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Opinion: Open source for all mankind

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Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

(Read caption) Austrian Internet activist Max Schrems brought a case against Facebook that eventually led to the European Court of Justice ruling invalidating the Safe Harbor data transfer agreement between the US and EU.

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What sort of society do you want to live in? It's one of the most important and substantial questions you can ask. While we might disagree on the finer details or even the central tenets of the ideal society, it's important that everyone has a voice in the discussion.

In October, the European Court of Justice ruling to invalidate the Safe Harbor data transfer agreement between the US and the European Union represented Europe's voice in the ongoing discussion about our global digital society. And for Europeans, the decision was a clear vote for openness, transparency, and self-determination.

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Largely based on the Edward Snowden revelations of US agencies snooping on international data flows, the court's decision to void Safe Harbor constitutes a rejection – loud and clear – of America’s mass surveillance program. It's Europe's way of saying: We don't want to live in that kind of surveillance society.

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Often the government surveillance debate is framed as if you must choose between a society that prioritizes either privacy or security. Following that reasoning, you must allow an omniscient operator such as the National Security Agency, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) or the German intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst to constantly monitor and intrude into your ecosystem to ensure your safety. This is a fallacy.

The words of Benjamin Franklin from 1755 seem all too relevant to today: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither." At their own admission, the intelligence agencies around the world can cite no instances where the mass collection of data has been effective at preventing crime or terrorism from happening.

Mr. Franklin’s respect for liberty over temporary safety equally applies now as we are adjusting to a technology dependent society – a society run on software. That's why accountability and openness are just as important for the corporations that produce the software and hardware we rely on daily as those principles are in government. 

But unfortunately the vast majority of tech companies favor secrecy instead of transparency. They sell closed-source software and don't reveal the code or development practices to the public. For instance, Microsoft and Apple operating systems are closed-source products and both companies closely guard their code. Instead of giving users and outside developers any kind of say in their products, or ways to make alterations and improvements, they are making every decision for us.

For me, growing up in East Germany under constant Stasi surveillance vividly demonstrated the dangers of government or corporations having too much control. In these situations, the balance of control is unequal and untenable. 

The closed-source approach says to the user: "We know best, we’re in control and we will manage all elements of your ecosystem because we don’t trust you. We don’t trust you to be in control of your product, we don’t even trust you to see how your product actually works or what we’re doing behind the scenes in the backend."

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Thankfully there's a better way. Whether in reference to technology or a political ideology, open source is about self-determination. It’s about individuals developing products and projects, taking responsibility and being open to criticism and change. It fosters a healthy, meritocratic ecosystem of shared, mutually improving ideas. Crucially, the open-source attitude manifests a level of respect and equality between developer and user, government and citizen.

It's also an attitude and approach the European Court of Justice embraced in its Safe Harbor decision.

A key element of the ruling is the court's insistence on the right of each EU member state to determine their respective data legislation. This demonstrates the court’s crucial recognition that every country, just like every business, has a different set of values and priorities. A single, proprietary solution could never meet these individual requirements. Much like software, laws must be tailored to the individuals they affect, not applied with broad, unifying brush strokes. An open-source attitude celebrates and accommodates diversity within national and business communities.

In law and in Europe's attitude about technology and culture, we're experiencing a pivotal moment of international self-determination. As the business writer and thinker Jonathan MacDonald recently told me, the difference between success and failure comes down to one thing: willingness.

We have the chance to choose an open-source society that treats its citizens with respect and integrity. In true open-source fashion, we must all work together to make it happen.

Rafael Laguna is chief executive officer of Open-Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @rafbuff.

 


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