The fighters have entered the Octagon. It looks like a sumo champion will face a jui-jitsu master. It’s déjà vu all over again. Want to know the results the first time? It’s here.

Oh yeah – it's on now.

Categories: OpenDocument, ODF, standards, ooXML, Microsoft