Responsible Leadership: Tony Stanco and the EGOVOS Problem

NYFairUse representatives staged a peaceful protest at last month's DC conference supposedly aimed at exposing free and open-source software to government officials.

NYFairUse representatives, costumed as the American Founding Fathers, left the warm comfort of their homes at 4:00 in the morning on March 17th, 2003, to go down to Washington DC. We left for George Washington University in full colonial regalia in a 15-person passenger van. The purpose of our trip was to protest the mismanagement of the EGOVOS conference taking place that morning.

The central issue that galvanized NYFairUse in this situation is the increasingly irresponsible manner in which free and open-source software advocates have been putting together conferences and events. EGOVOS was supposed to be a showcase for free and open-source software in government, be it local, national or international. The conference had the potential to open up a stubbornly closed market by laying out the legal, moral and practical foundations for the use of free software in everyday government operation. Instead, it became a platform and photo opportunity for the Microsoft organization--the inevitable result when the $40 billion company dedicated to destroying free software is invited to make a presentations.

As expected, Microsoft didn't let their shareholders down. The few news items that came out of this conference were about Microsoft's "Shared Source". Microsoft's money buys real loyalty in the technology press, and in a conference with little media coverage the only mainstream press was from E-Week, which ran a full article on Microsoft's misdirections under the headline, "Microsoft's Matusow: No Right Way to Create Software". The article did everything it could to blur the differences between free software and the closed, anti-competitive methods of monopolists. All of this becomes fodder for their next $100 million campaign aimed at every CTO in the nation. Worse than that, it takes food off the table of our free software consulting industry and the developer community it supports. Their presence crippled people who sell free software for a living. It damaged those who could offer the uninitiated (such as the attendees of the conference) a solid, firsthand presentation of the benefits of free software. It leaves the public confused about the benefits of free software in their businesses, jobs and lives.

Bad Leadership versus Good Advocacy

NYFairUse first heard about the problem with EGOVOS through the NYLXS mailing list, as part of a follow-up on our experiences with the 2003 Linux World Exposition in New York. At the Expo, NYLXS member David Sugar voiced his confusion about his product (the GNU/Bayonne telephony system) losing the award for Best System Integration Software to Microsoft's Services for Unix. NYLXS had its annual dinner after the convention, and we spoke with Linux Journal editor Don Marti about the award and its implications to our membership. Something didn't seem right, but Don offered a reasonable explanation for the turn of events. NYFairUse had an impromptu discussion about the award and about the rumblings coming from SCO that suggested they might be preparing lawsuits against the GNU/Linux community for infringing upon UNIX patents. We decided to keep an eye on upcoming developments on both fronts. A few days later. David Sugar e-mailed the NYLXS list about Microsoft's presentation at EGOVOS.

We quickly had a broad and lively discussion about the situation, with the participation of the Washington DC-area LUGs, developers from California and Canada, members of the Free Software Foundation, NYFairUse, GNU Enterprise, The Open Office Marketing List, a few interested journalists, NYLUG and eventually Bruce Perens (who happens to be a member of the group hosting the EGOVOS conference, the Cyber Security and Policy Institute). I watched my e-mail account fill with hundreds of private messages from people across the east coast, all volunteering to protest Microsoft's inclusion. NYFairUse had an internal discussion and decided that the last thing we wanted was an unwieldy demonstration in front of hundreds of government officials who might be investigating free software for the first time. We need to reverse the trend of Microsoft getting a free public relations boost at the expense of free software developers and advocates, particularly at our own venues, so we decided that NYFairUse would go in with a focused message presented by a small and prepared group. We rejected the calls for a broad and raucous protest: if all the volunteers showed up we would have outnumbered the actual conference participants.

We had to figure out how to attract attention, raise the necessary issues, put the open-source "leaders" on notice and still not turn the conference completely upside down. The answer NYFairUse came up with was exciting, fun and effective. We are fortunate to have associates working on Broadway, and they introduced us to costume designers who dressed us as Colonial Americans, circa 1776. Suddenly everything came together, and NYFairUse was ready to move ahead in a constructive manner. The core of the NYFairUse action included Joe Grastara, Dave Williams, Cesar Vargas, Sunny Dubbey, Adam Kosmin, Tim Wilcox, Marco Scoffier, Vincenzo L., Ray Connolly and myself. Dave Williams and Joe Grastara helped us construct an effective message that became our pamphlet. Ray arranged for transportation and drove both to and from the event, a total of twelve hours. Cesar, Sunny, Ray, Tim, Adam and myself dressed as Founding Fathers. Marco and Vinnie helped everyone prepare. The entire enterprise was underwritten by NYLXS. Most of the participants met in Brooklyn and stayed overnight at my home, where a weekend-long InstallFest was taking place. Ray, as the driver, got several hours sleep while the rest of us made final preparations. At 4:00 AM, NYFairUse embarked on the trip to Washington. We arrived safely at 9:30 in the morning, fully dressed in costumes and ready to make our case.

Reaching our Audience: Confronting Hostile Guards

Upon our arrival at George Washington University, the appearance of seven historic American heroes astonished people, and cameras flashed all around. After we picked up our badges and began handing out our pamphlets, people flowed out of the main auditorium to surround us and inquire about who we were and what we were handing out. We brought 400 pamphlets, and all but a dozen where given away. Each NYFairUse member became a center of attention. We managed to talk personally with nearly every member of the conference accept for Bradley Kuhn, who refused to talk to any of us for some reason.

Our pamphlet strongly condemned the organizers of the conference for not appropriately representing the free software movement and for caving in to self-interest over the good of the community. We explained that they were giving Microsoft a free public relations opportunity to confuse the issues and to promote their "Shared Source" disinformation campaign. The conference itself, although filled with luminaries from the international Free Software Community, was limited in its attendance. During our visit, no more than 500 people were at the presentations, but the numbers might have been closer to 300. The small gathering proved useful, as NYFairUse was able to contact nearly every participant directly. We had nearly 100% penetration of the conference, including both attendees and speakers. Many of us spent several minutes talking to individuals, and I personally had the pleasure of speaking about the problem with European Union Minister Philip Aigrain, whom I had previously met in Bordeaux last year. I also spent a few minutes talking to Georg Greve of the European FSF, David Axmark of MySQL, Sarah Brown from Public Knowledge and many others whose names I failed to get. The same was true for all of the NYFairUse members.

At one point while giving out pamphlets, the security guards came over. Searching for the leader of the protest, one guard approached me and asked who was in charge. I waved him off, and he became very annoyed. He asked me my name, so I smiled and said, "George...like in Washington, and you're in my University." I spotted journalist Grant Gross and said, "Look Grant, they're throwing us out of here!" Grant took out his notepad and the cameras gathered around. The guard retreated and went to speak with Tony Stanco. They decided that it was better to let us proceed than to face the bad press.

A few minutes later Tony Stanco came over to talk to me. I spent a couple of minutes with him, during which he asked me if I got everything I wanted out of the event. I told him that we'll know in a few months, if Microsoft still is getting a free ride courtesy of the Open Source community. Mr. Stanco reassured me that what we were doing was okay. Having his approval was not reassuring. I made it clear that it wasn't our intention to have a blood-letting. Our purpose was to get a message across to the open-source leadership, explaining what we require of them and what standards we expect. Mr. Stanco then pointed to the crowd, saying, "You see these people? You'll never get through to them with screaming and yelling." I replied, "Maybe -- it depends on the need. In this case, we don't need to scream. In another situation, a louder voice might be useful." Mr. Stanco then said, "Have you ever heard Microsoft talk? They're going to be the best promoters of Free Software when they open their mouths." I reiterated my points: Microsoft's presence at the EGOVOS conference takes attention away from other, more deserving individuals and focuses it on themselves. Mr. Stanco refused to recognize the situation he created. He also failed to understand that this was part of a broader trend the community faces: the increasing encroachment of Microsoft in venues designed to sell free software to the public. The public deserves better.

By 2:00 PM, we essentially had spoken to everyone at the conference. We made a lot of contacts, and in addition to handing out pamphlets, NYFairUse members handed out literature about their own government and business projects. In fact we took about 30 folders representing the Free Software Chamber of Commerce, our New York Free Software consultants network. Every folder was given out. We had a long discussion with the head of Hewlett Packard Research in Europe, who was very upset with us because he believed we opposed the commercialization of Free Software. We spent some time explaining how this was not the case, that we were upset because someone was giving Microsoft a free pass to the Open Source movement without making them contribute anything.

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Misrepresentation by Ruben Safir

Anonymous's picture

Ruben Safir does not represent New Yorkers for Fair Use. New Yorkers for Fair Use is at http://www.nyfairuse.org, has always been there, has had numerous very successful actions, and had nothing to do with this action at eGovOS.

Ruben Safir left New Yorkers for Fair Use last September against the advice of other members of the group, and then asked the group's co-founder, Brett Wynkoop, to shut down their web site. When Brett refused, Ruben then declared that he had been the sole founder of the group among the members of his own organization, NYLXS (http://www.nylxs.com).

Re: Misrepresentation by Wynkoop and Company

Anonymous's picture

What? Anyone who would make these assertions would be someone smoking too much peace pipe.

Brett Wynkoop, with the help of Jay, decided to destroy and split for NY Fair Use. Brett took the domain which was being hosted on his machines, and tried to ruin NYLXS and stealing their domain, as they did NY Fair Use. Anyone who would trust Brett Wynkoop should be warned now.

Anyone who would consider Mr Wynkoop a 'cofounder' is a nut job.

Re: Responsible Leadership: Tony Stanco and the EGOVOS Problem

Anonymous's picture

I was at the conference, all three days. The MS presetation was a minor piece, which I didn't even bother to attend because I've got better things to do with my time than listen to MS. MS is *irrelevant* in an OSS conference, so I'm not sure why anyone bothered to go to their session. It is rather a pity that many of the articles about the conference seemed to focus on MS's presence.

Re: Responsible Leadership: Tony Stanco and the EGOVOS Problem

TaranRampersad's picture

Yes, Microsoft is irrelevant at this time at a FOSS related conference (who knows, someday?), but the irrelevance did not keep them from presenting. As you say, you are not sure why anyone bothered to go to their session - which implies that some did. Had I been there, I most certainly would have gone - since in promoting FOSS, I find myself being faced with the Microsoft presence. Being aware of their strategies is important in this regard; being aware of how they are approaching consumers is also important.

In saying that, it's apparent to me - in retrospect, and after further thought - that Microsoft's presence itself was a distractor, and should not have been permitted. Many people had such foresight, in this instance I did not. I had thought that their presentation would have been less a distractor.

In retrospect, it becomes apparent that even a distractor of limited magnitude is a distractor too large - and one distractor too many. Imagine if someone else had spoken there, imagine what could have been communicated - instead of furthering the cause of a proprietary giant that shrouds itself in legalese, mimicing FOSS only to capture food.

Thank you for this article.

TaranRampersad's picture

Not only the article, but the action taken.

The fact that Microsoft overshadowed everything was something I hoped that would not happen - and apparently, it did. My fears, and the fears of many of those concerned, were substantiated.

The Shared Source initiative put forward by Microsoft is a dangerous thing. As you say, it blurs the lines between FOSS and Proprietary software, to the advantage of Proprietary Software. Of course, they are in a bit of a pickle these days. :)

Thankfully, preceding all of this, Tony Stanco did not accept the invitation (nor did he respond!) to the FLOS Caribbean conference, which I am now - personally - glad of.

Great luck with Congressman Weiner! That's very good. That's what eGovOS, I think, should be doing. FOSS started from grass roots. Abandoning these roots is a failure. FOSS stands on it's own - and going in and installing GNU/Linux in the office of Congressman Weiner is worth much more than many Microsoft dominated eGovOS conferences.

Shame on the organizers of that conference. In trying to swing from vine to vine, I fear they grasped a well greased one...

Re: Thank you for this article.

Anonymous's picture

Your Welcome

NY Fair Use ran into some fairly steep oppoisition when we

did this from within the community. Most of those opponents didn't even take the time to understand the nature of the complaint or the problem. But in reality, we did a very effective campaign, one of many that NY Fair Use has participated in over the last few years.

Re: Thank you for this article.

TaranRampersad's picture

Perhaps, in future, you will find less opposition.