This afternoon brought the opening plenary, a super-formal affair where everyone gets 3-5 minutes to make a statement, depending on their status. But heads of state will still get the nod at 5 minutes -- even Tony Blair, were he here. The hall was packed out, so I retreated to the press rooms, where there was a simulcast and live translation. I suspect the hall would have been a good deal less comfortable. A few highlights from the statements:
Finland is ready to offer advice to other countries from its experience, though it can't provide a template. (I guess not every developing country has a floundering wood and rubber products company that can become an international telecommunications equipment manufacturer.) The Azerbaijani president noted that transport flows bring information flows, which meant his country was well placed to be an information hub. The Pakistani prime ministers saluted the pioneers of digital revolution the revolutionaries of the twenty-first century. The Rwandan representative referred to ICTs as an indispensable tool in the achievement of its development goals. He noted that as Rwanda is landlocked they planned to transform the country into a technological hub within the great lakes region, and were developing connectivity in schools using broadband and wireless.
Mohammed Khatemi, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, referred to the Information age as the age of dialogue. He talked of the need to establish knowledge-based societies, and the delegation of power to the people through electronic processes. There has been some wry commentary on this, noting the actions of the Iranian government in restricting Web access to its citizens. The president of Mali also discussed their use of Internet in schools (aided by Swisscom), including Timbuktu. This crossroads city cannot now be used as byword for a remote place -- at least not electronically. The representative from Lesotho emphasised the importance of adapting computer software to local languages, and noted the benefit of open source and free software in addressing this challenge. The Latvian head of state contended that power is increasingly based on access to information. (I suspect this has always been the case, and we just have a very narrow view of what constitutes information and how it is used.) More perceptively she noted that technology is a tool and not a panacea, and emphasised the need to create knowledge from information. At this point I had to leave the cosy confines of the media enclave (comfy leather chairs, free soft drinks and food, unlimited Internet access) to attend a fringe meeting entitled 'Free Software, Free Society'.
This event brought together two superheroes: Stanford lawyer Larry Lessig and free software pioneer Richard Stallman. Unfortunately, due to other commitments they weren't in the room at the same time, speaking instead at either end of a three hour excursion. Lessig was eloquent in his praise for Stallman, and recounted how the Creative Commons movement stole Stallman's idea of the GPL "because we faced the same problem" of the privatisation of ideas. Copyright was intended to stimulate creativity, he noted, claiming that in its original terms it recognised that creativity was always about adding to what people had already created before, and the balance between this and protection had been lost. The Creative Commons model combines three layers: the legal code, a human-readable layer (making the legal code understandable to non-lawyers), and a machine-readable layer (to enable gathering content). When freedom meets private production, he concluded, free culture will prevail. "Freedom itself is an incentive to create."
In the discussion he recounted how astonished he was that there was no discussion at WSIS of intellectual property and the public domain, and recounted how it had been squeezed out of both this conference and WIPO. He reported that Creative Commons is developing a royalty-free cross-licensing model for research, which he claimed is becoming enmeshed in defensively-oriented patent law. (This is a very exciting development.) On strategy he advocated 'doing it': showing great things as the best way to win the argument for importance of the public domain.
I came to Stallman with some suspicion and was partially won over. He is prone to invoke high-falutin terms to discuss scenarios which don't seem to warrant them. "The world of non-free software is a prison", he claims, and he uses the terms freedom and democracy liberally (so to speak). His told us that his confidence that the free software model would be desirable was founded on his experience of the time before software was seriously commercialised thus he "had no doubts that a free software world would be a better place". He outlined the four essential freedoms for which free stood, and discussed the attempts by the US government to make free software illegal in many countries, observing that the EU might be minded to take another tack. He concluded by talking about trusted (or in is terms 'treacherous') computing. While I don't subscribe to the idea that you can embed trust in machines I liked his characterisation that in the trusted computing model the computer will trust what the developer wants it to do -- thus it is treacherous.
I asked Stallman whether free software could really go beyond the development of engineer-oriented products such as Web servers and OSes (the obvious exceptions of OpenOffice and Mozilla being sponsored by Sun and AOL respectively). I also noted that typical free software products are designed for configuration and use by engineers, and questioned whether good user interfaces could be developed for non-techies. Stallman replied that if people wanted to charge for developing a more consumer-focused or niche product that was fine, and that the free software movement's only demand was that they would make the source code public -- thus correcting my misapprehension. Otherwise, he was rather defensive, choosing to pick on my use of the term 'gift economy', even though it was not core to the question. Others pointed out that good GUIs had been developed for GNU/Linux (KDE was referred to specifically) and that UI research and design was underwritten by organisations including the German government and IBM. Perhaps there is another way.
While our meeting was wending its way to its conclusion an enormous row errupted in the adjoining room. I believe the debate there was on 'Media liberties in the information society'. Whatever it was it invoked a passion I have never experienced in any meeting. Clearly people here have a lot to get off their chests, and were happy to take liberties.