Will 2009 Be Open or Closed?

by Glyn Moody

As the end of 2008 approaches, people's thoughts naturally turn to 2009, and what it might hold. The dire economic situation means that many will be wondering what the year will bring in terms of employment and their financial situation. This is not the place to ponder such things, nor am I qualified to do so. Instead, I'd like to discuss a matter that is related to these larger questions, but which focusses on issues particularly germane to Linux Journal: will 2009 be a year in which openness thrives, or one in which closed thinking re-asserts itself?

A major factor is obviously the change of administration in the US. Although open source has made remarkable gains there over the last decade, it has done so against a background assumption that secrecy is good, at least when it applies to governments. Open source has been notable by its absence from the discussions about the likely policies of the incoming administration, but I think we can see by proxy where things are going through the appointments made in the field of science.

One of the striking features of the outgoing US administration was its manifest contempt for the scientific process - believing, apparently, that science should be subservient to politics, not the other way around. Among the four eminent scientists appointed to the the new president's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology is Harold Varmus: he has been a pioneer of open access - enabling the public to gain free access to the scientific papers funded by the government. Nor is this the only indication that openness in the form of open access is in the ascendant.

On Obama's Change.gov site, an interesting new copyright policy has been adopted:

President-elect Obama has championed the creation of a more open, transparent, and participatory government. To that end, Change.gov adopted a new copyright policy this weekend. In an effort to create a vibrant and open public conversation about the Obama-Biden Transition Project, all website content now falls under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

The repeated "opens" there, and the policies being adopted, are indubitably a hopeful sign. But elsewhere in the world, there are numerous countervailing attempts to lock down knowledge.

The crudest and most blatant of these is by the Australian government, with its proposed mandatory Internet filtering system:

On 21 March 2006, a Labor media release[1] stated that a Labor Government would require all Internet Service Providers (”ISPs”) to implement a mandatory Internet blocking system applicable to “all households, and to schools and other public internet points” to “prevent users from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority“.

Elsewhere, there are other, more subtle, approaches being contemplated. The UK, in particular, continues to follow an increasingly authoritarian path that seems likely to lead to more direct censorship - the recent blocking of Wikipedia in the UK was just the start. For example, here's an extremely daft but dangerous proposal from a UK minister, who clearly does not understand how the Internet works:

Film-style age ratings could be applied to websites to protect children from harmful and offensive material, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has said.

Mr Burnham told the Daily Telegraph the government was looking at a number of possible new internet safeguards.

He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed.

He also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Mr Burnham, a father of three young children, believes internet-service providers should offer child-friendly web access.

The only way such a ratings system could conceivably work is if sites deemed objectionable by official censors is blocked by ISPs - anything else would be trivial to circumvent - precisely the scheme proposed in Australia.

Nor is the UK alone in wanting to clampdown on sites that it disapproves of. Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy, has recently indicated how he will use his forthcoming presidency of the G8 group:

Italian president and media baron Silvio Berlusconi said today that he would use his country's imminent presidency of the G8 group to push for an international agreement to "regulate the internet".

Speaking to Italian postal workers, Reuters reports Berlusconi said: "The G8 has as its task the regulation of financial markets... I think the next G8 can bring to the table a proposal for a regulation of the internet."

Italy's G8 presidency begins on January 1. The role is taken by each of the group's members in rotation. The holder country is responsible for organising and hosting the G8's meetings and setting the agenda.

Aside from these contradictory trends in the sphere of politics, there is a separate development underway that could have a huge effect on the world of free software. In part as a reaction to the massive failure of a financial system based almost entirely on the pursuit of money as an end in itself, with little thought to "externalities" like respect for people or the environment, many people are beginning to ask whether it is time for a radically new approach, based on different values.

One of the candidates for such an alternative is a system similar to the kind of peer-based production that lies at the heart of free software. In other words, one that values collaboration and sharing over ruthless competition and exclusive ownership. Such an epochal shift would obviously take rather more than a year to realise. But if these ideas succeed in taking root - and censorship threats notwithstanding - 2009 might eventually turn out to be not just open in important ways, but the start of an entire era of openness.

Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.