What Happened to Open Source at Tunis?

19,000 people went to Tunis to figure out how to bridge the Digital Divide between the first and the third world. How could the hundreds of press representatives there have found virtually nothing about open source worth reporting?

Updated 2005-11-21; 1:15 PM EST]


For the last two years, I’ve been keeping track of the UN sponsored, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) administered, World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process that held its first mass meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2003. The process culminated last week with a meeting of over 19,000 people in Tunis, Tunisia. I was reading the final reports emanating from the conference over the last several days, a question occurred to me.


What happened to open source?


This isn’t the first time that I’ve asked myself this question, either. For the last four or five months, I’ve had a Google Alert in place to catch virtually every news story that’s been written on the WSIS process, in preparation for writing this month’s Consortium Standards Bulletin, which will focus on the impact, issues and results of WSIS. Funny thing is, open source has never seemed to come up.


Given that the entire conference is dedicated to questions such as how the “Digital Divide” between the first and the third world can be bridged, one would expect that open source software would focus significantly in the strategic planning, discussion and output. If that isn’t true, that would be remarkable. But if open source did play a role at Tunis, the hordes of media in attendance at Tunis totally missed it, or didn’t find it worth reporting.


In truth, there is some history here, extending back to a preparatory meeting in January 2003, at which the US opposed a position paper that would indicate “support” for open source software. But still, progress has been made since then, even in the U.S. position.


True, also, two stories dominated the coverage: the wrangle over who should “govern the Internet,” which has provided political theatre for months (you can find an archive of many of these articles and a number of prior WSIS blog entrieshere), and the ironic choice of Tunisia (which has a record of imprisoning journalists and blocking Websites it finds objectionable) for a Summit that is substantially interested in topics such as free speech.


So how did open source fare at Tunis?


First, let’s run a search using Google News (which picks up only the last thirty days of material) to get a raw measure of where the media were focusing their attention. A Google News search in English, by the way, picks up news stories from many nations around the world, by the way.

WSIS — 1,110 hits


WSIS + “open source” — 37 hits


Hmm — a bit over 3% of the articles made any mention of open source. That’s kind of sparse in the mindshare department. But in fact, its even than those numbers suggest. For example, four of those hits relate to two accounts of a single speech that was reported and linked by two more, and ten relate to the big photo op of the Summit –MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte showcasing the $100 wind-up laptop that is intended to universalize access to the Web. The open source tie in is that Negroponte intends (not surprisingly, given the target cost of a unit) to use only open source OS and application software.


Before this sounds too bleak, however, let’s run that same Google search again, this time searching the entire Web, and throwing in “Tunis” to bias the search towards recent Web pages:

WSIS + Tunis — 990,000


WSIS + Tunis + “open source” — 139,000


Hmm again. Now it’s 14%. So clearly there is more activity going on out there involving open source and WSIS than the organized media is paying attention to.


So what did the mainstream media cover? Let’s see.


As noted, the biggest open source story out of WSIS (by hits) wasn’t really a WSIS story at all, but more of a photo op for a worthwhile project: the $100 laptop alluded to above. Even the U.S. State Department posted a story about it at its public information site, seeking to ride the goodwill coat tails of One Laptop Per Child , which is a project of private sector organization, and not a governmental effort. The Department of State story indicates that some in the Federal government are about as clear on the definition of open source as is Senator Pacheco in Massachusetts: “[Negroponte] also said applications will be open-source based (run from a nonproprietary operating system), and available in “every single language that people want.”


Not surprisingly, the other articles on the same story are a bit more expansive (and accurate) on the open source aspects of the project, so you might want to check out one of the other pieces, such as that found in Techworld.uk, which reports the same statement by Negroponte more comprehensibly:

The computer will run “Linux or some other open-source operating system,” Negroponte said. Applications will also be open-source based, and available in “every single language that people want,” Negroponte said. The MIT professor said he expects the open source community to jump at the opportunity to pitch in with this effort.

As may the proprietary world as well, it seems. Negroponte’s organization turned down an offer by Apple Computer to provide its operating system for free.


The next most visible article (one link is from LinuxToday.com) is Jason Norwood-Young’s article in Tectonic.com (“Africa’s source for open source news”), and is titled Open source on presidential agenda at WSIS. Still, this piece only summarizes the speeches of two Digital Divide speakers: South African President Thabo Mbeki and Hans van Ginkel, rector of the United Nations University, and doesn’t mention how the topics raised were actually addressed (if at all) by the 19,000 attendees.


The next up in the Google search is a BBC.com article that captures more of the action, and is called CDs and Comics offer Digital Aid

Jostling on the sidelines of this week’s UN net summit in Tunis were dozens of projects that provide people in developing countries with much-needed hardware to get digital. After a while in the haze and crowded floor of the summit’s ICT4All expo space, they start to blur into a colourful mass of e-learning, e-government and e-others. Most of the grassroots projects rely on open-source software as a cheap, if not free, and adaptable resource. Open software is seen as a crucial building block in the creation of a digital society in which everyone, anywhere, can share the knowledge, tools and opportunities that technologies can offer.

The two projects the article describes are a comic series used by a non-profit in Namibia to teach children about technology, and a way cool machine called the “Freedom Toaster:”



The large bright orange vending machine-shaped object looks rather like an internet access kiosk….The Freedom Toaster, a project run by the Shuttleworth Foundation, is a “bandwidth substitute”. It requires no infrastructure, just an electricity supply.




It borrows its name from the open-source community’s word for creating or burning a CD, known as “toasting”. Through a simple touch screen interface, it gives the digitally dispossessed in South Africa access to open-source software with free licences for those who might have a computer but no net access….


There are now 30 machines installed in schools, libraries, science centres and retail outlets, and the response has been huge in the year it has been in action.

Let’s see, after that we have…nothing. Yup, nothing but random passing references to open source in press releases and unrelated stories, out of 19,000 people discussing bridging the Digital Divide.


Could there really have been so little? If not, how will we find out, without sifting through those 139,000 Google entries to find the occasional blog entry or internal report of an NGO? And would there really be anything there if we looked?


Presumably, the answer to that is “yes,” and that demonstrates a real issue for the open source movement and third-world issues. Open source news is primarily a low-budget, Web-based phenomenon, that relies heavily on participant-journalism. The system works very well to communicate and develop ideas, but it’s not so good when you need journalists with real travel budgets to get to the news. If you don’t have that, 19,000 people can meet in a tent city in the North African desert, and any open source news worth reporting can disappear into a black hole.


For a sample of what the press missed, here is a speech Bruce Perens gave Bruce Perens online Journal at a WSIS event – accompanied by Richard Stallman in a tin-foil hat.


Now how did the press manage to miss that?


Update: Here’s a story by Jon Blau of IDG News, called WSIS – Some open-source boosters see missed chance, based in part on an interview with Richard Stallman. It seems as if WSIS may have been an under-utilized opportunity, both by the governments that are already interested in open source – and perhaps by the open source community as well (my observation, not Richard’s).


Granted, the United Nations isn’t the field open source advocates are used to playing on, but perhaps in the future, it may need to be. Hundreds of NGOS and others gained credentials to participate in the WSIS process, as could any of the existing entities already actively working to advance the cause of open source.


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