The Digital Freedom Expo conference opened with a video clip from Archibishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He talked about the evils of software patents and the companies set up specifically to litigate them. He praised Richard Stallman, Jimmy Wales, and Larry Lessig.
From the rector (president) of UWC, we learned that South Africa now has a 20-25 percent HIV infection rate and that education is the key to fighting the spread of the virus. [My personal view is that it is not the job of computer nerds to keep people free of disease. We build interesting Web sites and other services to make life interesting and worth living as long as the biologists and doctors are able to keep folks alive. Even if human life expectancy were reduced to 30 years, we shouldn’t abandon our keyboards and move into the medical labs since even a 30-year life can be significantly enriched with Google and Wikipedia.]
The premier of the Western Cape Province (equivalent to a U.S. state governor, presumably) talked about how to make Internet access more widespread in Africa. For Internet you need stable electricity. For stable electricity, you need peace, because one of the first things that rebels do is cut powerlines. The premier went on to talk about how ensuring widespread Internet access would combat Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism associated with it, which he argued are reactions to uncertainty created by the digital/information revolution.
A bureacrat from the department of education here noted that only 2 percent of South African schools have an Internet connection.
Peter Gabriel, via video, introduced Larry Lessig. Gabriel talked about a non-profit trying to help women in Somalia. More than food, shelter, or other seeming essentials, they wanted Internet access, starting with an Internet cafe for women in the capital (under the Islamic regime, only men were allowed to visit Internet cafes).
Larry Lessig gave an inspiring and thought-provoking talk. He started on a down note, with the 1995 Clinton Administration recommendations to expand copyright on an unprecedented scale, extending regulation for the first time into the homes of the average American. Clinton’s Commerce Deptartment’s ideas became law in 1998 when Congress passed the DMCA, which has turned a generation of Americans into daily violators of the law. The transformation of a “read-write” 19th Century culture into a “read-only” 20th Century culture was complete, with cultural output and creativity thoroughly professionalized. Lessig expressed hope for the 21st Century, however, that, despite the efforts of governments, technology was enabling us to return to a “read-write” culture. He showed examples of remix videos. He suggested visiting http://www.freedomdefined.org and learning about the Pirate Party, a reaction by ordinary Scandinavians to having their fair use rights revoked.
Heather Ford of iCommons talked about the South African organizations and individuals who have begun to license their work under Creative Commons. One was the Johannesburg Philharmonic. It occurred to me that all symphony orchestras had better start giving away all of their audio recordings for free if they hope to attract some new audience members before their current subscribers become too frail to get from their nursing homes to the concert hall.
Jimmy Wales gave an inspiring talk about Wikipedia and how it has been gathering momentum in many world languages. The goal is to have at least 250,000 articles in every language spoken by at least one million people. There are 347 such languages. 1000 articles is the point at which Wales believes that a Wikipedia has achieved critical mass and can be self-sustaining. Wikipedia is the 9th most popular site on the Internet, attesting to the fact that the human desire to learn should not be underestimated. Vandalism becomes less of a problem as the site grows more popular, because bad people tend to be early adopters. As more ordinary people start using/editing a service, the rate of problems goes down.
Wales’s latest initiative is a free open-source search engine system whose rankings would be transparent. It does seem as though there is room for improvement on Google, which often delivers domain squatters and search engine spammers as #1 links. (Google’s business of selling ads puts them in a difficult position; the domain squatters are some of their best advertising customers since if you land on a vacant domain there is nothing to do except click on an ad.)
Brian Behlendorf, the Apache and Subversion guy, gave a great practical talk on coordinating open-source software projects.