Battleground of ideas: FLOSS debate raises tempers at BytesForAll
GOA, INDIA, 21 October 2005
APC member BytesForAll’s mailing list recently played host to a strong, and at times polemical, debate on proprietary-versus-FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software). In this debate, there were these couple of great posts here  and here , that put things neatly in perspective — thanks to David Geilhufe who is co-founder of the SocialSourceFoundation.org  and Sunil Abraham of Mahiti.org .
This debate threw up a range of issues about the role of FLOSS in the ‘developing’ countries, its role in localisation, how it competes with proprietorial software, why its benefits haven’t yet reached regions like Africa, and how diverse approaches to software could actually make a difference in the real world. BytesForAll is a South Asian voluntary network, founded along the free software principles of volunteering, but focussing on information — and how information and communication technologies could be more relevant to the common(wo)man, specially in South Asia.
It all started with a rather critical-of-FLOSS post by University of Manchester’s Dr Richard Heeks  offering a
link to an eDevelopment Briefing titled “Free and Open Source Software: A Blind Alley for Developing Countries?” .
It calls the 1980s shareware “FOSS forerunner” to have had “zero” impact, says data from Africa shows only five percent of computers “in developing countries” have any open source software running on them, and notes that proprietorial software dominates “even in Cuba… where the US embargo should make conditions highly propitious”.
Besides, the briefing says that “piracy” and the “limited size of initial purchase price within total cost of software
ownership” there is actually no “evidence of FOSS delivering cost savings”.
Says the briefing: “In particular, proprietary software may not be open source but it is certainly free for the great
majority of developing country users, thanks to piracy.” It points to the lack of awareness of FOSS in Africa, and the lack of international links needed to be part of an “active, global community of like-minded developers”.
One early response to this brief text came from BytesForAll co-founder Frederick “FN” Noronha and is here for viewing . Noronha, who goes by the initials of FN, argues, “The “5% of computer systems” overlooks the role played by FLOSS in servers, in keeping the Internet running, in giving unprecedented access to developers of the Third World to take part in a global movement, and more.” This study, argues this post, overlooks the potential of FLOSS in large ‘developing’ countries like India, China, Brazil and South Africa. It points to another study — from Finland — which it says is more open to the benefits of FLOSS in the “developing” world. See the report here at this Maailma site.
FN also adds, “By saying ‘proprietorial software is free’ for the bulk of the ‘developing’ world, the study is guilty of
both tolerating/encouraging the illegally copying of software (‘piracy’ is a loaded term, unfortunately accepted by
academia too) and missing the essence of what Free Software is all about (offering the freedom to be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed). We are not fighting just for the right to remain ‘pirates’….”
Richard “RMS” Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation joining in the debate with these comments. .
There was a longish debate on benchmarking FLOSS. Javier Sola, a Spanish-Chilean working on Khmer language localisation in Cambodia, added some interesting points .
Javier, who works with APC member the Open Forum of Cambodia, argues: “Academics should make sure that they look at all factors when they write something like this. In this case the author has not come even close to it. He has, among others, completelly ignored the power of localisation, diminished as “techies and amateurs” some of the people that have clearer ideas of what is needed for real migration and used anectdotal data for his conclusions.”
Sunil Abraham argues how proprietorial software could kill — no exaggeration, due to its delays and restrictions — in a post-Tsunami situation. He also argues that “because Sahana (a Free/Libre and Open Source Software project to cope with disasters) is FOSS, the earthquake stricken people from Pakistan and India don’t have to spend money earmarked for food on software.” Then, in an almost tongue-in-cheek Sunish manner, he argues that FLOSS “increases the responsiveness of an organisation. This is important whether it is peoples lives or greater profits.” [11 ]
David Geilhufe has this very interesting response to argue that FLOSS offers “viral diffusion” (to enable its
uncontrolled spread, of course in a positive way), local control and lower barriers to entry. Well put, and very well
Here’s  what David argues eloquently: “There is no religious war here, but I think the staunch defenders of
proprietary code get stuck on analyzing the software… this isn’t the important part. One needs to analyze the innovation and use of software… that, I believe, is where the real ICT impact lies.”
David’s Social Source Foundation  is here. It is “a nonproft organization that exists to create open source,
mission-focused technology for the nonprofit and NGO sector.”
Another link is the OpenNGO.org  network. OpenNGO calls itself “an open source project to create a set of web-based tools designed to meet the needs of small U.S. nonprofit organizations and non-governmental organizations across the globe.”
Meanwhile, another strong debate continued at the Global Knowledge for Development mailing-list, visible at the
archives here . Some supported Heeks views, while others said academia was missing the point on FLOSS.
Said Mark Davies: “As an African business, and as an African software development business, I still don’t get it. There’s so much enthusiasm for FOSS, there’s so much conference mind-share spent on this topic, and yet I don’t see an illuminating discussion about the opportunities for risk/reward for people like us.” [16 ]
After facing a lot of counterpoints, Heeks responded: “You can read this message in two ways: either that FOSS will never deliver; or that the FOSS community needs to rethink its strategies. Or, of course, if you’ve devoted months or years to FOSS and don’t like the message, you’ll try to denigrate the writer, deny the data, and so forth.” 
Klaus Stoll the president of Fundacion Chasquinet  in Quito, Ecuador also swam against the tide. He wrote: “…yes, my organization Chasquinet Foundation works with Microsoft and yes it is the same organization that produced and published the open source tollbox for Telecenters in Latin America  and yes we have as a policy in our organization that people should have a right to choose. What counts for us here at the grassroots are real ICT tools for Development, be they open source or otherwise, what counts is if they make a real positive impact in improving peoples lives.”
African NGO Kaibassa argued here: “We at Kabissa have a very practical orientation and don’t really push open source in our trainings or through our services and Web site unless it’s just staring in our faces as just plain better. Open source content management systems and other server-based tools and desktop applications like Firefox and Thunderbird spring straight to mind. In the meantime, I hope you and other software developers in Africa are aware of and considering attending Africa Source II.”
But one key perspective came from Richard “RMS” Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation . He commented: “The choice between free (freedom-respecting) and proprietary (user-subjugating) software is not a technical choice. It is an ethical and political issue about people’s freedom. To be neutral on issues that merely concern technology is fine. To be neutral on ethical and political issues about freedom is nothing to be proud of.”