Perens at the WSIS

Bruce Perens is back from his first-ever trip to Tunisia, where he ''showed the flag'' for the open-source software movement at the United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). He returned with some cool pix of Carthage, the Medina, Gamarth, and La Marsa, which he linked to his blog; a wicked head cold he says he caught on the plane; and the sneaking suspicion that he might actually have done some good.

I called him at his office in Berkeley this week to hear about the trip.

''Posturing was out front, with issues coming in far, far second,'' he told me, ''but I think a lot of people heard and understood what I had to say. Unless the free software and open-source representatives go out and make it clear that this is something that's safe for you to work on, that it's been doing great things, and that you should join--if we don't do that, all the people are going to hear is the proprietary software side of the story.''

Perens is well-known in open-source circles, and unless you've been coding in a cave, you've probably heard one of his biannual ''Open Source State of the Union'' speeches at a tech conference. He is the primary author of the Open Source Definition, which is considered the manifesto of the open source movement, and a founder of the Open Source Initiative. He's currently the VP of developer relations and policy at SourceLabs , and he does a bunch of other stuff you can read about on the SourceLabs Web site.

The WSIS was meant to be a global discussion about the world-swallowing information society in which we all now live. Well, most of us anyway. The UN is still using ''digital divide,'' a term I haven't seen much in the press lately, to describe ''the development gap between the rich and the poor among and within countries.'' According to the Summit Web site, ''[W]hile the digital revolution has extended the frontiers of the global village, the vast majority of the world remains unhooked from this unfolding phenomenon. With the ever-widening gulf between knowledge and ignorance, the development gap between the rich and the poor among and within countries has also increased.''

The details of this event are available on the Web. I recommend starting with the FAQ . The basic idea behind UN summits is to get the heads of governments talking about issues like poverty and global warming and the dearth of broadband in the bush. The UN calls it a ''global dialog.''

The summit was actually held in two incredibly widely spaced ''phases.'' The first took place back in December 2003 in Geneva; the second took place is the Tunisian capitol city, Tunis, from November 16 - 18; 175 countries participated. Perens said he was disappointed to learn that most of the real work goes on in committees that meet between conferences.

He spoke to attendees at the WSIS (which he managed not to pronounce ''wussies'' -- I admire his restraint) about the potential of free and open-source software to raise the techno have-nots of the world, and the dangers of the spread of software patents. He posted his speech on his blog, and it's well worth reading.

Interestingly, it was his post about colleague Richard Stallman's encounter with UN security that generated the most press coverage (''Richard Stallman Gets in Trouble with UN Security for Wearing a Tin-Foil Hat''). Stallman is the founder of the free software movement, the GNU project, and the Free Software Foundation. And he's something of a pill the subject of privacy-eroding technologies like RFID. According to Perens, when he spotted an RFID strip on his ID, he wrapped the whole badge in aluminum foil and ''wore his foil-shielded pass prominently.'' Later, he passed a huge roll of foil among the summit attendees. Perens was glad that the press noticed ''Richard doing what is so quintessentially Richard.''

He said that his own speech led to some significant connections and engendered some encouraging email. One key contact: the Grameen Foundation, which provides ''microfinancing'' in economically disadvantaged areas. Perens says the organization is currently building an open-source project to manage its lending activities, and he expects to meet with them in the future. (Apparently their headquarters are just up the road from SourceLabs' headquarters in Seattle.)

Still, it wouldn't hurt open-sourcers to crank up the PR machine next time the world is watching. There don't appear to be any new World Summits on Information Society on the UN schedule, but maybe at the next ITU meeting? With a little more advanced planning Perens might have gotten access to the press rooms, which he didn't. ''They had the good bathrooms and the good cafeteria,'' he said. ''It was tough using a public restroom in Tunisia.'' Fortunately, I can only imagine.

Perens took only one shot at folks in Redmond during our conversation, but it was pointed:  ''Microsoft could give their software away for free, in fact they could pay them to take it, and it would still not give these people one thing that they really need, which is self determination. When they're building on open source, they can support it themselves, and not have to turn to a first-world country for their technology. I think that's really important today.''

Perens also returned with more worries than ever about the fate of open source in a world where software patenting appears to be gaining Borg-like momentum. His comments were provocative, and I'll be following up on some of the things we talked about. Definitely more on this later.


About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].