Advocates of free software and open-source software were neither protesting nor dancing in the halls of the Kram conference and exhibition center at the Internet summit in Tunis. A few critics, including Richard Stallman, questioned why they even came.
"I don't know why I'm here, frankly," said Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project. "Maybe because I was asked to speak."
"Everything was decided at the first summit in Geneva two years ago when the U.S. government tried to have free software removed from the original document, but Brazil blocked that attempt," said Stallman in an interview Thursday evening at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). "The result was a compromise, a watered-down, neutral paper."
Earlier language had advocated the wide use of free software and open-source software, but U.S. and European Union government delegates demanded that commercial software interests also receive fair representation in the plan. Language endorsed in the final document calls for "increased awareness" of the "different software models, including proprietary, open source and free software."
Stallman is a bit ticked over a missed opportunity. "We didn't lose anything but we didn't win anything, either," he said, wearing an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag covered in tin-foil to block radio waves.
The free software movement supports the freedom to run whatever programs they want, to study and change code, copy and distribute software to anyone and publish their own for others, Stallman said. He views free software going beyond open-source software in the freedom it provides users.
Like Stallman and his free software supporters, many open-source advocates also believe WSIS could have been a chance for governments to endorse their software and support efforts to challenge the dominate position of Microsoft, a vendor of proprietary software.
"In terms of deployment, open software is still relatively small compared to Microsoft," said Sunil Abraham, manager of the international open-source network Asia-Pacific at the United Nations Development Program. "It's the classic David and Goliath battle," he said. "An endorsement of open source from governments, global agencies and the likes would have been a big boost."
Louis-Dominique Quedraogo, inspector of the U.N. joint inspection unit monitoring open source in the public sector, said open-source software is essential for governments, especially in developing markets. "They need to be able to access the code and adapt it to their needs without having to purchase new software every time they change something," he said. "Open source software allows them to innovate on their own."