OpenForum Academy Workshop – Exploring Modern Dimensions of Openness

18 September 2019

Author: OpenForum Europe

Author: Mirko Boehm

The OpenForum Academy held its second 2019 workshop in Brussels this week. OpenForum Academy is a European-based independent think tank which explains the merits of openness in computing to policy makers, industry and communities across Europe. This workshop series aims at being a forum for practitioners, academics and policy makers to collaborate on various topics of openness and freedom. It is organized by OpenForum Europe, enabling it to bridge between the abstract academic world and policy discussions at the European Commission. We set out to explore focus topics to answer current challenges to openness that the academy will develop insights and recommendations for. These topics will shape the work of OpenForum Academy for the near future.

The workshop was opened by a series of input presentations. One of those was on “Addressing lock-in challenges through the use of open source software projects” by Björn Lundell, a fellow of the academy and professor at the University of Skövde in Sweden. He explained for example the need for open source solutions to read and write data formats of digital assets of long-term importance.

I presented key findings and recommendations from the study on “The Role of Open Source Software in Standard Setting”. All this served to frame the following discussion of potential core topics for the OpenForum Academy to focus. OpenForum Europe champions openness in Europe, a topic that has sprawled into numerous debates. Which ones of those are important and warrant the development of academic papers and policy briefs?

Exploring modern dimensions of openness

Personally, I am primarily interested in Open Source aspects. However, there are other dimensions of openness that cover different processes and results. There is still a discussion of what an open standard is. Open hardware works quite differently to software, because the open specifications eventually have to be turned into physical goods. Access to data is an angle independent from software, specifications and hardware, and most software is made useful by the data sets it processes. We want more scientific articles to be available under open access licenses, especially when they are creating with public funding. The list of topics related to openness is probably never-ending. Eventually, the following aspects emerged as the currently most interesting ones:

Openness and the Cloud

How the transition of ICT to cloud and edge services changes the importance of FOSS and data unsurprisingly sparked a heated debate during the workshop. Is software freedom threatened by the rise of cloud computing because software modifications are not required to be shared? How can vendor lock-in and a lack of choice be overcome? Very importantly, what is new about cloud that is different to before (hint: it may be less than we think)? How can consumer interests be protected and a healthy business ecosystem promoted? How can regulation help and where does regulation overreach (think surveillance or user profiling)? Many of these questions are about finding the right balance, or identifying the justified intrusions into the user’s rights to confidentiality and privacy.

Open Source as Civil ICT Infrastructure

The EU invests in railroads, highways and data networks. Why does it not invest much into FOSS? FOSSA (hint: please participate in the survey!) is a good start. Much more could be done. Civil society is stepping in to take over public functions, as in the preservation of knowledge fostered by Wikipedia or Software Heritage, often with little public support. What would be a framework under which the EU and member states can invest into FOSS development, to serve it’s own needs or to support support sustainability goals? Can a public investment plan be developed for the development of OSS ICT infrastructure, including goals and spends?

Commercial Business Models and Open Source

Much has been discussed recently about the sustainability of FOSS development, often confusing it the viability of the own business model. Norms that form the pillars of the FOSS movement like the four freedoms of software or the Open Source Definition embody community culture at the expense of legalistic terminology. Recently, models have emerged that remove some of the freedoms guaranteed by those norms, for example in the deceptively named Commons Clause License. The relation between FOSS and other rights like trademarks or patents is still a much researched topic. Directly related to that are approaches on how to valuate FOSS and FOSS based businesses to give guidance to industry, VCs and policy makers for investment decisions. Some of our fellows feel it is important to take a stand as a community, insist on making it clear what FOSS really is and prevent a watering down of standards like the Open Source Definition. There is a need to explain the work of the wider FOSS community more clearly to illustrate how it interacts with and contributes to society.

How to contribute and get involved

The academy believes that these topic are of wide-ranging importance to the development of the digital society and the single market in the EU. They warrant a thorough investigation, deep analysis and a search for solutions that connects research, industry and policy makers. We hope to support this process by selecting these three subjects as focus topics for the OpenForum Academy for the upcoming year. The academy will facilitate the work of it’s fellows through workshops, publications and other means. If you are a researcher, practitioner, engaged in European politics or simply otherwise interested, follow @OpenForumEurope and @OpenForumAcad or contact OpenForum Academy to get involved.

See: Gamalielsson, J. & Lundell, B. (2013) Experiences from implementing PDF in open source: challenges and opportunities for standardisation processes, In Jakobs, K. (Ed.) Proceedings of the 8th IEEE Conference on Standardization and Innovation in Information Technology (SIIT 2013), ISBN 3-86130-802-9, IEEE, Piscataway, pp. 39-49.