September 3, 2004

Role of Free Software for Development to be discussed at UNCTAD meeting

Free and open-source software (FOSS) - software that has made its source code open to the public - challenges preconceptions about how software in general is used, produced and distributed, and about the freedoms and responsibilities this entails. These issues, and the broader implications of FOSS for economic and social development, will be discussed by government representatives and specialists from academia, business and civil society at an expert meeting being convened by UNCTAD in Geneva from 22 to 24 September.

Software is written using a programming language, and the resulting text is called the source code. With FOSS, the idea is for the users to be free to modify the software by editing its source code and the right to redistribute the same or modified software. Licences for FOSS are thus designed to prevent or discourage its being turned into proprietary software.

That the Internet runs primarily on free or open-code software is probably the most obvious but least-known technological facet of the information revolution. What are the economic and social development implications of such software? Why should FOSS be of particular interest to developing and transition countries? Should governments take an active role in promoting it, and is it applicable to commercial and business activity? How do the concept and process of FOSS affect other spheres of human activity important for development, such as health, education and innovation? These are some of the questions to be debated at the meeting, where experts will also share experiences in such other technology production and distribution models as public domain, freeware and proprietary software.

Several major IT companies have also given their approval and support to developing FOSS. Important Internet businesses, such as Amazon.com and Google.com, deploy open-source infrastructures. A number of governments, public authorities and organizations are implementing open-source solutions. Some have even incorporated a bias towards free or open-code software in legislation regulating public tenders. But what are their motivations? Is the business model sustainable? Does the open process of software production produce quality software? Are there advantages in governance and public accountability and for the security of public data?

The meeting will bring together experts from developed and developing countries, international and regional bodies involved in FOSS issues, the software technology industry and civil society. They will discuss how well FOSS is known and how much it is used in business and households; how it is being debated within governments; strategic, administrative and normative approaches being considered or implemented; examples of localization efforts and applications; possible economic effects and influence on related sectors; and education and intellectual property regulation, among other issues.

Further information is available from www.unctad.org/ecommerce/. Requests for participation should be sent to UNCTAD's Intergovernmental Affairs and Outreach Service, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland; fax: + 41.22.917.0056, correspondence@unctad.org. Substantive queries may be addressed to fossem@unctad.org.

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