July 17, 2007

UK Greens connect to free software

Author: Bruce Byfield

For average hackers in their cubicles, the relation between environmental and free software issues may seem remote but the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) is working to connect the dots. Since adopting a motion in favor of free and open source software (FOSS) in 2005, party members have not only spoken frequently in favor of FOSS, but also on related issues, such as software patents and lockdown technologies in Vista.

The reasoning behind these efforts might surprise, as much as gratify, the average hacker. For now, they also leave the GPEW scrambling to live up to its own ideas.

With a membership of about 6,000, the GPEW is one of the smaller political parties in the UK. It has two members in the European Parliament, two members in the Greater London Assembly, and more than 125 members in other local governments throughout England and Wales -- a small but growing percentage of the total number of seats, which number in the thousands.

However, as a source of new political ideas, it often has an influence beyond its numbers, particularly in the left wing of the governing Labour Party, whose policies often overlap with the GPEW.

FOSS and related issues are not unknown in British politics. In December 2005, Andrew Murrison, a Conservative member of parliament, sponsored a seminar on "Open Source in Government," and the Conservative Technology Forum has included FOSS advocates for several years.

Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have shown similar interests, according to Tom Chance, Green Party speaker on intellectual property and free software, but the GPEW remains the only major party to make such issues part of its policies.

In announcing the pro-FOSS policy, Peter Lockley, who proposed the motion, explained, "By switching to open systems, government at all levels can save huge amounts of money, escape the lock-in beloved of Microsoft (who have been fined by the European Commission for abusing their monopoly power) and at the same time increase local autonomy and creativity. And we should be encouraging the use of FOSS in schools -- vital if we want to teach children how software works, rather than simply turning out passive users of a standardised product."

FOSS and policy

Asked to explain how FOSS issues fit into the environmental policies for which the Green Party is best known, Chance replies that, like the Green Party, "The free software movement has always sought to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable development culture, and to make that change felt in the wider world."

For instance, he sees FOSS as reinforcing the party's commitment to lifelong learning by advocating "a society in which anyone can take part and study their tools, in which citizens can share knowledge and collaborate." Similarly, the cooperative development methods characteristic of FOSS fits very well in the GPEW's vision of a "devolved democracy" in which control is at the local level.

Chance further suggests that FOSS is about "keeping control over our computers rather than ceding control to private interests" and "programmers engaging in healthy productive communities, rather than being alienated from one another by private property systems."

Derek Wall, principal male speaker for the GPEW, would agree -- although not all Greens, he stresses, would necessarily share his emphasis. "For me personally, [FOSS is] about a green economy based on the principles of using resources creatively," Wall says.

"It provides an alternative notion of property rights. It's a new version of commons, and for me commons are a way ... of increasing prosperity without wasteful growth in throw-away consumption."

Most importantly, for the GPEW, FOSS represents a new approach to basic activist issues. "FOSS," Wall says, "is a concept that cuts through the stale debates around state or private economic control of either the individual or the collective." FOSS, he adds, is an alternative to "the wrong kind of economics, based on growth in waste, short term profit, [and] endless commodification of nature."

As Chance explains, the sharing of code in FOSS makes the question of whether it is released by a private or public group largely irrelevant since, either way, the license assures that everyone can benefit.

This vision, while idealistic, is very much in keeping with the frequent declarations of Green Parties worldwide that they represent an alternative to the liberal and conservative spectrum of mainstream traditional politics. For example, Wall notes that in opposing software patents in the European Parliament, GPEW members Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas were part of a coalition that included representatives from both socialist and center-right parties.

Learning to walk the walk

Both Chance and Derek Wall, as well as Siân Berry, the party's female principal speaker, have blogged regularly about FOSS issues, and Chance notes some support within local parties for the policy as well.

All the same, even within the GPEW, FOSS adoption is slow. Wall observes that some party members found the original motion "confusing." Today, the policy is sometimes seen in news releases, but, in much of the party's Web site, any mention of FOSS issues is hard to find. And, while the party's servers use Debian GNU/Linux, and use of cross-platform FOSS applications such as OpenOffice.org, FireFox, and Scribus is starting to become common, on the desktop, OS X and Windows still prevail in many corners of the party.

The problem, according to Chance, is not a lack of will. The worst resistance he reports is "the occasional reluctance until some people feel that a switch won't obstruct our ability to function effectively." Rather, the problem as he sees it is "Extremely limited funds and certain specific applications." In general, he suggests that the GPEW needs "to be much stronger about the issue."

Still, he concludes that "awareness within the party is definitely building. I've even had people email me asking how to start migrating to Linux."

Outside the party, Chance mentions that he is "constantly surprised by how many people outside the IT world have heard of Linux, and understand that Firefox is more than just another browser."

In keeping with the party's efforts to influence through the presentation of fresh ideas, one of his more immediate goals is to place "a critical pressure on other parties to start speaking much more seriously about free software, so, for example, it becomes untenable for government departments to buy proprietary software unless there are exceptional circumstances."

In much the same way, Chance hopes that, by raising FOSS issues, the GPEW can encourage the use of free software in schools and government, and help to develop government policies to encourage its use in business.

To Chance in particular, and the Greens in general, the promoting of FOSS is ultimately the promotion of the party's own values. Simply encouraging the use of FOSS in public institutions, he suggests, would improve government, "both because it would be more focused on a just, equitable, and sustainable future and because it would force government to be more open, transparent, and participatory. We suffer from an incredibly centralized, opaque, and disempowering government in England and Wales. We desperately need the participatory ethic of free software to transform government."

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