Last week I went along to the Open World Forum in Paris. By that, I don't mean to imply I just bowled along there on the off-chance it might be a groovy place to be. I went there because I had been asked to chair a round-table discussion on the subject of "Open Democracy", about which more anon (disclosure: the conference organisers paid the majority of my travel and hotel costs as a result).
Open World Forum describes itself rather grandly as a "global summit meeting":
Having made a key contribution to the Internet revolution, the Free/Open Source movement is now starting to fundamentally transform the whole fabric of technology and knowledge, and the way businesses and people use it. This is opening up colossal opportunities, and also giving rise to some tough challenges. How can organizations and individuals alike take advantage of the Free/Open Source way to strenghten their competitiveness and to support innovation? How can public institutions and governments make use of it to kick-start the economy and employment? What technological, economic and societal breakthroughs in Free/Open Source can we expect in the future? It is on order to explore these issues that the Open World Forum is being held. Founded in 2008 by a heavyweight group of communities and IT players, the Open World Forum is the premier global summit meeting in this field, bringing together decisions-makers from across the world.
That makes it sound rather exclusive, but surprisingly it is not only open to all, but free as well. You might think this would make it a rather down-market affair, full of freeloaders, but many key individuals from the world of free software were in evidence over the two days.
And not only from the world of free software. As the detailed agenda demonstrates, the conference explored a wide range of fields that have been inspired by free software's example, which was why I ended up chairing a panel on Open Democracy.
This was meant to be an exploration of how openness is affecting the nature of government and democracy itself, but unfortunately I and my four panellists – NazarÃ© Bretas, Director of IT at the Ministry of Planning, Brazil; Christina Soares de Freitas, professor, University of Brazilia; Marco Fioretti, freelance writer, trainer and activist; and Philippe Aigrain, founder of Sopinspace and La Quadrature du Net – were given so little time to explore this fascinating area that it amounted to little more than a taster of what open government is, rather than what open democracy might be.
The round table's lack of time was the knock-on effect of a previous keynote speaker's late arrival: apparently he couldn't even be bothered to turn up to his own keynote on schedule. Needless to say, he was a politician, and in general it was the presence of these talking heads from various levels of the French governmental machine in the opening sections of the programme that rather diluted the otherwise high quality of the sessions.
Alongside these relatively short talks, there were some more substantial tracks, including one that I attended called "Open BRIC – Digital leadership: shaping the future." As well as representatives from the traditional BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – there was also someone from Tunisia.
I wasn't aware that open source had much of a foothold there, but it turns out that open source has been part of the computing scene for an impressively long time:
Since 1999, on instructions from his Excellency the President of Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia started considering the place that should be dedicated to open source software in the national information and communication technologies strategy.
In this regard, a cabinet meeting fixed a national open source software plan on July 12, 2001.
I was more aware of what had been happening in the other BRIC countries. As you might expect, both Brazil and India emerged as real hotspots of free software, but China remains as inscrutable as ever (to me at least – anyone know of any good sites about free software there?). The Chinese representative on the panel outlined a number of impressive initiatives, but it was still hard to gauge the importance of open source in his country, and how widely it is used.
What I found most interesting – and heartening – was a sense that the extended group of BRIC countries are starting to see themselves as a real alternative bloc in the world of software, with very different concerns and priorities from those of the West. Central to that difference is a far greater appreciation of the power and possibilities of free software for their populations – for example, as a way of increasing social inclusion.
In addition, these nations are beginning to recognise that intellectual monopolies are instruments for preserving the West's dominance, and that major agreements like ACTA – which, significantly, excludes all the BRIC countries – is just another attempt to maintain the status quo. Assuming, as I fear, that ACTA is finally agreed and signed, I predict we will see the BRIC nations reacting to it in very interesting ways – not least by refusing to acknowledge many of ACTA's underlying assumptions.
Unlike my Open Democracy round table, which was something of a squished squib, the two extended BRIC sessions were extremely productive, at least in terms of discovering what was going on in those countries, and for the participants to get to know each other better. I think creating this coming together of people and nations was an important step, and hope that the Open World Forum follows through by building on it next year. It is a good example of the kind of thing happening at the Forum that is not really found elsewhere. As such, it is another reason why I think the Open World Forum plays an important, because very different, role in the world of openness.
Associated with the Forum was the 2020 FLOSS Roadmap, launched at the end of the conference. Despite its horrible name (it sounds like a document about dentistry), this raised some interesting issues, which I'll discuss in another post tomorrow.