Free Software and Human Rights

Article: FREE SOFTWARE AND HUMAN RIGHTS. By GianMarco Schiesaro. For the International Congress Free Software and the Democratization of Knowledge, Quito, 23 October 2008

In the Free Software and Education conference I attended in Quito, Ecuador last month, I met a most interesting person, GianMarco Schiesaro, who gave a very interesting presentation, entitled: Free Software and Human Rights. I’m not aware that this particular relationship has been investigated many times.

I’m not reproducing the whole essay, which I reproduced here, but only the introduciton and the conclusions.

The main body of the text discusses free software as it is related to three sets of rights:

* Software and the Right to Development

* Software and the Right to Communication

* Software and the Right to Education

Some bio details: GianMarco Schiesaro (Italy, 1969) with a degree in Electronic Engineering and subsequently specializing in topics on Development Cooperation and Computer Mediated Communication. He has worked for a number of years in the world of international cooperation, with VIS (International Volunteers for Development) projects of e-learning in developing countries. He is also director of the Training Center for Human Development in Rome and lectures in the Master in Education for Peace (Roma Tre University).

Excerpts by GianMarco Schiesaro:

1. From the Introduction

Human rights warm the heart. People are urged on in the name of human rights to create a sense of meaning in their lives. Technology does not do this: it seems to suggest calm, flight from anything alarming.

I work in the field of Development Cooperation and the perspective I come from is that of the world’s South. The background to my activity is the pressure coming from globalization, a phenomenon that sees both economy and technology as key players (internationalization of markets on the one hand and the spread of computer networks on the other). However, I note with amazement that it is only the economy that is being condemned by those who oppose globalization (the so-called no-globals) while, peculiarly, the ICTs seem sheltered from all criticism, in a kind of presumed “neutrality”. Language, too, is revealing: the adjective “new”, with its constant semantic load of euphoria and hope, seems restricted to information technologies, while others, for example biotechnologies, are pointed to contemptuously as “deviant technologies”.

A serious reflection on the relationship between technology and rights, and in particular between Free Software and human rights, suffers from this basic distortion typical of recent years. There was a time when technology gave rise to international debates; it is enough to recall the lively discussions in the 60’s and 70’s on appropriate technologies. Today instead an optimistic indifference prevails, a kind of blind trust in the virtues of technology. In 2003 we witnessed the paradox of a UN Summit on the Information Society quite overlooked by the information media itself.

On the other hand, there is a well-versed niche group of enthusiasts, in general the FLOSS community, which refuses to accept a dominant technological determinism and which glimpses a strategic option in every technological choice replete with social and political relationships. Their attention is directed especially to software, possibly the most refined product of human ingenuity, in order to underline its great potential but also its inevitable risks. The computer, whose ‘nervous system’ is provided by software, is beginning to exercise control in the world where human beings interact, and on democratic processes as well as economic ones. There is no relationship or transaction in cyberspace which is not spelt out in some way by software code. Software is by now a part of rights and law as a regulator in the real world and no longer limits itself, within the realm of cyberspace, to being a functional equivalent of law.

Nevertheless, while the use of software in our daily lives continues to be an object of investigation for the participatory potential it offers and for its role in creating identity and community, rather less investigated are policies which are thought out and implemented in reference to questions like access to technologies and the rights implied.

Amongst the reasons for this of course is the fact that the relevant decisions are often taken in places far from where the citizens are and that the way these decision-making mechanisms function is often quite opaque. There is also poor understanding of the language adopted by policy makers, often too bureaucratic and jargon-filled: the documents they produce are only interpretable by engineers and ‘legal eagles’. The experience of the last few years demonstrates how dangerous it is to delegate technical issues to specialists: we end up also delegating the protection of our rights. Which rights and how they are tied in with software, is the subject of the following reflection.

Digital rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains one article recognizing the right of everyone “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” and inviting States to take measures for “the conservation, development and diffusion of science and culture”, respecting the “freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity” (art. 15). This guarantee, it is evident, applies perfectly to software which, before being a technology, represents knowledge in its pure state, the product of the creative activity of human ingenuity. Promoting this specific human right, therefore, also implies “freeing” software.

Many, not satisfied with this way of formulating things, are trying to set out sui generis human rights around software. There is an ever more frequent reference to “digital rights”, generally located within the so-called “third generation human rights”, those which are claimed at a period following on from the traditional set of human rights.

The term “digital rights” is not accepted univocally, and is generally a reference to rights made necessary by technological and info-tech developments: this has brought a request for new freedoms aimed at older forms of power, for example:

– the right to protection of privacy against intrusive information technology; – the right to security in one’s transactions; – the right to access to information technology resources.

The debate over the first two rights (privacy and security) has in fact monopolized public discussion, and it is not difficult to understand why. In fact we are dealing here with two rights tied strictly to the individual sphere, which public opinion is traditionally more sensitive to. And we are dealing, besides, with rights which are typical of the more advanced nations, with a widely-developed network of information technology resources and the software required to make use of them.

Rather more complex is the debate on the right of access to information technology resources. This debate is almost completely absent in the world’s North, and has been taken up in recent years by the United Nations in favour of nations in the South. There is enormous publicity around the theme of the Digital Divide: it seems that the international community has by now reached a deep consensus on the need to reduce this as soon as possible.

The most popular slogan seems to be that of ”access”. The idea is that the most urgent task for the poorest nations is to “have access” to the information society and the solution almost always offered is to provide them with information technology infrastructure. International organizations habitually employ the term “e-readiness” to refer to provision of infrastructure to a country, and implicitly they mean that once there has been catch-up in these infrastructures, a country can be said to be “ready” to enter the digital world.

The ideological values in this slogan are evident, a product of linguistic colonization by neo-liberal discourse. This considers information as a market-place, thus attributing monetary value to it, something to be sold and exchanged. As a consequence, access to information is treated as if it were access to any kind of market. Information ceases to be the fruit of a process of interaction and becomes a market product for commercial exchange. It becomes something which one can have more or less access to, so long as somebody makes it possible. Should we wonder then if, in the name of intellectual property, the information incorporated into software is made artificially scarce?

Those excluded from this commercial exchange are not seen as victims of the violation of human rights. They are defined rather as “info-poor”, a new category needing help from technological handouts. In studies on human rights there has been a shift of attention from the concept of the individual seen as the object of charity, assistance handouts, to a rather more mature concept of the individual as someone with needs and rights which are to be actively promoted. It is evident that the info-poor have to be interpreted from a wider perspective, in the light of the political, economic and social context. The right of access to information must necessarily translate into an ability to promote, exchange, improve information for the individual and the community he or she is a part of.

2. From the conclusion

There is no doubt that the dominant ethic of the Free Software movement is an ethic of freedom. As such it regards norms and regulations with suspicion, seeing them as unduly restrictive. The GNU licence was thought up as a kind of anti-licence, as the minimum of regulation necessary to guarantee the perpetuation of the freedoms it upholds. But are the freedoms laid down in the fourfold statement (freedom to execute a program, freedom to study it, freedom to redistribute it, freedom to adapt it) really sufficient to guarantee, into the future, free and unconditioned access to the resources of information technology?

An example could be useful to better illustrate this doubt. Let’s consider the best known of the products developed through open standards, the internet. It is shown as an example of the excellence achievable by freely sharing resources and information. The internet grew out of the socio-cognitive interaction of millions of people, machines and programs, through an uninterrupted process of self-organization, made possible through sharing a transparent protocol for transferring information.

The internet was certainly born free. But have we any guarantee that it will continue to be so? There are already some alarm bells ringing today. We are too accustomed to thinking of the “huge web” as the very symbol of freedom and democracy to note that many governments, far from the mirror of public opinion, have already turned their gaze on the web, seeking to curb its growing protagonism.

Examples of censorship by many authoritarian governments in the South of the world are the order of the day, as well as the hidden interferences of many western governments.

Also with regard to the internet the idea of decentralization is often used as a surrogate symbolic of democracy. A decentralized web has been presented to us over a long period, a whole complex of nodes without a centre or a periphery. But the idea of an internet egalitarian in structure, able to escape external control and pressures, is but a myth. In realty, the internet is managed in a way that is quite the opposite to anarchic and is increasingly showing up a battleground of huge power interests.

The worldwide structure of the internet is not a territory which cares for itself and is without check: there are various bodies which, each with its own distinct tasks, controls its functioning. The most delicate area is the management of web domains. Whoever manages the structure of internet addresses in fact wields formidable power over the economy and strategic world resources. Some domains allow for the development of economic activities and to act as a reference for social activities; others take on a precise political significance (think of the web domain suffix .ps for Palestinian sites, assigning to the occupied territories an independence in cyberspace that they do not yet have in the physical world).

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the institution presiding over the registration of domains: it could be likened to a virtual control tower, able to direct computers. If it ceased to function, the net would be in a situation similar to an airport where the control tower was without radar. In brief it holds power of life or death over the entire web: that’s not bad for a body which is not all that old and whose existence many are ignorant of.

ICANN, which came into being with the idea of being fully representative of all centres of interest and internet users, currently offers no guarantee of being fully democratic. Based in California, operating in formal terms by contract with the North American Government, bureaucratically administered and made up of members strongly influenced by a handful of large corporations, up till now has not guaranteed transparency in its decision-making, which for the most part takes place behind closed doors.

Today, after a long standstill, the international community has returned to a discussion of ICANN’s future, in the name of internet governance . The American Government has gone on the attack and has claimed that ICANN is an integral part of American national interests. On the other hand, a group of influential nations, amongst which are Brazil, South Africa, India and China, are pressuring for a shift of the ICANN’s delicate tasks to a super partes body, like the UN.

This solution, nevertheless, does not convince many, especially in Europe. On the one hand there are doubts based on whether a UN institution would be any more straightforward and less bureaucratic than ICANN itself. On the other hand there is a fear that national governments might take precedence in managing a resource which up till now they have only been able to partly control. It seems more than obvious to everyone that China is attempting to take control in a way that will allow it to exercise a more rigid and overall censorship of its own internet.

Whatever choice is put in place in terms of regulation will strongly mark the internet’s evolution and the maintaining or not of the freedom which has thus far been characteristic of it. It is really a pity that, in this debate, the FLOSS community’s voice is so markedly absent.


In recent times requests have multiplied for a “Digital Rights Charter”, supporting the urgency of this. Free Software supporters are often int he front ranks of those asking for this. The more pessimistic claim that we run the risk of seeing “digital human rights” spelt out and approved only as a response to some technological web disaster. The analogy, evidently, is with the emergence of the Declaration on Human Rights, which arose out of the horrors of the Second World War.

In my view, a new rights charter would be useful only if it were able to arouse renewed attention to the problem of freedom on the web and associated software rights. The claiming of such rights would necessarily have a superindividual dimension (referring to “rights of persons in community”) and should give priority to political and cultural contexts where software is created or brought and the needs of the poorer populations. It is in the world’s South that we see the most serious violations of the right to benefit from the information created in cyberspace.

Cyberspace is not autonomous, separate from society, but reflects the values and prerogatives of concrete reality, with the same risks that unsustainable development models have had. We can trace a parallel between the emergence of cyberspace in the development debate and the sphere of rights on the one hand and the emergence of the concept of sustainable development on the other. Sustainable development, which came from the area of natural sciences, has given new value to the idea of the sustainability of the management of natural resources and extended it to the entire economic and social process.

We need to look at cyberspace in exactly the same way: it presupposes extending to the the world of information the principles that preside over human and sustainable development. In this case the resource needing to be managed is information which, like the environment, is a renewable resource, capable of being reproduced. It is also a resource which needs to be protected, respected, preserved and valued in order to be available to everyone.

“Sustainable information”, as we could call this new development thread, is the bearer of an information ethic capable of resolving the challenges coming from this new environment, avoiding all kinds of destruction, corruption, pollution or unjustified closing down of cyberspace. It has to remain a public space, accessible to all, where collaboration can flourish, consistent with the application of civil rights, legal requirements and the fundamental freedoms demanded by the information society.

Thus like natural capital it comes into reflection on development, becoming one of the limiting factors in economic growth, and so information capital ought guide technological growth in an ethical sense. Just as the environmental factor has restored universality and given impetus to the theory of human development, so the “information” factor, understood as a global public good, can determine the birth of a more equitable information society.”

2 Comments Free Software and Human Rights

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