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Information Technologies and International Development
Upstairs Downstairs


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Upstairs Downstairs

Evan Leibovitch

WSIS held out the promise that the nations of the world could agree on innovative and effective policies on Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The conference, sponsored by the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union, has attempted to portray itself as laying the groundwork for an ICT equivalent of the 1997 Kyoto Accord.

Anyone who actually came to Geneva expecting a spirit of international diplomatic co-operation to reduce barriers and bring the developing world beyond rudimentary IT access and into global competitiveness, had reason to come away embittered. The Summit's structure required unanimous consent on official declarations. At best this forced lowest common denominator language that amounted to little more than platitudes and celebration of anything non-controversial. However, the world's nations seemed even less eager to co-operate than usual, given the great divisions over the Iraq war

and the dismal failure of global trade talks in Cancún just a few months earlier.

Civil Society, the term used at such events to describe non-governmental participants (non-profits, religious groups, charities, think-tanks and community activists) , were invited to take part as advocates and observers. However, Civil Society was frequently less than civil itself.

Often marginalized and sometimes censored, many groups had reason to complain that they were shut out of the conference's real inner workings.

Compounding the gloom was the mainstream media's general indifference to WSIS, accurately reflecting its inability to produce any substantive initiatives. Dominating the news out of Geneva that week was Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who used his WSIS pulpit to attack the Commonwealth, and Egyptian President Murarek's meetings with Iranian and Israeli government officials just after his own WSIS speech. ICT issues were practically an afterthought. The European Community constitution debate and later Saddam Hussein's capture almost completely removed any existing remnants of WSIS

from public attention.

From the perspective of those advocating the use of free and open source software (FOSS), the WSIS process was certainly not encouraging. The official documents themselves barely mentioned FOSS at all, burying its mention in a bland paragraph about "increasing awareness" of various software models. Earlier drafts that recommended supporting or encouraging FOSS had been gutted due to pressure from proprietary software defenders such as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

FOSS policy advocates didn't fare much better at the conference itself, but one must wonder whether their tactics did much to help their cause. Free Software Foundation (FSF) leader Richard Stallman spoke with pride about sticking his tongue out for his security ID photo, and in one session got into a 10-minute argument with a translator who dared to convert "logiciel libre" into "free and open source software". It's no surprise that the FSF accomplished little more than getting the words "open source" and "intellectual property" purged from Civil Society commentaries on WSIS activities. And one can easily argue the wisdom of advancing a position while refusing to use the familiar terminology of those who most need convincing.

Still, not everyone came away from WSIS unhappy. Indeed, for many people in Geneva that week including staff and volunteers of our organization, the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) -- the good news far dominated the bad. This is because WSIS wasn't really where the ICT action was going on in Geneva that week.

Adjacent to and downstairs from WSIS, occupying the next hall in Geneva's miserable Palexpo convention center, was a parallel event called ICT-4D (ICT for Development). It had a more-specific and more-practical goal, of increasing ICT capabilities throughout the developing world, and, in particular, within Africa. Unlike WSIS and the barren walls of its many temporary meeting rooms, ICT4D had more of a tradeshow atmosphere, where companies, countries, non-profits and development agencies occupied booths to bring attention to their efforts to improve the world through technology.

It was this environment, in which participants came to teach and rather than preach, it was far more satisfying to those who were advancing the use of FOSS globally as well as those interested in learning more about it. Indeed, anyone who ventured down the stairs from WSIS to the ICT4D exhibit floor -- and many did -- would immediately notice the changed level of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism. And it was downstairs at ICT4D that open source, as it was usually called there, took center stage.

There were the conference sessions that, unlike the philosophical and policy bantering of WSIS, concentrated on the practical. It was here that congressman Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez explained how and why he made open source a part of Peruvian public policy. It was here that the World Bank released its bright yellow report, "Open Source Software -- Perspectives for Development". It was here that FOSS professionals from around Africa met to plan ongoing strategy, and where countries such as Brazil, South

Africa and Cuba asserted their open source prowess. And it was here that proprietary software boosters such as Microsoft and CompTIA found themselves on the defensive, seeking to be portrayed as voices of fairness but coming across as miscast devil's advocates.

Front and center amongst the open source phenomenon at ICT4D was LPI. Our booth was one of the busiest on the ICT4D exhibit floor, attracting people from hours before the show opened until hours after it closed. More than 5,500 SuSE and Debian Linux CDs were given away. Thousands of multi-lingual LPI brochures advanced the need for professionalism, high quality education and unencumbered standards in ICT.

The 22 people, representing six continents, who were based at the LPI booth truly demonstrated the open source concept of global community to the WSIS and ICT4D audience. Few other groups shared our diversity, with people from Brazil to Bulgaria to Burkina Faso, speaking all the conference's five official languages. The LPI contingent included a number of Geneva Linux User Group members, who helped with local arrangements and made the visitors feel very welcomed -- they helped demonstrate that the open source community had roots everywhere.

Instead of policy statements and lectures, LPI staged an interactive workshop in which participants helped each other understand the pros -- and the cons -- of implementing FOSS solutions and infrastructures. Some participants commented that it had been their most useful time of the whole week.

To cap off the week, LPI held one of its certification exam laboratories on the last day of the conference, which attracting larger-than-expected attendance.

Besides attracting people to its own events, LPI and its people participated and attended seminars and meetings throughout the conference. They learned about what some were doing to promote open source, and saw first-hand the tactics of those who are trying to curb that same momentum . Nevertheless, the overall message was clear; despite the best efforts of proprietary vendors (and their surrogates) to muddy the waters, an

increasing number of countries and global organizations are seeing open source adoption as good public policy. Asking for open source techniques in public IT projects, in some circles, is seen as the same kind of public good as demanding that new building construction use proper safety precautions and include publicly-accessible parkland.

This was the cruel irony of WSIS: while the official wording of the Summit's documents still leaves much to be desired, the less-tangible presence of open source at the conference was undeniable and its momentum unstoppable.

The participants in WSIS still have time to work on improving the situation. Geneva was actually the preliminary phase, with another prepatory event being planned in Barcelona in 2004 in anticipation of the grand finale occurring in Tunis in late 2005. It is safe to say that many of the FOSS supporters involved in the Geneva event (and its preparations) will continue to stay involved. Indeed, it is likely that the voices behind FOSS will work to strengthen their presence at WSIS, to build on the great community display demonstrated during the week on the ICT4D conference floor.

To be certain, many obstacles exist for FOSS supporters at the policy level. Those organizations who seek to deny FOSS its recognition as a tool for worldwide IT development will still be around.. But the FOSS response is already growing and evolving to challenge that opposition. The Geneva events offered many FOSS supporters a chance to see both the positive as well as the negative goings on. Most importantly, through the personal interaction at the ICT4D conference of LPI and other supporting groups, conference attendees who came downstairs, were able to see the immense (and increasing) popularity and support enjoyed by the open source movement.

In other words, you didn't need to go far to see the good news from the Geneva events, from a FOSS perspective. In the coming months this positive attitude needs to make its way upstairs, into the minds and documents of the policy makers. Given the grassroots community nature of the open source movement, this challenge is familiar territory. We've challenged the forces upstairs before - and been successful. Let's use the lessons from those past battles and ensure WSIS 2005 is a much different event.

Evan Leibovitch
President, Linux Professional Institute