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SA: Fraser-Moleketi: Idlelo Conference on Free and Open Source Software and Digital Commons (17/03/2008)

17th March 2008

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Date: 17/03/2008
Source: Department of Public Service and Administration
Title: SA: Fraser-Moleketi: Idlelo Conference on Free and Open Source Software and Digital Common

Address by Ms Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Minister for Public Service and Administration, at the third Idlelo Conference


Introductory remarks

Thank you for affording me the opportunity to say a few words at the beginning of this third Idlelo African Conference on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and the Digital Commons.


The Free Software community in Africa faces enormous challenges in the year ahead and it is fitting that we have come together here in Dakar, Senegal, to debate, discuss and strategise the historic mission of Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA).

Just over twenty years ago, in July 1987, Dakar was the site of an historic meeting between a group of predominantly white Afrikaner businessmen and academics and representatives of the then exiled African National Congress of South Africa. The Dakar Declaration of 12 June 1987 noted that, despite being ideologically different, both groups held "a shared commitment towards the removal of the apartheid system and the building of a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa." A dialog was initiated which was to bear fruit some years later.

This past year has been marked by a rising in the tension between the traditional incumbent monopoly software players and the rising champions of the Free Software movement in Africa. The flashpoints of conflict have been particularly marked around the development and adoption of open standards and growing concerns about software patents. I will touch briefly on these two areas a little later. That these tensions are surfacing now is in many ways a good sign.

It is a sign that the Free Software movement, including FOSSFA, is starting to be successful in its mission of promoting the use of Free Software in Africa. Nevertheless, we must be cautious not to let these tensions boil over to the point that they poison the prospect of building a shared commitment to the ongoing development and well-being of the people of our continent. In our deliberations this week, we might do well to emulate that spirit of dialog which was developed amongst the South Africans who met here twenty years ago.

With regard to Open Standards

The adoption of open standards by governments is a critical factor in building interoperable information systems which are open, accessible, and fair and which reinforce democratic culture and good governance practices. In South Africa, we have a guiding document produced by my department called the Minimum Interoperability Standards for Information Systems in Government (MIOS). The MIOS prescribes the use of open standards for all areas of information interoperability, including, notably, the use of the Open Document Format (ODF) for exchange of office documents.

ODF is an open standard developed by a technical committee within the OASIS consortium. The committee represents multiple vendors and free software community groups. Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) submitted the standard to the International Standards Organisation in 2005 and it was adopted as an ISO standard in 2006. South Africa is amongst a growing number of national governments who have adopted ODF over the past year.

It is unfortunate that the leading vendor of office software, which enjoys considerable dominance in the market, chose not to participate and support ODF in its products, but rather to develop its own competing document standard which is now also awaiting judgement in the ISO process. If it is successful, it is difficult to see how consumers will benefit from these two overlapping ISO standards. I would like to appeal to vendors to listen to the demands of consumers as well as Free Software developers. Please work together to produce interoperable document standards. The proliferation of multiple standards in this space is confusing and costly.

Whereas we have watched this process unfold with a growing sense of discomfort, there may yet be some positive spin-offs. Due perhaps in part to the lobbying of parties with vested interests, an unprecedented number of African countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Libya and South Africa, have been encouraged to participate in the ongoing ISO deliberations.

Once the current drama over document standards is resolved, it is my sincere hope that these African National Standards Bodies will continue to participate in the activity of global software standards setting and that FOSSFA members in particular get involved in their national committees to ensure that an African voice is developed which can project our national and regional interests in a principled, informed and increasingly confident manner.

In the same vein, it is worthwhile to point out that the final committee draft of version 1.2 of the ODF standard is being made available for public review in May/June this year. I would like to encourage FOSSFA members to participate in this review process by holding study sessions and standards review workshops. Just like any other democratic process, the benefits of open participation can only be fully enjoyed if we roll up our sleeves and participate.

On software patents

An issue which poses a significant threat to the growth of an African software development sector (both free software and proprietary) is the recent pressure by certain multinational companies to file software patents in our national and regional patent offices. Whereas open standards and free software are intended to be inclusive and encourage fair competition, patents are exclusive and anti-competitive in their nature. Whereas there are some industries in which the temporary monopoly granted by a patent may be justified on the grounds of encouraging innovation, there is no reason to believe that society benefits from such monopolies being granted for computer programme "inventions".

The continued growth in the quantity and quality of Free Software illustrates that such protection is not required to drive innovation in software. Indeed all of the current so-called developed countries built up their considerable software industries in the absence of patent protection for software. For those same countries to insist on patent protection for software now is simply to place protectionist barriers in front of new comers. As the economist, Ha-Joon Chang, observed: having reached the top of the pile themselves they now wish to kick away the ladder.

African software developers have enough barriers to entry as it is, without the introduction of artificial restrictions on what programs they are and aren't allowed to write. When Steven Biko wrote "I write what I like" he was not referring to computer programs but it would certainly be an apt motto for today's generation of African Free Software developers. It will become increasingly important for FOSSFA to continue to lobby and mobilise to keep this intellectual space open.

One cannot be in Dakar without being painfully aware of the tragic history of the slave trade. For three hundred years, the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) on Gorée Island, was a hub in the system of forceful transportation of Africans as slaves to the plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of America. Over the same period people were being brought as slaves from the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere to South Africa. The institution of slavery played such a fundamental role in the early development of our current global economy, that by the end of the 18th century, the slave trade was a dominant factor in the globalised system of trade of the day.

As we find ourselves today in this new era of the globalised Knowledge Economy there are lessons we can and must draw from that earlier era. That a crime against humanity of such monstrous proportions was justified by the need to uphold the property rights of slave owners and traders should certainly make us more than a little cautious about what should and should not be considered suitable for protection as property.

In conclusion,

I would like to say that the reason for addressing the two contested areas of open standards and patents above is not to be deliberately combative or controversial. As civic organisations such as FOSSFA continue in their mission to develop and promote Free Software capacity on the continent it is inevitable that such tensions arise. Like any other kind of economy, the terrain of the knowledge economy is a contested one.

If we are to address the challenges facing our continent, we need to embrace and encourage free competition and co-operation with proprietary vendors as well as free and open source software developers. We cannot afford the luxury of anarchism or extremism. We in governments look to organisations like FOSSFA to provide the balance which is required to maximise the creative potential of Africans in this exciting era of Information and Communication Technologies. I am confident that you will not disappoint and that you will have a productive and stimulating conference.


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