<Originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In the middle of election season in Iceland a debate is raging about the need to protect young children from violent pornographic imagery that can be found on the Internet. Although it is unclear what the scale of this problem is, there is concern about the methods used by some in the porn industry to market their wares. There is an idea that some firms use the old tobacco industry method of 'get them while they're young'.
As I was in Iceland recently I was fortunate enough to be asked my opinions on these matters by government officials. The entire debate is being conducted during election season, so the local media are on top of every word uttered by anyone from either government or the local digital civil liberties organisations. What causes most of the (international) attention is the specific plan to put a national filter on all Icelandic internet connections. This would be a first for a western democracy (although such filters have been tried in various Asian countries from Iran to China). Proposing a method that could very well be called censorship is incongruous in a modern and progressive society such as Iceland (the only country to have convicted its bankers over their part in the current global financial crisis).
During an informal dinner a few days later with officials it became clear that no decision on a filter, or any other policy, had been made. The government was looking into the problem and discussing possible solutions. The emotive nature of the debate causes the problems and solutions to get mixed up. I therefore attempted to structure the discussion over dinner:
A few years ago, Israeli and American intelligence developed a computer virus with a specific military objective: damaging Iranian nuclear facilities. Stuxnet was spread via USB sticks and settled silently on Windows PCs. From there it looked into networks for specific industrial centrifuges using Siemens SCADA control devices spinning at highspeed to seperate Uranium-235 (the bomb stuff) from Uranium-238 (the non-bomb stuff).
Iran, like many other countries, has a nuclear program for power generation and the production of isotopes for medical applications. Most countries buy the latter from specialists like the Netherlands that produces medical isotopes in a special reactor at ECN. The western boycott of Iran makes it impossible to purchase isotopes on the open market. Making them yourself is far from ideal, but the only option that remains as import blocked.
Why the boycott? Officially, according to the U.S. because Iran does not want to give sufficient openness about its weapons programs. In particular, military applications of nuclear program is an official source of concern. This concern is a fairly recent and for some reason has only been reactivated after the US attack on Iraq (a lot of the original nuclear equipment in Iran was supplied by American and German companies with funding from the World Bank before the 1979 revolution). The most curious of all allegations of Western governments about Iran is that they are never more than vague insinuations. When all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in 2007 produced a joint study there was a clear conclusion: Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon (recent speech by the leader of this study here).
At their yearly conference the Dutch The National Cyber Security Center stated this week they want to listen more to the hacker community. It is fine that the government will at last listen to the people who have been ahead of the curve for decades, although the question remains - why it has waited to do this until 2013? Even if this had been done as recently as 5 or 10 years ago it would have saved an incredible amount of trouble and public money. I sincerely hope that the consultations with the hack(tivist) community are about more than just technical tricks, because most benefits to society are derived from discussing policy. For purely technical issues the usual consulting companies can always be hired and then simply pay hackers for their knowledge and advice, just like any other experts.
Meanwhile a big group of hackers were unhappy about the fact they were not welcome and organized an alternative meeting. If the NCSC's intentions for the coming year work out in practice, next time this might not be necessary. On the community side, these invitations to the table should be dicussed openly and in detail (who sits at the table and wearing what hat). Because when community contributions and possible commercial interests get mixed up, things quickly degenerate into bickering and arguing. I speak from experience ;-). Nobody is "representative" of the entire hacker community. The NCSC will have to adjust to the idea that we have no centralised organisation with a head office where you can meet up with the CEO/director/top-dog.
Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity's highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don't know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called 'free world' is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We've got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron's speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
On July 11th 2001 the European Parliament published a report on the Echelon spy network and the implications for European citizens and businesses. Speculations about the existence of this network of Great Britain-and-her-former-colonies had been going on for years but it took until 1999 for a journalist to publish a report that moved the subject out of the tinfoil-hat- zone. The report of the EU Parliament contains very practical and sensible proposals, but because of events two months after publication, they have never been implemented. Or even discussed further.
Under the heading "Measures to encourage self-protection by citizens and enterprises" lists several concrete proposals for inproving data security and confidentiality of communications for EU citizens. The document calls on Parliament to inform citizens about the existence of Echelon and the implications for their privacy. This information must be "accompanied by practical assistance in designing and implementing comprehensive protection measures, including the security of information technology". So not just some abstract government infomercial on TV/radio but hands-on tips to get some actual work done please!
<originally a Webwereld column>
Last month the VVD and D66 political parties (the Dutch equivalent of the Conservatives and LibDems in the UK) again proposed that the Netherlands should re-adopt electronic voting. Earlier this year the Dutch Association of Mayors also called for their reintroduction (don't you just love it when non-elected officials comment on and interfere with the electoral process :-). While the use of voting computers in the Netherlands has been banned for over four years, even for water board elections, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic problem with electronic voting.
While the many clumsy security problems (video) or the absence of the source code of the software (in the case of Nedap and SDU voting computers), are excellent talking points for the media and political agenda, these issues are not the core of the problem. And although the voting computer dossier at the Ministry of Home Affairs is now labelled with a bright fluorescent sticker: 'radioactive, do not touch!", there is still a risk that local authorities or suppliers will continue to feel that voting by computer is best "if we can just iron out a few little bugs”.
The real objections are more fundamental and have little to do with security bugs or open source code. They are the fundamental principles underpinning our democracy, and are threatened by the use of voting computers. In the many discussions on mailing lists and web forums it seems that people have lost sight of these principles.
Gartner, IT-journalists and even former employees of Microsoft agree: Windows 8 will be a disaster. The Metro interface designed for tablets (a market that virtually does not exist in relation to MS-Windows) is unworkable on a desktop with a vertical non-touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Most office spaces still have this and most run legacy applications with interfaces that rely on a Windows PC using a keyboard and mouse. It is precisely the ongoing purchase of desktop PCs with the combination of MS-Windows and MS Office that has kept Microsoft financially afloat over the last 15 years
The combination of legacy applications (mostly proprietary) and familiarity with MS Office, led many IT organisations to automatically buy the new Windows platform, despite the high cost of licences and support. The inevitable result is a world of pain, with new interfaces, a lack of compatibility and the sudden cessation of support for critical components. IT policy is organised around coping with these problems instead of focusing on sustainable alternative solutions. And solving or mitigating these problems requires so much time and money that there is often little left over to plan further ahead. Thus, in many organisations the perfect vicious circle has existed for so long that many IT people can not even see it.
hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the commercial, legal and moral bands which have connected them with an industry and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which their most fundamental principles entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all lives are enriched by the sharing of culture, that citizens are endowed by their democracies with certain unalienable rights, that among these are knowledge, true ownership of their property and the sharing of culture. That to secure these rights, laws are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any of these laws become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish them, and to institute new laws, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing their powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Friday a week ago I, along with other "experts", attended a Parliamentary Working Group to answer questions about government IT projects. This was a Parliamentary group of MPs investigating the many IT failures of the government. After the summer (and the sept 12th elections), the investigation should begin with a sharp set of research questions. The invited experts were there to help formulate the right questions.
Here are my blog links to some of the available online advice written by the working group and the video stream (all in Dutch). It was striking how unanimous was the message presented by all the IT experts, given the variety of backgrounds.
Like other columnists and opinion writers, I also emphasised the failings of government and egregious damage to national security, privacy and general public funds. From available data, in terms of the government, the cost to the Dutch has moved from millions to billions of euros annually.
With such a government it is like shooting fish in a barrel for columnists. Therefore it was refreshing on this occasion to make a more constructive contribution. Although it was a pity that such meetings do not occur more frequently and are not better attended by the officials and suppliers who are responsible for all these projects. As 6 billion euros pour down the drain every year (and that is only the out-of-pocket costs - the social impact may be much higher) it might be a good idea to hold consultations more often. While I doubt that the gathering last week has any ready-made solutions for all the problems, I think there is a reasonable degree of consensus about their root causes:
On June 1st 2012 the Dutch government's Parliamentary working group on government IT-projects held a hearing of experts. My written contribution below. Capture of videostream... (in Dutch). Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter published his thoughts here.
Introduction - IT and the Dutch national government
Universality is an assumption of astrophysics that states that all phenomena, everywhere, behave as we observe them from Earth. I'm assuming that phenomena I have observed in specific government IT projects also occur in government IT projects that I have less infromation about (this is usually caused by the poor implementation of Freedom Of Information Acts, see the notes of Mr de Winter).
IT project management is currently based on a rather naive model of reality - "smart entrepreneurs compete on a level playing field for the favours of the government, which then procures with insight and vision." However, this model does not adequately predict the observed outcome of the projects. Whence this group.
Another model would be "a corrupt swamp with the wrong incentives, populated by sharks and incompetent clowns". This model has the advantage of perfectly predicting the observed outcomes.
Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel '1984 '. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.
In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.
The certainty with which this (to this day) is mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.
Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).
The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?
Cybercrime and cyber-warfare are currently the trendy terms the government throws around to acquire additional laws and powers. If it can also link cybercrime to the distribution of images of child abuse (also known as child pornography), the government has hit political pay dirt and can do pretty much what it wants. What continues to puzzle me is how all this focus on the distribution of such images actually protects the child victims themselves.
Bart Schremer published his opinion piece recently, providing an overview of the issues that law enforcement agencies are facing. On the one hand society (or at least the media) expects law enforcement to solved all crime immediately, preferably on a modest budget. On the other hand most Dutch people would still prefer to avoid a police state along the lines of the North Korean or American model.
But in all discussions on permissible methods of detection, hacking police officers and crime-fight-using politicians is missing, is why cybercrime has grown so enormously. The fact that our reliance on IT is increasingly complex will certainly have contributed. But one other important factor is the huge digital illiteracy among the vast majority of citizens. Aside from some half-hearted campaigns, the government has done little to teach citizens anything of real use or value.
According to Dutch Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen, 'ordinary' people have nothing to fear from ACTA. This treaty is merely designed to shut down child pornography sites. Go to the link and have another listen (in Dutch), because he really does say this!
That's good because, although I quite like a good download, I tend to limit myself to movies and books that fall a little more within the acceptable media spectrum. However, this statement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our Minister-of-All. Apparently in the case of distribution of photographic evidence of actual child abuse he is first and foremost concerned with possible copyright infringement. Is this a professional contortion or is he simply exceptionally goal orientated? This is what journalists should be pouncing on. For the lulz.
But beauty emerges even from the surrealist farce that is modern western copyright policy. No, I'm not talking about more music, movies or books, for there is no evidence that more culture is created by fanatically prosecuting 14-year olds for downloading. However, the recent weeks have clearly shown the usefulness of a common enemy. Thanks to ACTA, more Europeans than ever are involved in a critical discussion of modern copyright law and the balance with civil liberties. That is a wonderful development. Furthermore, it now seems that ACTA is dying following the remarks of European Commissioner Viviane Reding (she senses the political climate). One European country after another is delaying signing the treaty. In the three years since the “crisis” citizens have developed a fairly sharp bullshit filter to detect the kind of neo-liberal nonsense that ACTA is full of, and they will take no more. Like Software Patents it always takes awhile for the protests to get going but once they go representatives tend to choose the side of the people who can get them in a seat by voting in a few years.
Yesterday was the big SOPA protest day. Wikipedia (in English), Boing Boing, Reddit and many other sites were blacked out. Other sites, and even google.com had one-line banners beneath the bar exhorting me to contact the US Congress. The link said: "millions of Americans Oppose PIPA and SOPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the US". Even a classic song urges me "to call my congressman". But google.nl, did not show this - clearly indicating that it perceived the matter to be an internal American political problem.
In recent weeks there have been many calls for action outside the US against SOPA. These calls have been synchronized with outrage and protests as Bush Obama signed the NDAA anti-terrorism law. Under this law, anyone in the US "suspected" of involvement in "terrorism" (both nebulously defined) can be indefinitely imprisoned or even killed without trial or any other form of judicial review (think Stalin '30). The anger itself is justified, but more than ten years too late. Indeed the only new provision in the NDAA is that the US can now treat its own citizens in ways that have been enforced against the world's other 6.5 billion people since 2001.
Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.
It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they've been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?
But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.
Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus. A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
Over the last few years it seems as though everything that is centralised fails. Governments fail to solve societal problems (or even just complete a successful IT project), central banks fail to monitor the behaviour of ordinary banks, IT companies fail to offer us solutions that are safe and respect our privacy somewhat ...
Decentralisation works better: bittorrent, non-Western popular revolts, open source software, hacktivism and to a certain extent the Occupy movement. I'm glad Bits of Freedom and international counterparts such as the EFF exist because they put issues on the agenda that most of the over-50 politicians would not otherwise consider. In Berlin, the Pirate Party has over 9% of the seats in local government and is spreading rapidly across Germany.
But is all this really upholding our "rights"? Because despite all petitions, motions, actions and other initiatives our (digital) civil liberties are still evaporating. In the Netherlands it is virtually impossible to finish high school without buying Microsoft or Apple products, despite a long string of promises and agreements about this from our government. There are so many PCs that are controlled by cyber criminals that Microsoft had to set up a specific spring-cleaning for the Netherlands without user consent. This also makes it immediately apparent who really controls all these systems. Meanwhile, the government uses its own catastrophic Diginotar failure as a pretext for yet more government regulation of the online world.
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”. Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I've forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.
A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people's behavior.
The Future of the future; Utopia versus The End Of The World As We Know It Thursday, November 3, 2011
Registration: 18:30-19:00, Conference: 19:00-21:15
Location: Volkskrantgebouw, Wibautstraat 150, 1091 GR Amsterdam [former building of the Volkskrant]
The conference language is English.
The Future of the Future is an examination of the various future vision as portrayed by futurists, academics and scenario thinkers.
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
Diginotar's multiple IT failures in the public sector have been swept under the carpet. So far, nothing indicates that there will be any real change to the Dutch government's overdue IT projects. During the hearing (mp3 – in Dutch) in the Lower House it was apparent that neither the government overseer OPTA or auditor Price Waterhouse Coopers believe themselves at fault, despite the fact that for years as regulators they have rubber stamped the work of Diginotar. The decisions of the PwC auditors were obviously good because "they are executed by responsible professionals". This will be heartening for all those Iranian citizens who are suffering the consequences of this (think of an unpleasant convergence of kneecaps and power tools).
But because of the chaos at Diginotar, we may never know for certain the full horror of those consequences. It is very simple for someone to take over an entire network and manipulate all the logs. The only thing we can really say with any certainty is that so far we have no reason to believe that IT security was any better in the past than the recently discovered FoxIT mess. The PwC audits are obviously not able to detect such a mess and OPTA apparently did not even look. Possibly Diginotar has been totally hacked for many years, and nobody noticed. A really smart spy or cyber criminal does his job and leaves no traces. The many detailed discussions about the exact scale and timeline of the hack have completely ignored this fact. From his grave Socrates is smiling at the idea that we only certainly know what we certainly do not know.
What is a document? It started as a flat piece of beaten clay, onto which characters were scratched with a stick. 8000 years later it was found and after years of study, archaeologists concluded that it said: 'You owe me three goats”.
Through papyrus and parchment scrolls we arrived at mass production of paper and book printing in Europe in the 15th century. Our sense of the nature of a document is still derived from this previous revolution in information capture and distribution. When computers became commonplace as a tool to create documents, there was therefore a strong focus on applications to produce paper document as quickly and nicely as possible. The creation had become digital, but the final result was not fundamentally different from the first printed book in 1452.
Most word processors in use today cling to this concept. There are hundreds of functions for page numbering, footnotes and layout to achieve a legible final result - on paper. Many IT tools around the management and access of documents are directed to the concept of a digital document as a stack of paper. Ready to print for 'real' use. The modern ways of working together for various reasons no longer apply to a paper-oriented way of recording and distribution. Paper is static, local, and now much slower and more expensive to transport than bits. It is this combination of restrictions has led to new ways of creating documents where both the creative process and the end result is digital. A famous example is Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopaedia with millions of participants continually writing and rewriting about the latest insights in technology, science, history, culture or even the biography of Dutch folk singer Andre Hazes.
Last weekend the news broke that the electronics manufacturer Foxconn was planning to replace a large number of its million or so Chinese workers with robots. Foxconn manufactures most of the gadgets that readers of Webwereld like to comment on and bicker about.
Over the last 15 years, Western countries have rapidly moved their industrial infrastructure to China. Initially this was not glaringly obvious, but nowadays most gadgets say: "Designed in California - Made in China". We all seem to think the low labour costs are a justification for moving the factories to a country that only 20 years ago was crushing students with tanks, especially if it means affordable gadgets and bolsters the profits of Western companies that provide our pension funds.
Over nine years ago, I was talking to Kees Vendrik <Dutch MP) about the broken Dutch software market. Not only was it impossible to buy a top brand laptop without buying a Microsoft Windows licence, it was also impossible to visit many websites (municipalities, Dutch railways and many others) without using Internet Explorer. The latter area has greatly improved and I can lead my life using my OS and browser of choice. Only occasionally do I have to just swallow a Windows licence when buying a new laptop. Not much has improved in that area. Our national dependence on products such as MS Office has not really diminished either, despite all the wishes of our Parliament and its related governments policies.
Meanwhile, the technological seismic shift that frightened Bill Gates so much back in '95 (the web makes the operating system irrelevant) is fast becoming reality. Almost all new developments discussed by IT power players and specialists are web-based or based on open specifications and the most commonly used applications are running quite well as service in a browser.
This interesting PBS Hour video shows several bionics projects that use state-of-the-art robotica in creating artificial limbs to assist the disabled.
The Dutch Considerati think tank reported earlier this week that there is still widespread downloading in the Netherlands. But for an allegedly 'broad' piece of research, some key parties were missing - Bits of Freedom, for example. Nor did the study consider fundamental questions about the social or economic value of copyright that lasts for more than a century (when once it only lasted for 15 years), probably because those ordering the report did not want that question asked, let alone answered. There was also no mention of the copyright industry aggressively lobbying behind closed doors where laws are hammered out that our European representatives are not even allowed to see, let alone influence.
The entire debate is reduced to a financial accounting exercise for a particular industry. So all is perfectly OK then, as I have nothing to do with it – I don't work in that industry – nor indeed do the vast majority of people. The comments on Webwereld.nl quickly show that almost nobody takes such research seriously.
The technological singularity is an interesting concept from 1993 by mathematician Venor Vinge. Vinge describes the consequences of smarter-than-human systems (computers, improved humans or symbiotic human-machine systems) as leading to an infinite acceleration of intelligence-improvement.
It goes like this: "what would a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence do? It might play the stockmarket or be the worlds greatest artist, politician or general. But it might also become the worlds smartest computer-science researcher working on improving artificial intelligence, making a better version of itself. Rinse and repeat and interesting stuff starts to happen. Computer systems have been doubling performance every 18 months under the limited guidance of static human intelligence for over a century. With self improvement they could perhaps double in a much, much shorter time-spans. Think 17 minutes. Or less.
The implications of this idea are profound. It has the potential to make most of our problems today irrelevant (material scarcity and mortality might turn out to be easily solvable problems). It may also destroy our entire solar system. But just as with nuclear fusion there is also the possibility that it just won't happen in the forseeable future. We must guard against passivity among smart people who stop solving problems while they are waiting for 'the rapture of the nerds'.
A MP stumbles, coughing, into the doctor's surgery. There is blood pouring from the ears and nose and left eye. “Doctor, doctor, I've just had a bad fall and I think I've broken my wrist” gasps the MP. The doctor has a look and briefly feels the pulse. “Does that hurt?” “A little bit” mumbles the MP. “I don't think it's that bad” says the doctor. Unfortunately I can't check it today as the digital X-ray machine is broken”. The MP is swaying back and forth. “It's probably just a bruise, the nurse will give you a sling. Take it easy for a couple of days and come back if it's still painful.” The MP staggers out of the surgery, still bleeding from the ears, nose and eye. The doctor is already focused on the file of the next patient, because doctors are very busy.
The process described above resembles the way the Court of Audit went about answering MPs questions about our national IT strategy. The MPs asking those questions were not experts and the Court provided simplistic answers without providing any context or stopping to consider whether the symptoms might be part of a broader problem. The newly-published report failed to respond even to the superficial questions and, moreover, based its answers on minimal data. Which is a disgrace, as it is precisely the role of the Court to delve into the deeper issues.
The Lower House of the Dutch Parliament has asked the Court of Audit to investigate the problems and opportunities related to the adoption of open standards and open source software for the government's information systems. The Court has invited various experts to give their views. This blog post is my contribution.
The questions are being asked to the highest supervisory body of the country, rather than the departments responsible for implementing this policy - the Ministries of Home Affairs, and also Economic Affairs, Agriculture & Innovation - eight years after the government's first unanimous vote on this issue and the expenditure of about 5 billion euros on licensing fees. The impression given to the outside world is that Parliament is not impressed with the progress of the last eight years and believes that the relevant government departments could benefit from the external scrutiny of a neutral and objective body.
Each of the following five questions implies a series of unspoken assumptions. In order to answer the questions, it is necessary to identify and, where neccesary, challenge these underlying assumptions in order to reach a sensible answer.
In a recent column (Dutch), Frank Benneker of Amsterdam University explored the consequences of the rapidly growing use of cloud computing. The shift of computer applications from PCs and servers to a single "service" provided through a worldwide network is probably as fundamental a shift as the earlier one from mainframe computing to PCs.
Given the objectives of the Dutch Open standards and interoperability policy plan, cloud computing seems the quick and easy-to-implement solution: I hear Web 2.0 enthusiasts say “put everything on Google Docs and we are all interoperable”. But just as in the case of the "liberation" of PCs from mainframe managers/suppliers, there are problems with cloud computing – potential snakes in the grass.
In December 2004 the Dutch government decided that the dependency on dominant software providers was a problem and had to be addressed. The Dutch action plan from 2007 was the first, tentative step in dealing with this.
Dutch IT magazine 'Webwereld' (1, 2) asked me to comment on the news that Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, is offering legal protection against potential patent claims of Microsoft on Linux. Red Hat provides a comparable service and refers to it as a 'necessary evil'
The vast majority of software patents are not legally recognized in Europe, making this one of those typical American problems mostly designed to make lawyers very rich. But leaving that aside, how solid are the claims anyway? 2003 Microsoft invested in the anemic software provider SCO to sue IBM on the basis of alleged ownership of crucial Unix/Linux components. The case lasted many years and achieved nothing. Except of course a lot of confusion in the marketplace amongst IT buyers who were considering moving to Linux, thereby sometimes delaying a firm decision. It would seem that this was the primary original objective.
In a recent speech EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes stated that badly functioning IT markets and high vendor dependence have far-reaching consequences for the functioning of public bodies and companies in Europe. There is much to be gained, both economically and functionally, by focusing on open standards and open source software. 'This is a waste of public funds no government can afford any longer.'