Document Freedom Day 2013

March 27, 2013

The Free Software Foundation Europe [FSFE] has designated today, March 27, as Document Freedom Day [DFD] for 2013, to mark the importance of open standards for the exchange of documents and other information via the Internet.

It is a day for celebrating and raising awareness of Open Standards and formats which takes place on the last Wednesday in March each year. On this day people who believe in fair access to communications technology teach, perform, and demonstrate.

This year’s DFD is being sponsored by Google and openSUSE.

One of the key aims of DFD is to promote the use and promulgation of open standards for documents and other information.  The DFD site gives the FSFE’s definition of an open standard; as the Wikipedia article on the subject suggests. there is a range of definitions from different organizations.  The FSFE’s definition is fairly strict: essentially, it requires that a standard be open to assessment, implementation, and use without restrictions, and that a standard be defined by an open process, not controlled by any single party.  That there is some considerable similarity between the concepts of open standards and open source software is, of course, not a coincidence.

As I have mentioned before, I am a fairly enthusiastic proponent of open source software, and I’m a fan of open standards, too.  As I’ve already mentioned, there are several different definitions of open standards, and I think it is useful to realize that “openness” can be a matter of degree.

The standards for HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the language used to create Web pages), and for the C programming language, would meet most definitions as open standards.  At the other extreme, Microsoft’s original definitions of documents for its Office product were not at all open: undocumented binary formats, entirely under the vendor’s control.  The Portable Document Format [PDF] for text documents was originally defined by Adobe Systems, but the format definition was published; beginning in 1994, with the release of Adobe’s Acrobat 2.0 software, the viewing software (Acrobat Reader, now Adobe Reader) was available free.  (PDF was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008, and published by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 32000-1:2008.)

While, in an ideal world, one might have wished, prior to 2008, to have the PDF specification fully open, the situation was far better than having an entirely closed spec: it was possible to evaluate the PDF definition, and developers other than Adobe were able to develop software to work with PDF files.  (I still use a small, fast program called xpdf to view PDF documents on my Linux PC.  It lacks a good deal of functionality, compared to Adobe’s Reader, which I also use regularly, but it is much faster for routine, “let’s have a look at this” usage.)

I think that the principle of open standards is worth supporting, for the very practical reasons that the FSFE has identified; they enable you to

  • Collaborate and communicate with others, regardless of which software they are using
  • Upgrade or replace your apps and still be able to open and edit your old files
  • Choose which phone / tablet / computer you want to use without worrying about compatibility

These are benefits worth having.

Keeping the Internet Open

December 2, 2012

As many readers know, the Internet as it exists today had its beginnings in a project sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, called ARPANET, the first packet-switched computer network, which got its start back in 1969.  Although there is a certain amount of specious lore about the project (e.g., the network was designed to withstand a nuclear war), reliability and robustness have always been important design goals.  Open and flexible standards have also been sought; in the 1970s and 1980s, when the technology was being developed, there were many different, competing vendor standards for computer networking.  (I wrote a bit about this in a post last year on the history of Ethernet.)  Getting IBM, DEC, Data General, Pr1me, and other vendors’ machines to talk to each other was a significant step forward.

Naturally enough, given its history, the governance of the Internet has always been a US-centric affair.  That has been fortunate, I think.  The US government has largely resisted attempts to politicize Internet rules, and this is one case where the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, has been largely honored.  The openness and freedom  of the Internet have played a big part in making it the incredibly valuable and empowering resource it is today.

From time to time, governments and other entities have floated proposals to “internationalize” the Internet by giving overall control of its governance to some international body, perhaps part of the United Nations.  A new proposal of this kind will be introduced at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, a UN agency), and being held in Dubai from 3-14 December 2012.   Although the ITU has historically been rather secretive about its deliberations, which are behind closed doors, pre-conference leaks indicate that several member states intend to introduce proposals that would impose more controls on Internet content.

Vint Cerf, Google VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, one of the Internet’s technical pioneers, and a recipient of the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, has written a post on the Official Google Blog on the value of an open Internet.

Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.

The ITU performs many useful technical coordination functions; it helps in managing radio spectrum and telephone networks, for example.  But only governments have a voice at the ITU, and some of those governments are, to put it mildly, not entirely dedicated to openness and freedom.   In another article, at the CNN site, Cerf elaborates on some of the issues involved.

Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations.

To expect the ITU’s process to consistently support the principles and ideals of openness and freedom requires (to borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien) not that disbelief be suspended, but hanged, drawn, and quartered.

There is a campaign underway to promote the goal of an open Internet; the campaign is being tracked with an online, interactive map.  Google is also sponsoring a petition.  If you support the preservation of a free and open Internet, I invite you to sign the petition.

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