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Simon Phipps: Freedom Doesn’t Have Any Lobbyists

Simon Phipps is a renowned computer scientist and web and open source advocate. Phipps was instrumental in IBM’s involvement in the Java programming language, founding IBM’s Java Technology Center. In this exclusive interview with Simon Phipps during FOSDEM 2012, Swapnil Bhartiya discusses new risks to our freedom. We discussed about ACTA, ebooks, copyrights and much more. Read on…

Swapnil: Can you tell us more about the role you play outside OSI (Open Source Initiative)?
Simon: I am on the boards of the Open Rights Group of the UK. I help them with their campaigns. The Open Right Group is a group of digital liberty activists. We have raised funds in order to hire staff who do the thinking behind public policy that how it effect the liberty. This group works to protect digital liberties of people. They campaign for free culture, they campaign against the enclosure of copyright. Right now we have campaigns running about ACTA. We have campaigns running about parody law because in UK there is no fair use exception that lets you create parody.

I also work with The Document Foundation, they are developing the LibreOffice it has just been incorporated at the FOSDEM. I work on LibreOffice too. I am also dealing to folks with Libre Java. I work as an open source consultant so I work with non-profit organizations and companies to understand open source licensing, open source policies, open source law.

Freedom doesn’t have any lobbyists. The only lobbyists the freedom has is us so if we decide not to play, if we decide we are tired or this doesn’t seem very interesting — this is our last chance to stop it.

Swapnil: What do you say about the way whole ACTA thing is being handled in secrecy?
Simon: All the ambassadors signed ACTA in Japan secretly which was a despicable piece of betrayal of their citizens. I think they are going to get into a lot of trouble because of that, not least because they really failed to have a transparent inclusive process even for the members of the EU parliament. We saw that the rapporteur on ACTA resigned. I have never seen a Rapporteur making public statement against the subject on which he was the lead Rapporteur. So this shows how improperly it has been conducted. Yes it was signed but that doesn’t mean anything until European Parliament approves it and they don’t have to vote until June and there is plenty of time to tell MEPs how disgusted citizens are.

Swapnil: What role OSI and you played against ACTA?
Simon: OSI joined in with a civil society campaign against ACTA a couple of week ago, which was organized by Access Now, and we signed a public statement about Access Now.

Going forward, since we have adopted a new governance model, it will be up to our members to determine what actions to be taken. I fully anticipate we will be taking specific actions against ACTA.

The Open Rights group is doing the same thing. They will be running a campaign where we are organizing a Europe wide protest against ACTA on February 11, 2012. We will also be investigating that what is the best way to use our resources to highlight the problem. We think that when the members of the European union have the ACTA explained to them by the citizens rather than lobbyist they will realize how bad it is.

I was involved with the software patent directive in 2005 opposing that and we found that once politicians realize that the story they have been told was not the whole story their vote change. That’s what we think has to happen with ACTA as well.

Politicians need to understand, although the European Commission is telling them that everything is fine, they are not hearing the whole story. They need to understand that they are completely missing the impact ACTA will have on free culture, they are missing the impact ACTA will have on emerging business models and by passing ACTA they risk keeping the European industry in the 20th century, stopping it from progressing into the 21st century.

Swapnil: We have heard a lot about SOPA and PIPA, still general public is unaware of the risks. Can you explain why is ACTA so dangerous?
Simon: One of the things ACTA does is it takes away discretion. Geeks like to think that law is like a programming language that you can run the law through Gnu’s Compact Law Compiler and will get error messages in the morning which they can go and fix. The law doesn’t work that way. The law depends on there being a lot of discretion, a lot of gray areas and people making decisions based on all those gray areas. And if they can’t agree, eventually then they go to court and a judge make a final decision for you.

ACTA is squeezing that discretion out of the copyright law. In Europe all the things that allow you to create parody, to use other people’s ideas, rely on common sense and discretion and ACTA is going to squeeze the commonsense and discretion out of copyright law. That’s a general statement about it.

Specifically, ACTA is trying to make thing that were always been civil law violations criminal law violations. It has a very vague test which if you fail at commercial scale you are subject to criminal law. That means that may be you are a movie maker and you are shooting in Brussels and there is something going on it the background which is copyrighted. You post that video online and it is downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people, well now you are operating at a commercial scale and if the copyright holder of that work decides to sue you, you are subject to criminal penalties and not civil penalties. This is one example, there are many examples where the law has been made brutal. And that’s all serving the interest of the people who own lost of copyrights and lots of patents.

Swapnil: How does they succeed in changing the laws of other countries for their own benefits?
Simon: One of the great shames about all this copyright laws stuff is that US trade representatives are using America’s power to make the law worse everywhere else in the world. That’s a great shame that’s going on there. We have to understand that just because you don’t live in a country that has un-American law that doesn’t mean your government won’t be putting in American laws soon. The US trade representatives are going and saying “would you like subsidy on your motor industry? If you change your copyright law to be like ours we will give you subsidy for your motor industry. Would you like us to buy your wheat and rice oh we will buy your wheat and rice if you change your copyright law to be like ours. So they are going around making a world where everybody has got the same restrictive laws. We need to be very concerned even if we think we live in a country which is not affected.

Swapnil: eBooks are becoming another area of concern where a user doesn’t have any control over they book that they bought at full price. I think ebooks should not be more that .99 cents, just like music. What do you say about it?
Simon: Publishers believe they can get away with it. Lawrence Lessig explains that copyrights were never meant to apply to you and me. Copyright was a set of laws to regulate what happens between producers. It was there to actually stop printing presses from stealing each others’ work.

When you buy a book you are not subject to copyright because none of the things that you do with the book involves copying. When you give the book to someone else the copyright law doesn’t apply because you are giving the book away.

In the digital realms the analog of everything you do involves copying. When you go to a shop and buy a book you are not affected by the copyright law because there is no act of copying is involved. But when you buy a book from Kindle everything you do involves copying – the act of buying involves the act of copying from here to there into your library. The act or reading involves copying from your library to your kindle and consequently publishers have been able to gain power that they are not entitled to. They have been able to gain power over your use which copyright law was never intended to give them. So the problem we see with ebooks is that we are seeing an abuse of an illegitimately gained power. That’s why there is a problem.

We can mitigate that problem by encouraging them to treat licensing as rental. So I will be willing to pay .99 cent to rent copy of a book if I can conveniently get it delivered to my Linux desktop. I was looking for a book and the Kindle version was for some 6.95 pounds and hard-copy was for some 6.99 pound. If I am going to pay nearly 7 pounds why will I have the kindle version when I can have the book? I think there is going to be a big change in this industry. The control they are exercising is illegitimately gained. Society never meant to give them that power. Secondly the way there are using it is abusive. They should be using it to create a reasonable market, they should not be using it to create unreasonable market.

Swapnil: Apple is not entering eBook publishing with their own set of rules, what do you have to say about that?
Simon: The whole academic publishing world is in need of massive reform in this connected age. What Apple is doing there is entirely typical of Apple. I put a picture in my talk of what they are like. People shouldn’t be in any way surprised that they are acting this way. If you are happy to be locked in then what they are doing is no worse than the rest of what they are doing.

Personally if I was involved in a college I would be really keen to get open academic publication and open course ware. And there is plenty of that. The thing is the specific textbook they are publishing, the publishers who are involved are still living in the 20th century. So they find Apple’s 20th century approach to book publishing very pleasing. I think the problem is somewhere else. What Apple is doing is, its not like you got an alternative once you decide it to be that kind of slave. It’s like a slave complaining about what kind of whip his master is using.

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Swapnil: So what are the things you are passionate about these days and is your focus at the moment?
Simon: The things I am passionate about the moment is I am focused on ACTA. We have a short 5 month window to defeat it. We have to watch carefully how every individual digital citizen can play that part because we are going to need everyone. Freedom doesn’t have any lobbyists. The only lobbyists the freedom has is us so if we decide not to play, if we decide we are tired or this doesn’t seem very interesting — this is our last chance to stop it.

Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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