November 2, 2007

Canadian Greens add FOSS to election platform

Author: Bruce Byfield

Thanks to a founding member of Free Geek Vancouver, the Green Party of Canada has quietly become the first major political party in Canada to make support for free and open source software (FOSS) part of its election platform. Like officials in the Green Party of England and Wales, deputy leader Adriane Carr sees the move as compatible with basic Green ideas, but IT consultant Neil Adair also points out the move serves the practical purpose of helping the party match the technical resources of more established parties.

At the same time, the party has come out in favor of net neutrality in its platform, although it is not specifically mentioned in the official policy statement.

Although founded in 1983, the Canadian Green party has been a serious contender in federal and provincial elections for less than a decade. So far, it has yet to win a seat, despite some near misses. However, with support hovering constantly around 12% in 2007, and dissatisfaction with the leading Liberal and Conservative parties likely to lead to the third successive minority government, the Greens are strongly positioned for their first breakthrough, and could become a key element in the balance of power.

Other Canadian political parties have FOSS interest groups, and the New Democratic Party included a pro-FOSS resolution in its convention in September 2006. However, the Greens are the first party to endorse FOSS as party policy.

According to Carr, the idea originated when Scott Nelson, a founder of Free Geek Vancouver who does IT in her office, "came to me and said, 'Do you have anything in your platform about open source and net neutrality?' We didn't, and he said, 'Well, you need to. It's really the leading edge, and it totally meshes with the philosophy of the Green Party.'"

People had raised the topic with Carr "for eons," she says, and her office had been using FOSS for some time, but Nelson's suggestion was the first time she had thought seriously about putting FOSS in party policy. Nelson drafted a proposed policy, which Carr took to the rest of the shadow cabinet -- the party leaders who create official policy. Last spring, in anticipation of an election that never came, the FOSS plank found its way into Vision Green, the official Green election platform.

The open source policy is remarkable more for its historicity than its detail or originality. Starting with a brief definition of FOSS, the FOSS section of Vision Green
goes on to say that FOSS can increase Canada's competitiveness in IT. More specifically, it states that Green Members of Parliament will promote the use of FOSS "in all critical government IT systems" as well as throughout the education system.

The decision was made without consultation with other Green Parties around the world, Carr says, "Although I do know that open source and net neutrality are talked about among other Greens. It just fits with our policies."

FOSS and Green philosophy

For Carr, support for FOSS is a close fit with Green Party ideals. "Amongst our fundamental principles are grass roots democracy and control, and I believe that that fits perfectly with the idea of open source software. It puts people in control of the technology that they rely on, and creates a more independent society. We believe in the need to strengthen people's ability to have control over their own fate. Controlling your software, not being dependent on a corporation to create it for you -- that's just fundamental.

"It's also a question of where the economy is heading. I believe that we have created an economy where too many decisions are made by too few decision-makers, both on the government level and in the economy as a whole."

Carr also discussed the ability of FOSS to extend the life of hardware, citing her own office as an example. "We work in an office surrounded by old hardware," she says. As for the idea of upgrading perfectly good systems solely to use Windows Vista, she says, "That's as bad as George W. Bush saying we should fight terrorism by going out and spending money on useless purchases."

As for making government documents available in free formats, Carr considers that only sensible. In an argument likely to appeal to the majority of Canadians -- although it might sound strange to American ears -- Carr suggests that, if citizens must buy a specific piece of software in order to read government documents, then "you're saying that certain people can have access to information if you buy into it. It's like saying that you can get more health care if you can pay for it. It's a two-tier health system (which, by the way, we violently oppose). You don't want a two-tier information system, either."

Like many people with no background in technology, Carr occasionally sounded unclear about the differences between the functionality of specific software and the benefits of FOSS in the abstract. However, one thing she was clear about: FOSS enables the Greens to have an infrastructure that would be beyond their budgets if built with proprietary solutions. "It's liberated me," she says, referring to the possibilities that FOSS opens up.

The technical side

To get a better sense of how the Green Party is using FOSS, talked with Neil Adair, who manages the party Web site. Although the party allows workers to make individual choices about what desktop they use, the party's infrastructure has been completely FOSS since early 2007, when its previous Microsoft Access database was replaced with MySQL. Other FOSS infrastructure, according to Adair, includes ClarkConnect, Debian, Apache, PHP, and Drupal.

Listening to Adair, it soon becomes obvious that one of the advantages of FOSS is that it places the Green Party at the forefront of technology trends. For one thing, Adair says, in the past few years, supporters have tended to connect to the party via the main party Web site, rather than the sites for individual ridings and campaigns, as was the case in the past. By switching to FOSS when it did and developing an online database, the Greens have overcome the bottleneck that occurs when the main site has to concern itself with funneling information to the local organizations.

For another, the use of civi-CRM allows Green Party technicians to interact with other mid-sized parties that face the same challenge of competing with larger, better-funded organizations. According to Adair, through the civi-CRM community, Green Party technicians can interact with dozens of similar parties, including the New Democratic Party, a number of provincial parties, and some Democratic campaigns in the United States.

"At the open source project community label, there's no hostility" between parties, Adair says. "We all see it as enabling democracy. And, yeah, we might have some different opinions about the direction that democracy might take, but, on a fundamental level, we're all pretty much in agreement. Most of the parties involved are on the progressive side [in social policies], and they're generally the smaller parties."

Using FOSS and modern Web techniques sometimes causes problems, Adair says. Transfers of donations and membership with major banks can be sometimes be difficult, he suggests. He also mentions that some Green Party officials are uneasy about the use of blogs, which seem too uncontrolled -- never mind that more than half of those who go to the main Green Party site click on the blogs. Some, too, are uneasy about local workers gaining access to the central database, although that access is carefully controlled.

However, for the most part, the advantages are so obvious that Adair and the rest of the Green IT team are looking into the possibility of using social network sites such as Facebook in the next election. As Carr points out, FOSS and modern Web techniques "speak to the demographics that are most Green, and that's youth." In adapting such techniques, the Green Party is playing to its strengths.

Putting FOSS on the agenda

Whether the Greens can win their first seats provincially or federally remains uncertain. However, according to Carr, the Greens will have achieved a small victory, or at least a consolation, if they manage to put FOSS on the Canadian political agenda.

"The whole point of doing this is to challenge the other parties and to make change happen," Carr says. "So, to me, it's exciting that we're on the leading edge of that. But I sure hope that other parties catch on fast, because it needs to get implemented. 'So go ahead and steal our ideas,' we say to the other parties. Just so long as you implement them."


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