CLUE policy coordinator at the Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum

CLUE supporters might ask what Telecommunications Policy has to do with Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS), and why I would be at the Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum. My interest in FLOSS came out of my interest in community networking where networks and the software that controls them are decentrally controlled. It turns out that many of the recent and most controversial "copyright" related policies that threaten FLOSS, such as anti-circumvention policy (legal protection for DRM, DMCA, 1996 WIPO treaties), is also a derivative of telecommunications policy discussions, but with the opposite vision of these networks.

My CLUE Bio suggests a policy focus on the protection of the the right of the owners of computers to make their own software choices, and further to seek to remove any legal or other barriers that would favour non-FLOSS software over FLOSS.

In the early 1990's when telecommunications policy people were discussing new media, two divergent visions emerged. One vision is the Internet as a democratizing force where individual citizens are able to make their own independent choices about how the network will be used. The other vision was as an advanced delivery system for the products of existing content industries.

In the United States they had a National Information Infrastructure task force, which had a Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights. They had hearings starting in 1993 and a report in September 1995. This report, often referred to as the Lehman report as it was authored by Bruce A. Lehman (then Assistant Secretary and Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks), suggested legislation to regulate this new media as a safe delivery mechanism for the products of the incumbent content industry.

There was no room in this report for a decentralized, democratizing Internet which allowed participants to be treated as citizens able to create and control their own applications that used a more neutral communications infrastructure. The configuration of the Internet that allowed physics researchers to create the Web without needing the permission of any intermediary would be a thing of the past.

Mr. Lehman's proposed legislation included the first stages of legal protection for technologies used to centrally control the communications platform. This would mean that the tools used the produce, distribute and access digital content would be controlled as part of the platform, meaning that third parties would not be allowed to choose the configuration and/or software running in any of the devices that could interoperate with this platform. While not explicitly stated, this industry controlled platform would include all devices that would be used by private citizens including everything from camcorders and other recording devices to their home computers and home entertainment equipment.

Unfortunately the Free Software movement (the Open Source movement didn't start until 1998) didn't adequately notice this vision at that time. If devices could not be under the control of citizens, it is obvious that the software cannot be software which protects "users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software" (Definition of Free Software). This vision of the Internet as a safe delivery platform for the incumbent content industry is a vision where Free Software could not be used on the Internet or any device which interfaced with the Internet.

The NII Copyright Protection Act stalled in the United States government, so those with this vision of the Internet took their case to WIPO and received a much watered down version in the two 1996 WIPO treaties. While this is classic policy laundering, they brought this so-called "international consensus" back to the United States which enabled them to pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, which came into force in 2000.

Friday at alt.telecom.policy.forum

While the actors were not as strong in Canada, some of the thinking was very similar. Sheila Copps was the lead politician on this area of policy in Canada as the Minister of Canadian Heritage from 1996 to 2003 (Wikipedia offers some details).

Ms. Copps was one of the speakers at the Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum. She was intended to speak in the afternoon on Friday, but misunderstood the schedule and came to speak during the morning time slot.

She expressed well to this audience her vision of the Internet as an advanced delivery mechanism, what she called a "platform" or "pipes" fairly often, for the content of the incumbent content industries. She kept saying that "Content is King", and that the "pipes" should be considered useful only in how they deliver this content. She always said "pipes" and never said it's a series of tubes, but many of us could hear that in our heads.

One of her earliest slides divided the world into content producers (for her, commercial content industries), distributors and consumers. Most of the audience is from a community network background who fundamentally disagree with the idea that people on the Internet are mere consumers of content, and prefer to talk in terms of citizenship and full participation. Our vision of the democratizing Internet is one where the line between producers and audiences is breaking up, and where those legacy distinctions should be abolished. Many of the audience spoke to this issue when it came to question and answer session, with Ms. Copps remaining closed minded to possible alternative ways to look at this question other than as "content" and "pipes" where "Content is King" and the network is an advanced delivery mechanism for the commercial content of the incumbent content industries.

Ms. Copps pushed her vision of the Internet while she was the Minister, and in 2001 helped launch a consultation towards enabling legislation on this vision. Fortunately various unrelated political problems stalled the forward motion in Canada, and we have since had two additional Liberal Heritage Ministers and now a Conservative Heritage Minister to deal with this file. The vision of successive Heritage Ministers haven't been any more progressive, but their ability to push forward their vision within their respective parties is diminished. The longer we wait the more educated the public and policy makers become about this important issue, but it is important for Canadians to remember that the vision of key policy makers in Canada are not all that different from their US counterparts.

While Ms. Copps is no longer in parliament, continues to be involved in forums to push her old-media way of thinking of the Internet, including being involved as a commissioner in a 2005 cross-Canada consultation by the Council of Canadians.

Saturday at alt.telecom.policy.forum

The Saturday Afternoon session of the Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum was on the topic of Network Neutrality. I was very excited to see one of the presenters include Intellectual Property as one of the levers being used to centrally control the network by incumbent players.

I noticed this in the slides and asked a question about it. Ben Scott from Free Press responded, putting the players in their appropriate context. It was the operators of the network (the platform) that were in control, and that once they have the legislation and network infrastructure in place, that the current content industry would be a simple acquisition.

I believe it is important for people in the Copyright debate to notice this. People often assume the recording and motion picture industry, specifically the major transnational labels and studios, are the industry players in control of this radically changed vision of the Internet. If people look deeper it turns out to be the telecommunications and software giants who are in control, and they are simply using the content industry as very vocal pawns in a larger game of Monopoly building. Once the platform is adequately controlled, the labels and studios in the content industry will no longer necessary and will either be acquired or put out of business.

Ben Scott offered a different way of looking at the political position of the content industry. They can also be seen as wanting to be on the side of the winner, and they believe the telecommunications/software giants will eventually win the battle to centrally control the Internet. I believe this is naive of the content industry as their future existence is dependant on a lack of central control of this communications media, otherwise those who control the network will acquire, replace or put them out of business.