July 25, 2005

London's OpenTech conference looks ahead

Author: Tom Chance

Held in London last Saturday, OpenTech 2005 was an informal, low-cost conference about open technologies and content. Attendees ranged from BSD hackers to digital rights activists, from mapping enthusiasts to staff from the BBC. The program covered the work of organisations like the BBC and Yahoo! alongside community groups as diverse as mySociety, Remix Reading, and the Space Hijackers. The range and quantity of material covered was impossibly large, so this report is merely a glimpse into a few key issues raised in discussions. But the question on everyone's minds throughout the day was: Will the future be open, and if so, what will it look like?

My day began on a panel discussing practical open content. Paula Le Dieu, director of Creative Commons International, opened proceedings with a talk about the surprisingly varied approaches of Science Commons. As well as encouraging open access publishing for scientific research using Creative Commons (CC) licenses, she and her colleagues are also looking at licenses for access to databases and even physical materials such as DNA constructs or botanical samples. I followed her with a brief outline of some difficulties in advocating CC amongst non-geeks, both because few people really understand copyright or why CC might be desirable, and because beneath the simple legal code there lies complexity. What is commercial use? When does something become a derivative work not covered by your jurisdiction's laws on "fair use"? These are all questions I have confronted whilst leading Remix Reading, a community arts project using and promoting CC. Finally, Steve Coast spoke about OpenStreetMap, a project that creates street maps on a wiki. Volunteers can add street data using a Java applet and then put in any metadata they like, such as what the road is called, what kind of road it is (a motorway, A-road, B-road, etc.) or even favourite pubs; one contributor in Bristol has been mapping good skateboarding spots. Eager to demonstrate the viability of the project, Steve unveiled a large printout of GPS data from a friendly courier service, showing their routes around central London. They've plugged this into the system so you can use it to trace streets.

Perhaps the key question of the seminar, and of many discussions throughout the day, was just how open we should make technology and content services. With CC there is an obvious need for conformity around a small number of licenses; proliferation leads to more complexity, misunderstanding, and incompatibility, which is particularly problematic in the arts world where freedom is about being able to mix a diversity of sources. However, this approach can stifle debate around both the details and the bigger picture that CC and similar schemes involve. Emergent behaviour can be positive, as Steve emphasised when asked about directing metadata entered by contributors. He enthused about a mapping system where the value of the system lay in the content, not the framework into which it was put, and was reluctant even to insist that people adopt conventions for labelling road types. Whether contributors will enter sufficiently coherent metadata for the software to become useful in a variety of contexts remains to be seen.

Signs of the importance of openness, but also of the need for moderation, were to be found in talks by the BBC and Yahoo!, who are both keen to declare that "the future is open." In his launch of backstage.bbc.co.uk, the BBC's new developer network, Ben Metcalfe said that the BBC wants to "support creativity and innovation," using backstage.bbc.co.uk to "identify and showcase talent." So far it has released open source software including a new video codec, Dirac, which is already supported by VLC, MPlayer, FFmpeg, transcode, and (via a filter) Windows Media Player. As it announced back in August 2003, the BBC is opening up its archives under a license based upon CC (though, irritatingly, incompatible with CC licenses); expect content to appear in August. Now they are opening up vast amounts of content over the Web using RSS feeds and APIs, allowing non-commercial use of the content and encouraging innovative remixing. So far they offer news, sports, and TV scheduling RSS feeds, travel and weather information in XML and podcasting, with APIs for searching BBC content and queries by geo-location on the way.

"Remixing", Metcalfe said, "is good." The BBC showcases promising ideas, gets involved to help you develop it, and will be putting together an open developers' network where, Metcalfe insisted, the BBC will show good faith and eschew the practice of picking off good projects for its own benefit at the expense of volunteers. Whilst the BBC retains copyright over the content, you keep the copyright on your hacks. This cautious approach, opening the content one bit at a time and under less than wholly free licenses, allows them to gently move the massive public organisation toward what they see as the digital future. I spoke to Metcalfe and a few other BBC staff and asked them how they thought the BBC as a whole received their work. The consensus was that whilst many in the company didn't really understand what they were doing -- apparently the use of blogs on BBC News has raised a few eyebrows -- the organisation, from top management to digerati hackers, supports their vision.

Metcalfe's talk was followed by a presentation from Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo!, who had a similar message. His company has a huge amount of information, often more than any of its competitors, but thus far the content has been delivered in the traditional manner. Yahoo! is now on the open content bandwagon, providing RSS feeds, XML data, and APIs to move its content delivery model away from simply broadcasting data at the user.

The politics of open technology and content

Nestled in amongst these technical talks was a panel entitled "Where's the British EFF?"; "Does the UK need a membership digital rights organisation?" asked the schedule. We've had a long string of similar organisations in the UK, and few have made concrete changes. The puzzle set before us was whether it was possible for the people in the room to set up a successful organisation. Ian Brown from European Digital Rights spoke candidly about his past in various organisations, few of which seemed to generate any member participation or significantly change policy. Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation Network suggested that digital rights issues were becoming increasingly important and that we need an ecosystem of activists and organisations rather than an "organisation to rule them all." We need lobbyists to change policy, lawyers to analyse policy, press officers whom the media will know and trust, grassroots activists who can mobilise the troops, and so on. We also, he claimed, need both extremists to push the boundaries of the debate and more moderate activists who can then cut the deal.

Cory Doctorow, European Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke last. He advocated the use of "impact litigation," where test cases are used to amend or appeal bad laws, the favoured tactic of the EFF. In Britain, Parliament is sovereign and can repeal any previous act. We have no constitution to speak of, let alone one that has higher authority. In such countries, this kind of litigation is impossible. However, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the possibility of a European Constitution, may open doors in this area if young, hungry lawyers can be persuaded to take on cases. Doctorow finished by proposing that geeks and activists in Europe tackle the looming broadcast flag legislation, which the EFF defeated in the U.S., because it is an issue that non-geeks can easily understand: do you want corporations defining how you watch their content, and to be unable to use free software to watch programmes on your PC?

Discussion ensued, with the lack of funding coming up time and again from panellists and the audience, and comparisons being made to everyone from civil liberties organisation Liberty to the entire environmental movement. A highlight was hearing Richard Allan, an ex-MP, talk about the importance of letter-writing, and the significant impact it has on MPs. A curious omission from the panel was anyone with any experience in running a successful grassroots campaigning organisation. Pollock came closest, having been instrumental in the recent success over software patents in Europe, but the vague and unhelpful comparisons to other organisations and movements revealed a basic lack of experience and understanding. Thankfully, in corridor discussions between panels, many of the people who are involved in this kind of activism in the UK agreed to focus more on training. We also launched a pledge drive, inviting people to donate £5 a month to help fund activism; if 1,000 people sign on then it will go ahead, funding a full-time press officer, a full-time fundraising activist, and some office space. Add your name if you'd like to help financially.

One positive note came from Pollock, who announced Free Culture UK, conceived as the activist wing of Creative Commons UK (though not officially affiliated) that will aim to build the UK's first truly grassroots digital rights organisation. Participation and empowerment will be the key, promoting CC and the public domain, whilst opposing extensions to copyright terms. The organisation's structure and focus are based upon the combined knowledge and experience of its founders, who have participated in and studied successful social movements.

The future is open

If there is a single message to take from OpenTech 2005, it is an obvious one: the future should, and most probably will, be open. The efforts of the free software community are influencing major content providers, who are using open technology to provide open content. Despite the barrage of legislation and litigation from advocates of closed or proprietary technology and content, many felt that we were at a turning point in the politics of openness. Though many technical, social, and political issues remain, there was optimism about the future, perhaps because the conference gathered those who believe passionately in that vision, and those who have a stake in it unfolding. But if those with the awareness and expertise can redouble their efforts to improve, promote, and protect both open technology and content, these conferences may become simply a trade show for the community and industry rather than a talking shop for activism and advocacy.

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