A Question of Choice

by Glyn Moody

Choice: it's one of the key ideas at the heart of free software.  The right to choose how to use your software, the right to choose who you share it with.  Who could be against choice?  Certainly not the Initiative for Software Choice, except that it has a slightly different view of what choice implies:

To encourage continued software innovation and promote broad choice, governments are encouraged to consider the following neutral principles:

  • Procure software on its merits, not through categorical preferences

  • Promote broad availability of government funded research

  • Promote interoperability through platform-neutral standards

  • Maintain a choice of strong intellectual property protections

But wait a minute: "maintain a choice of strong intellectual property protections" - that's not quite a neutral principle, is it?  It rather begs the question whether intellectual property is really a good idea.  In Europe, for example, there are still lively discussions going on about whether such intellectual monopolies should apply to "software innovation" at all.

So let's look a little closer at this Initiative for Software Choice.  It certainly has an impressive list of members - hundreds of them.  They mostly seem to be small companies, and nothing wrong with that.  But wait, there are couple of bigger fish among the minnows: EDS is there, and a certain outfit called Microsoft.  And investigating a little further, in the great memory bucket that is Google we find this interesting article in The Register from 2002, by Bruce Perens, in which he reveals that the Initiative for Software Choice owes its origins not only to Microsoft, but also to Peru:

Microsoft is worried about Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva's proposal for his nation's government agencies to standardize on Free Software for their own internal use.  ...  Microsoft has responded with a clever Software Choice campaign that, read quickly, appears to fight discrimination and call for choice, while actually promoting policies that would lock out Free Software.

This information is particularly interesting in the context of a letter that is starting to pop up across the Internet.  It was sent on 10 October from Hugo Lueders, Director of the Initiative for Software Choice Europe, to Françoise Le Bail, Deputy Director-General for the European Commission's Directorate-General Enterprise and Industry, and copied to three other senior EU figures.  The letter comments on a draft version of a study carried out by UNU-MERIT on behalf of the EU on "The impact of Free/Libre/Open Source Software on innovation and competitiveness of the European Union".  A related workshop on the topic was held recently.

The letter seems to be an attempt to blunt some of the impact of this study, which presumably comments positively on the state and potential of free software in Europe, and recommends its wider promotion and deployment there.  Mr Lueders plays his main card right from the start:

It must be reiterated that FLOSS is merely a business model for distributing software, just like many other software business models including hybrid and proprietary software.

This is a clever gambit.  By reducing free software to "merely a business model" it tries to short-circuit all discussions about the other, non-economic benefits that open source offers.  For example, free software creates a digital commons, owned by none but from which all can benefit.  Free software puts the user firmly back in control: there is no vendor lock-in as with proprietary products.  Often there are several suppliers of similar products (as in the GNU/Linux market) or several completely different but compatible solutions (as with the office suites that support ODF).  But these are aspects that the Initiative for Software Choice wants to avoid discussing, because closed source software is the equivalent of enclosing the digital commons, not extending it, and its business model is to make it as hard as possible to leave for those that pay for the privilege of using some fenced-off resource.

Ignoring these broader issues, Mr Lueders prefers to talk about serious business matters like "IPR" - intellectual property rights:

the proprietary model is supported to a large extent by a complex system of rights (i.e. IPR) that has spawned from societal experiences to provide incentives for innovative technological progress.  This system remains valid of its own right; it is an intricate and market-oriented stimulant of innovation that clearly works. ...  IPR fosters and protects innovation - that cannot be denied."

This is the line routinely taken by fans of IPR, but there is plenty of evidence that IPR neither fosters nor protects.  For intellectual property is not about property at all: it is about a government-granted intellectual monopoly.  And monopolies are bad - "that cannot be denied" as Mr Lueders might say.  If you want to understand why, read the brilliant book "Against Intellectual Monopoly" by Michelle Boldrin and David K. Levine, freely available online. 

The overall thrust of the letter (and of the Initiative for Software Choice's campaigns) boils down to the idea that choosing to give preferential treatment to open source is somehow discriminatory and wrong, just as Microsoft's Software Choice campaign claimed back in 2002.  But as Rob Weir points out in a wise posting on the subject of choice:

The fact is that every decision, ever[y] choice you make, commits you and eliminates some other choices. We choose because without choosing we cannot claim the value in a single path among alternatives.

In other words, choosing to support free software is not a neutral act, and should not be judged as such: it is a conscious selection of the solution that is deemed to be better. The Initiative for Software Choice, by contrast, wants to deny governments the option of choosing to encourage such solutions, forcing them instead to support business models that inherently limit their freedom.

This is similar to the pro-smoking lobby's argument that the government should not try to prevent people from taking up smoking because it would restrict their ability to choose, as if smoking and not smoking were abstract, equivalent states.  But they are not: smoking harms the smoker directly and society indirectly in many ways.  When governments choose to discourage smoking they are doing so because they want to intervene to protect the smoker and reduce social costs.  Similarly, when governments choose to promote free software, it is with the aim of guiding their departments towards solutions that are better for them, and better for society as a whole.

Glyn Moody writes about open source software at opendotdotdot.