Small is beautiful – free software column

The Internet is a democratising force breaking down cultural, racial and religious boundaries, yet its services are dominated by a few

The EU is investigating Google for anti- competitive activities. This action is the latest in a series of anti-trust investigations by the eU against powerful tech corporations. Google is everywhere and, as corporations go, sees itself as benevolent. Google was the first search engine to work as intended and its means of raising income are barely perceptible to the end user, but it is also one of a small number of corporations that have ‘owned’ the commons that is the world wide web. others include amazon, facebook and Twitter.

The promise of the web has always been its diversity, an instant medium where we can speak and share our vision with our fellow citizens on the opposite side of the globe. Nobody can argue that the services provided by these corporations don’t have a value for their users, but the first ‘duty’ of a corporation is to return a profit for its shareholders. The shareholders, albeit temporary and subject to the price of today’s stocks and shares, are the sole beneficiaries, and the short term profits of shareholders override any other interest.

Free software, like the web, is promoted by corporations when it is useful to their profit margins. Many disparate organisations collaborate and contribute to GNU/Linux and other free and open source software projects, because they are beneficial to their bottom lines and seldom for altruistic reasons. Contributing to GNU/Linux reduces development costs and encourages open standards. open standards are useful because they reduce barriers to entry for technologies that were ‘not invented here’.

Most corporations, however, tend to be in favour of proprietary standards when they operate in their favour, and it follows that very few corporations take a consistent stance in standards committees. apple is in favour of open standards except that everything must be directed to the iStore. Microsoft erects a closed shop around its technologies. open source projects, nominally released under copyleft licences, demand that contributors assign their copyrights to the corporate entity. Companies that make generous contributions to free and open source software projects also vehemently enforce software patents. The problem for the users and developers of free software is that this too often translates into compromise. The GPLv3 and LGPLv3 can be compromised by “community agreements” and copyright assignment clauses, which pass ownership of the code to the holding company and allow relicensing and consequent dereliction of the patent clause and other protections of a copyleft license.

A consequence of a culture dominated by corporations is that profits are moved around from country to country and corporations often pay little tax in their host countries. a company like amazon provides convenience and reduced costs for its services, but a secondary consequence of its ubiquity and success is that small book and record shops can’t compete and are disappearing, reducing diversity and choice.

The EU’s investigation of Google for anti-competitive practices may or may not prove to be justified, but stands in marked contrast to its stand on TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a trade agreement being negotiated between europe and the US, which in the words of George Monbiot, would give corporations the right “to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would enable a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections – known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).”

ISDS enables a corporation to override the will of an elected government and “could be used to smash attempts to save the NHS from corporate control, to re-regulate the banks, to curb the greed of the energy companies, to renationalise the railways, to leave fossil fuels in the ground,” in other words, to hand the role of government to corporate lawyers.

We should be looking for ways to spread diversity. we must hope that the eU’s pursuit of Google results in more options becoming available. as Tim Berners- Lee said when announcing The Web We Want, “Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can, but it is naive to think we can sit back and get it.”