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Archive for the ‘academia’ Category

The Academic Barriers of Commercialisation

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Last year, the university through which I obtained my degree celebrated a “milestone” anniversary, meaning that I got even more announcements, notices and other such things than I was already getting from them before. Fortunately, not everything published into this deluge is bound up in proprietary formats (as one brochure was, sitting on a Web page in Flash-only form) or only reachable via a dubious “Libyan link-shortener” (as certain things were published via a social media channel that I have now quit). It is indeed infuriating to see one of the links in a recent HTML/plain text hybrid e-mail message using a redirect service hosted on the university’s own alumni sub-site, sending the reader to a URL, which will redirect them off into the great unknown and maybe even back to the original site. But such things are what one comes to expect on today’s Internet with all the unquestioning use of random “cloud” services, each one profiling the unsuspecting visitor and betraying their privacy to make a few extra cents or pence.

But anyway, upon following a more direct – but still redirected – link to an article on the university Web site, I found myself looking around to see what gets published there these days. Personally, I find the main university Web site rather promotional and arguably only superficially informative – you can find out the required grades to take courses along with supposed student approval ratings and hypothetical salary expectations upon qualifying – but it probably takes more digging to get at the real detail than most people would be willing to do. I wouldn’t mind knowing what they teach now in their computer science courses, for instance. I guess I’ll get back to looking into that later.

Gatekeepers of Knowledge

However, one thing did catch my eye as I browsed around the different sections, encountering the “technology transfer” department with the expected rhetoric about maximising benefits to society: the inevitable “IP” policy in all its intimidating length, together with an explanatory guide to that policy. Now, I am rather familiar with such policies from my time at my last academic employer, having been obliged to sign some kind of statement of compliance at one point, but then apparently not having to do so when starting a subsequent contract. It was not as if enlightenment had come calling at the University of Oslo between these points in time such that the “IP rights” agreement now suddenly didn’t feature in the hiring paperwork; it was more likely that such obligations had presumably been baked into everybody’s terms of employment as yet another example of the university upper management’s dubious organisational reform and questionable human resources practices.

Back at Heriot-Watt University, credit is perhaps due to the authors of their explanatory guide to try and explain the larger policy document, because it is most likely that most people aren’t going to get through that much longer document and retain a clear head. But one potentially unintended reason for credit is that by being presented with a much less opaque treatment of the policy and its motivations, we are able to see with enhanced clarity many of the damaging misconceptions that have sadly become entrenched in higher education and academia, including the ways in which such policies actually do conflict with the sharing of knowledge that academic endeavour is supposed to be all about.

So, we get the sales pitch about new things needing investment…

However, often new technologies and inventions are not fully developed because development needs investment, and investment needs commercial returns, and to ensure commercial returns you need something to sell, and a freely available idea cannot be sold.

If we ignore various assumptions about investment or the precise economic mechanisms supposedly required to bring about such investment, we can immediately note that ideas on their own aren’t worth anything anyway, freely available or not. Although the Norwegian Industrial Property Office (or the Norwegian Patent Office if we use a more traditional name) uses the absurd vision slogan “turning ideas into values” (it should probably read “value”, but whatever), this perhaps says more about greedy profiteering through the sale of government-granted titles bound to arbitrary things than it does about what kinds of things have any kind of inherent value that you can take to the bank.

But assuming that we have moved beyond the realm of simple ideas and have entered the realm of non-trivial works, we find that we have also entered the realm of morality and attitude management:

That is why, in some cases, it is better for your efforts not to be published immediately, but instead to be protected and then published, for protection gives you something to sell, something to sell can bring in investment, and investment allows further development. Therefore in the interests of advancing the knowledge within the field you work in, it is important that you consider the commercial potential of your work from the outset, and if necessary ensure it is properly protected before you publish.

Once upon a time, the most noble pursuit in academic research was to freely share research with others so that societal, scientific and technological progress could be made. Now it appears that the average researcher should treat it as their responsibility to conceal their work from others, seek “protection” on it, and then release the encumbered details for mere perusal and the conditional participation of those once-valued peers. And they should, of course, be wise to the commercial potential of the work, whatever that is. Naturally, “intellectual property” offices in such institutions have an “if in doubt, see us” policy, meaning that they seek to interfere with research as soon as possible, and should someone fail to have “seen them”, that person’s loyalty may very well be called into question as if they had somehow squandered their employer’s property. In some institutions, this could very easily get people marginalised or “reorganised” if not immediately or obviously fired.

The Rewards of Labour

It is in matters of property and ownership where things get very awkward indeed. Many people would accept that employees of an organisation are producing output that becomes the property of that organisation. What fewer people might accept is that the customers of an organisation are also subject to having their own output taken to be the property of that organisation. The policy guide indicates that even undergraduate students may also be subject to an obligation to assign ownership of their work to the university: those visiting the university supposedly have to agree to this (although it doesn’t say anything about what their “home institution” might have to say about that), and things like final year projects are supposedly subject to university ownership.

So, just because you as a student have a supervisor bound by commercialisation obligations, you end up not only paying tuition fees to get your university education (directly or through taxation), but you also end up having your own work taken off you because it might be seen as some element in your supervisor’s “portfolio”. I suppose this marks a new low in workplace regulation and standards within a sector that already skirts the law with regard to how certain groups are treated by their employers.

One can justifiably argue that employees of academic institutions should not be allowed to run away with work funded by those institutions, particularly when such funding originally comes from other sources such as the general public. After all, such work is not exactly the private property of the researchers who created it, and to treat it as such would deny it to those whose resources made it possible in the first place. Any claims about “rightful rewards” needing to be given are arguably made to confuse rational thinking on the matter: after all, with appropriate salaries, the researchers are already being rewarded doing work that interests and stimulates them (unlike a lot of people in the world of work). One can argue that academics increasingly suffer from poorer salaries, working conditions and career stability, but such injustices are not properly remedied by creating other injustices to supposedly level things out.

A policy around what happens with the work done in an academic institution is important. But just as individuals should not be allowed to treat broadly-funded work as their own private property, neither should the institution itself claim complete ownership and consider itself entitled to do what it wishes with the results. It may be acting as a facilitator to allow research to happen, but by seeking to intervene in the process of research, it risks acting as an inhibitor. Consider the following note about “confidential information”:

This is, in short, anything which, if you told people about, might damage the commercial interests of the university. It specifically includes information relating to intellectual property that could be protected, but isn’t protected yet, and which if you told people about couldn’t be protected, and any special know how or clever but non patentable methods of doing things, like trade secrets. It specifically includes all laboratory notebooks, including those stored in an electronic fashion. You must be very careful with this sort of information. This is of particular relevance to something that may be patented, because if other people know about it then it can’t be.

Anyone working in even a moderately paranoid company may have read things like this. But here the context is an environment where knowledge should be shared to benefit and inform the research community. Instead, one gets the impression that the wish to control the propagation of knowledge is so great that some people would rather see the details of “clever but non patentable methods” destroyed than passed on openly for others to benefit from. Indeed, one must question whether “trade secrets” should even feature in a university environment at all.

Of course, the obsession with “laboratory notebooks”, “methods of doing things” and “trade secrets” in such policies betrays the typical origins of such drives for commercialisation: the apparently rich pickings to be had in the medical, pharmaceutical and biosciences domains. It is hardly a coincidence that the University of Oslo intensified its dubious “innovation” efforts under a figurehead with a background (or an interest) in exactly those domains: with a narrow personal focus, an apparent disdain for other disciplines, and a wider commercial atmosphere that gives such a strategy a “dead cert” air of impending fortune, we should perhaps expect no more of such a leadership creature (and his entourage) than the sum of that creature’s instincts and experiences. But then again, we should demand more from such people when their role is to cultivate an institution of learning and not to run a private research organisation at the public’s expense.

The Dirty Word

At no point in the policy guide does the word “monopoly” appear. Given that such a largely technical institution would undoubtedly be performing research where the method of “protection” would involve patents being sought, omitting the word “monopoly” might be that document’s biggest flaw. Heriot-Watt University originates from the merger of two separate institutions, one of which was founded by the well-known pioneer of steam engine technology, James Watt.

Recent discussion of Watt’s contributions to the development and proliferation of such technology has brought up claims that Watt’s own patents – the things that undoubtedly made him wealthy enough to fund an educational organisation – actually held up progress in the domain concerned for a number of decades. While he was clearly generous and sensible enough to spend his money on worthy causes, one can always challenge whether the questionable practices that resulted in the accumulation of such wealth can justify the benefits from the subsequent use of that wealth, particularly if those practices can be regarded as having had negative effects of society and may even have increased wealth inequality.

Questioning philanthropy is not a particularly fashionable thing to do. In capitalist societies, wealthy people are often seen as having made their fortunes in an honest fashion, enjoying a substantial “benefit of the doubt” that this was what really occurred. Criticising a rich person giving money to ostensibly good causes is seen as unkind to both the generous donor and to those receiving the donations. But we should question the means through which the likes of Bill Gates (in our time) and James Watt (in his own time) made their fortunes and the power that such fortunes give to such people to direct money towards causes of their own personal choosing, not to mention the way in which wealthy people also choose to influence public policy and the use of money given by significantly less wealthy individuals – the rest of us – gathered through taxation.

But back to monopolies. Can they really be compatible with the pursuit and sharing of knowledge that academia is supposed to be cultivating? Just as it should be shocking that secretive “confidentiality” rules exist in an academic context, it should appal us that researchers are encouraged to be competitively hostile towards their peers.

Removing the Barriers

It appears that some well-known institutions understand that the unhindered sharing of their work is their primary mission. MIT Media Lab now encourages the licensing of software developed under its roof as Free Software, not requiring special approval or any other kind of institutional stalling that often seems to take place as the “innovation” vultures pick over the things they think should be monetised. Although proprietary licensing still appears to be an option for those within the Media Lab organisation, at least it seems that people wanting to follow their principles and make their work available as Free Software can do so without being made to feel bad about it.

As an academic institution, we believe that in many cases we can achieve greater impact by sharing our work.

So says the director of the MIT Media Lab. It says a lot about the times we live in that this needs to be said at all. Free Software licensing is, as a mechanism to encourage sharing, a natural choice for software, but we should also expect similar measures to be adopted for other kinds of works. Papers and articles should at the very least be made available using content licences that permit sharing, even if the licence variants chosen by authors might seek to prohibit the misrepresentation of parts of their work by prohibiting remixes or derived works. (This may sound overly restrictive, but one should consider the way in which scientific articles are routinely misrepresented by climate change and climate science deniers.)

Free Software has encouraged an environment where sharing is safely and routinely done. Licences like the GNU General Public Licence seek to shield recipients from things like patent threats, particularly from organisations which might appear to want to share their works, but which might be tempted to use patents to regulate the further use of those works. Even in realms where patents have traditionally been tolerated, attempts have been made to shield others from the effects of patents, intended or otherwise: the copyleft hardware movement demands that shared hardware designs are patent-free, for instance.

In contrast, one might think that despite the best efforts of the guide’s authors, all the precautions and behavioural self-correction it encourages might just drive the average researcher to distraction. Or, just as likely, to ignoring most of the guidelines and feigning ignorance if challenged by their “innovation”-obsessed superiors. But in the drive to monetise every last ounce of effort there is one statement that is worth remembering:

If intellectual property is not assigned, this can create problems in who is allowed to exploit the work, and again work can go to waste due to a lack of clarity over who owns what.

In other words, in an environment where everybody wants a share of the riches, it helps to have everybody’s interests out in the open so that there may be no surprises later on. Now, it turns out that unclear ownership and overly casual management of contributions is something that has occasionally threatened Free Software projects, resulting in more sophisticated thinking about how contributions are managed.

And it is precisely this combination of Free Software licensing, or something analogous for other domains, with proper contribution and attribution management that will extend safe and efficient sharing of knowledge to the academic realm. Researchers just cannot have the same level of confidence when dealing with the “technology transfer” offices of their institution and of other institutions. Such offices only want to look after themselves while undermining everyone beyond the borders of their own fiefdoms.

Divide and Rule

It is unfortunate that academic institutions feel that they need to “pull their weight” and have to raise funds to make up for diminishing public funding. By turning their backs on the very reason for their own existence and seeking monopolies instead of sharing knowledge, they unwittingly participate in the “divide and rule” tactics blatantly pursued in the political arena: that everyone must fight each other for all that is left once the lion’s share of public funding has been allocated to prestige megaprojects and schemes that just happen to benefit the well-connected, the powerful and the influential people in society the most.

A properly-funded education sector is an essential component of a civilised society, and its institutions should not be obliged to “sharpen their elbows” in the scuffle for funding and thus deprive others of knowledge just to remain viable. Sadly, while austerity politics remains fashionable, it may be up to us in the Free Software realm to remind academia of its obligations and to show that sustainable ways of sharing knowledge exist and function well in the “real world”.

Indeed, it is up to us to keep such institutions honest and to prevent advocates of monopoly-driven “innovation” from being able to insist that their way is the only way, because just as “divide and rule” politics erects barriers between groups in wider society, commercialisation erects barriers that inhibit the essential functions of academic pursuit. And such barriers ultimately risk extinguishing academia altogether, along with all the benefits its institutions bring to society. If my university were not reinforcing such barriers with its “IP” policy, maybe its anniversary as a measure of how far we have progressed from monopolies and intellectual selfishness would have been worth celebrating after all.

Når sannheten kommer frem

Monday, April 28th, 2014

For noen måneder siden skrev jeg om avgjørelsen foretatt av ledelsen til Universitetet i Oslo å innføre Microsoft Exchange som gruppevareløsning. I teksten viste jeg til kommentarer som handlet om Roundcube og hvorfor den løsningen ikke kunne brukes i fremtiden hos UiO. Nå etter at universitetets IT-avdeling publiserte en nyhetssak som omtaler SquirrelMail, får jeg muligheten til å grave opp og dele noen detaljer fra mine samtaler med talspersonen tilknyttet prosjektet som vurderte Exchange og andre løsninger.

Når man ser rundt på nettet, virker det ikke uvanlig at organisasjoner innførte Roundcube parallelt med SquirrelMail på grunn av bekymringer om “universell utforming” (UU). Men i samtaler med prosjektet ble jeg fortalt at diverse mangler i UU-støtte var en aktuell grunn for at Roundcube ikke kunne bli en del av en fremtidig løsning for webmail hos UiO. Nå kommer sannheten frem:

“Ved innføringen av Roundcube som UiOs primære webmail-tjeneste fikk SquirrelMail lov til å leve videre i parallell fordi Roundcube hadde noen mangler knyttet til universell utforming. Da disse var forbedret hadde ledelsen besluttet at e-post og kalender skulle samles i et nytt system.”

Det finnes to ting som fanger vår oppmerksomhet her:

  1. At Roundcube hadde mangler “ved innføringen”, mens Roundcube hadde vært i bruk i noen år før den tvilsomme prosessen ble satt i gang for å vurdere e-post og kalenderløsninger.
  2. At forbedringene kom tilfeldigvis for sent for å påvirke ledelsens beslutning å innføre Exchange.

I fjor sommer, uten å dele prosjektgruppens påstander om mangler i Roundcube direkte i offentlighet, hørte jeg med andre om det fantes kjente mangler og forbedringspotensial i Roundcube i dette området. Var UU virkelig noe som hindret utbredelsen av Roundcube? Jeg satte meg inn i UU-teknologier og prøvde noen av dem med Roundcube for å se om situasjonen kunne forbedres med egen innsats. Det kan hende at det var store mangler i Roundcube tilbake i 2011 da prosjektgruppen begynte sitt arbeid – jeg velger ikke å hevde noe slikt – men etter at slike mangler ikke kom frem i 2012 i prosjektets sluttrapport (der Roundcube faktisk ble anbefalt som en del av den åpne kandidaten), må vi konkludere at slike bekymringer var for lengst borte og at universitetets egen webmail-tjeneste, selv om den er tilpasset organisasjonens egen visuelle profil (som kan ha noe å si om vedlikehold), var og fortsatt er tilgjengelig for alle brukere.

Hvis vi våger å tro at utdraget ovenfor forteller sannheten må vi nå konkludere at ledelsens beslutning fant sted lenge før selve prosessen som skulle underbygge denne beslutningen ble avsluttet. Og her må vi anse ordene “ledelsen besluttet” i et annet lys enn det som ellers er vanlig – der ledelsen først drar nytte av kompetanse i organisasjonen, og så tar en informert beslutning – med å anta at, som tidligere skrevet, noen “måtte ha” noe de likte, tok beslutningen de ville ta uansett, og så fikk andre til å finne på unnskyldninger og et grunnlag som virker fornuftig nok overfor utenforstående.

Det er én sak at en tilstrekkelig og fungerende IT-løsning som også er fri programvare svartmales mens tilsynelatende upopulære proprietære løsninger som Fronter når ikke opp slik at problemer rapportert i 2004 ble omtalt igjen i 2012 uten at produsenten gjør noe vesentlig mer enn å love å “jobbe med tilgjengelighet” fremover. Det er en annen sak at bærekraftige investeringer i fri programvare virker så fremmed til beslutningstakere hos UiO at folk heller vil snu arbeidsdagen til den vanlige ansatte opp-ned, slik utskiftningen av e-postinfrastrukturen har gjort for noen, enn å undersøke muligheten til å foreta relativt små utviklingsoppgaver for å oppgradere eksisterende systemer, og slippe at folk må “[stå] på dag og natt” i løpet av “de siste månedene” (og her viser vi selvsagt ikke til folk i ledelsen).

At ansatte i IT-avdelingen fikk munnkurv omkring prosessen og måtte forlange at deler av beslutningsgrunnlaget ikke når frem til offentligheten. At “menige” IT-ansvarlige må løpe hit og dit for å sørge for at ingen blir altfor misfornøyd med utfallet til en avgjørelse hverken de eller andre vanlige ansatte hadde vesentlig innflytelse på. At andre må tilpasse seg preferansene til folk som egentlig burde hatt ingenting å si om hvordan andre utfører sitt daglig arbeid. Alt dette sier noe om ledelseskulturen og demokratiske tilstander internt i Universitetet i Oslo.

Men sannheten kommer langsomt frem.

Når man fokuserer på merkevarer og ikke standarder

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Det var interessant å lese et leserbrev i Uniforum med tittelen “Digitale samarbeidsverktøy i undervisning“: noe som trykker alle de riktige knappene i dagens akademiske landskap med et økende fokus på nettbasert opplæring, bredere tilgang til kurs, og mange andre ting som kanskje motiveres mer av “prestisje” og “å kapre kunder” enn å øke generell tilgjengelighet til en institusjons kunnskap og ekspertise. Brevforfatterne beskriver utbredt bruk av videokonferanseløsninger og skryter på en proprietær løsning som de tilsynelatende liker ganske godt, og henviser til universitetets anbefalinger for tekniske løsninger. Etter at man graver litt til å finne disse anbefalingene ser man ganske fort at de dreier seg om tre proprietære (eller delvis proprietære) systemer: Adobe Connect, Skype, og spesialiserte videokonferanseutstyr som finnes i noen møterom.

Det er i all sannsynlighet en konsekvens av forbrukersamfunnet vi lever i: at man tenker produkter og merkevarer og ikke standarder, og at etter man oppdager et spennende produkt vil man gjerne øke oppmerksomheten på produktet blant alle som har liknende behov. Men når man blir produkt- og merkevarefokusert kan man fort miste blikket over det egentlige problemet og den egentlige løsningen. At så mange fortsetter å insistere på Ibux når de kunne kjøpe generiske medikamenter for en brøkdel av merkevarens pris er bare et eksempel på at folk ikke lenger er vant til å vurdere de virkelige forholdene og vil heller ty til merkevarer for en enkel og rask løsning de ikke trenger å tenke så mye på.

Man bør kanskje ikke legge så veldig mye skyld på vanlige databrukere når de begår slike feil, spesielt når store deler av det offentlige her i landet fokuserer på proprietære produkter som, hvis de utnytter genuine standarder i det hele tatt, pleier å blande dem med proprietære teknologier for å styre kunden mot en forpliktelse overfor noen få leverandører i en nesten ubegrenset tid fremover. Men det er litt skuffende at “grønne” representanter ikke vurderer bærekraftige teknologiske løsninger – de som gjøres tilgjengelig som fri programvare og som bruker dokumenterte og åpne standarder – når det ville forventes at slike representanter foreslår bærekraftige løsninger i andre områder.

Students: Beware of the Academic Cloud!

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Things were certainly different when I started my university degree many years ago. For a start, institutions of higher education provided for many people their first encounter with the Internet, although for those of us in the United Kingdom, the very first encounter with wide area networking may well have involved X.25 and PAD terminals, and instead of getting a “proper” Internet e-mail address, it may have been the case that an address only worked within a particular institution. (My fellow students quickly became aware of an Internet mail gateway in our department and the possibility, at least, of sending Internet mail, however.)

These days, students beginning their university studies have probably already been using the Internet for most of their lives, will have had at least one e-mail address as well as accounts for other online services, may be publishing blog entries and Web pages, and maybe even have their own Web applications accessible on the Internet. For them, arriving at a university is not about learning about new kinds of services and new ways of communicating and collaborating: it is about incorporating yet more ways of working online into their existing habits and practices.

So what should students expect from their university in terms of services? Well, if things have not changed that much over the years, they probably need a means of communicating with the administration, their lecturers and their fellow students, along with some kind of environment to help them do their work and provide things like file storage space and the tools they won’t necessarily be able to provide themselves. Of course, students are more likely to have their own laptop computer (or even a tablet) these days, and it is entirely possible that they could use that for all their work, subject to the availability of tools for their particular course, and since they will already be communicating with others on the Internet, communicating with people in the university is not really anything different from what they are already doing. But still, there are good reasons for providing infrastructure for students to use, even if those students do end up working from their laptops, uploading assignments when they are done, and forwarding their mail to their personal accounts.

The Student Starter Kit

First and foremost, a university e-mail account is something that can act as an official communications channel. One could certainly get away with using some other account, perhaps provided by a free online service like Google or Yahoo, but if something went wrong somewhere – the account gets taken over by an imposter and then gets shut down, for example – that channel of communication gets closed and important information may be lost.

The matter of how students carry out their work is also important. In computer science, where my experiences come from and where computer usage is central to the course, it is necessary to have access to suitable tools to undertake assignments. As everyone who has used technology knows, the matter of “setting stuff up” is one that often demands plenty of time and distracts from the task at hand, and when running a course that requires the participants to install programs before they can make use of the learning materials, considerable amounts of time are wasted on installing programs and troubleshooting. Thus, providing a ready-to-use environment allows students to concentrate on their work and to more easily relate to the learning materials.

There is the matter of the nature of teaching environments and the tools chosen. Teaching environments also allow students to become familiar with desirable practices when finding solutions to the problems in their assignments. In software engineering, for example, the use of version control software encourages a more controlled and rational way of refining a program under development. Although the process itself may not be recognised and rewarded when an assignment is assessed, it allows students to see how things should be done and to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn provided by the institution.

Naturally, it should be regarded as highly undesirable to train students to use specific solutions provided by selected vendors, as opposed to educating them to become familiar with the overarching concepts and techniques of a particular field. Schools and universities are not vocational training institutions, and they should seek to provide their students with transferable skills and knowledge that can be applied generally, instead of taking the easy way out and training those students to perform repetitive tasks in “popular” software that gives them no awareness of why they are doing those things or any indication that the rest of the world might be doing them in other ways.

Construction of the IT department's new building, University of Oslo

Minority Rule

So even if students arrive at their place of learning somewhat equipped to learn, communicate and do their work, there may still be a need for a structured environment to be provided for them. At that place of learning they will join those employed there who already have a structured environment in place to be able to do their work, whether that is research, teaching or administration. It makes a certain amount of sense for the students to join those other groups in the infrastructure already provided. Indeed, considering the numbers of people involved, with the students outnumbering all other groups put together by a substantial margin, one might think that the needs of the students would come first. Sadly, things do not always work that way.

First of all, students are only ever “passing through”. While some university employees may be retained for similar lengths of time – especially researchers and others on temporary contracts (a known problem with social and ethical dimensions of its own) – others may end up spending most of their working life there. As a result, the infrastructure is likely to favour such people over time as their demands are made known year after year, with any discomfort demanding to be remedied by a comfortable environment that helps those people do their work. Not that there is anything wrong with providing employees with a decent working environment: employers should probably do even more to uphold their commitments in this regard.

But when the demands and priorities of a relatively small group of people take precedence over what the majority – the students – need, one can argue that such demands and priorities have begun to subvert the very nature of the institution. Imposing restrictions on students or withholding facilities from them just to make life easier for the institution itself is surely a classic example of “the tail wagging the dog”. After all, without students and teaching an institution of higher education can no longer be considered a university.

Outsourcing Responsibility

With students showing up every year and with an obligation to provide services to them, one might imagine that an institution might take the opportunity to innovate and to evaluate ways in which it might stand out amongst the competition, truly looking after the group of people that in today’s increasingly commercialised education sector are considered the institution’s “customers”. When I was studying for my degree, the university’s mathematics department was in the process of developing computer-aided learning software for mathematics, which was regarded as a useful way of helping students improve their understanding of the course material through the application of knowledge recently acquired. However, such attempts to improve teaching quality are only likely to get substantial funding either through teaching-related programmes or by claiming some research benefit in the field of teaching or in another field. Consequently, developing software to benefit teaching is likely to be an activity located near the back of the queue for attention in a university, especially amongst universities whose leadership regard research commercialisation as their top priority.

So it becomes tempting for universities to minimise costs around student provision. Students are not meant to be sophisticated users whose demands must be met, mostly because they are not supposed to be around for long enough to be comfortable and for those providing services to eventually have to give in to student demands. Moreover, university employees are protected by workplace regulation (in theory, at least) whereas students are most likely protected by much weaker regulation. To take one example, whereas a university employee could probably demand appropriate accessibility measures for a disability they may have, students may have to work harder to get their disabilities recognised and their resulting needs addressed.

The Costs of Doing Business

So, with universities looking to minimise costs and to maximise revenue-generating opportunities, doing things like running infrastructure in a way that looks after the needs of the student and researcher populations seems like a distraction. University executives look to their counterparts in industry and see that outsourcing might offer a solution: why bother having people on the payroll when there are cloud computing services run by friendly corporations?

Let us take the most widely-deployed service, e-mail, as an example. Certainly, many students and employees might not be too concerned with logging into a cloud-based service to access their university e-mail – many may already be using such services for personal e-mail, and many may already be forwarding their university e-mail to their personal account – and although they might be irritated by the need to use one service when they have perhaps selected another for their personal use, a quick login, some adjustments to the mail forwarding settings, and logging out (never to return) might be the simple solution. The result: the institution supposedly saves money by making external organisations responsible for essential services, and the users get on with using those services in the ways they find most bearable, even if they barely take advantage of the specially designated services at all.

However, a few things may complicate this simplified scenario somewhat: reliability, interoperability, lock-in, and privacy. Reliability is perhaps the easiest to consider: if “Office 365” suddenly becomes “Office 360” for a few days, cloud-based services cannot be considered suitable for essential services, and if the “remedy” is to purchase infrastructure to bail out the cloud service provider, one has to question the decision to choose such an external provider in the first place. As for interoperability, if a user prefers Gmail, say, over some other hosted e-mail solution where that other solution doesn’t exchange messages properly with Gmail, that user will be in the awkward position of having to choose between a compromised experience in their preferred solution or an experience they regard as inconvenient or inferior. With services more exotic and less standardised than e-mail, the risk is that a user’s preferred services or software will not work with the chosen cloud-based service at all. Either way, users are forced to adopt services they dislike or otherwise have objections to using.

Miscellaneous waste

Product Placement

With users firmly parked on a specific vendor’s cloud-based platform, the temptation will naturally grow amongst some members of an organisation to “take advantage” of the other services on that platform whether they support interoperability or not. Users will be forced to log into the solution they would rather avoid or ignore in order to participate in processes and activities initiated by those who have actively embraced that platform. This is rather similar to the experience of getting a Microsoft Office document in an e-mail by someone requesting that one reads it and provides feedback, even though recipients may not have access to a compatible version of Microsoft Office or even run the software in question at all. In an organisational context, legitimate complaints about poor workflow, inappropriate tool use, and even plain unavailability of software (imagine being a software developer using a GNU/Linux or Unix workstation!) are often “steamrollered” by management and the worker is told to “deal with it”. Suddenly, everyone has to adapt to the tool choices of a few managerial product evangelists instead of participating in a standards-based infrastructure where the most important thing is just getting the work done.

We should not be surprised that vendors might be very enthusiastic to see organisations adopt both their traditional products as well as cloud-based platforms. Not only are the users exposed to such vendors’ products, often to the exclusion of any competing or alternative products, but by having to sign up for those vendors’ services, organisations are effectively recruiting customers for the vendor. Indeed, given the potential commercial benefits of recruiting new customers – in the academic context, that would be a new group of students every year – it is conceivable that vendors might offer discounts on products, waive the purchase prices, or even pay organisations in the form of services rendered to get access to new customers and increased revenue. Down the line, this pays off for the vendor: its organisational customers are truly locked in, cannot easily switch to other solutions, and end up paying through the nose to help the vendor recruit new customers.

How Much Are You Worth?

All of the above concerns are valid, but the most important one of all for many people is that of privacy. Now, most people have a complicated relationship with privacy: most people probably believe that they deserve to have a form of privacy, but at the same time many people are quite happy to be indiscreet if they think no-one else is watching or no-one else cares about what they are doing.

So, they are quite happy to share information about themselves (or content that they have created or acquired themselves) with a helpful provider of services on the Internet. After all, if that provider offers services that permit convenient ways of doing things that might be awkward to do otherwise, and especially if no money is changing hands, surely the meagre “payment” of tedious documents, mundane exchanges of messages, unremarkable images and videos, and so on, all with no apparently significant value or benefit to the provider, gets the customer a product worth far more in return. Everybody wins!

Well, there is always the matter of the small print – the terms of use, frequently verbose and convoluted – together with how other people perceive the status of all that content you’ve been sharing. As your content reaches others, some might perceive it as fair game for use in places you never could have imagined. Naturally, unintended use of images is no new phenomenon: I once saw one of my photographs being used in a school project (how I knew about it was that the student concerned had credited me, although they really should have asked me first, and an Internet search brought up their page in the results), whereas another photograph of mine was featured in a museum exhibition (where I was asked for permission, although the photograph was a lot less remarkable than the one found by the student).

One might argue that public sharing of images and other content is not really the same as sharing stuff over a closed channel like a social network, and so the possibility of unintended or undesirable use is diminished. But take another look at the terms of use: unlike just uploading a file to a Web site that you control, where nobody deems to claim any rights to what you are sharing, social networking and content sharing service providers frequently try and claim rights to your work.

Privacy on Parade

When everyone is seeking to use your content for their own goals, whether to promote their own businesses or to provide nice imagery to make their political advocacy more palatable, or indeed to support any number of potential and dubious endeavours that you may not agree with, it is understandable that you might want to be a bit more cautious about who wants a piece of your content and what they intend to do with it once they have it. Consequently, you might decide that you only want to deal with the companies and services you feel you can trust.

What does this have to do with students and the cloud? Well, unlike the services that a student may already be using when they arrive at university to start their studies, any services chosen by the institution will be imposed on the student, and they will be required to accept the terms of use of such services regardless of whether they agree with them or not. Now, although it might be said that the academic work of a student might be somewhat mundane and much the same as any other student’s work (even if this need not be the case), and that the nature of such work is firmly bound to the institution and it is therefore the institution’s place to decide how such work is used (even though this could be disputed), other aspects of that student’s activities and communications might be regarded as beyond the interests of the institution: who the student communicates with, what personal views they may express in such communications, what academic or professional views they may have.

One might claim that such trivia is of no interest to anyone, and certainly not to commercial entities who just want to sell advertising or gather demographic data or whatever supposedly harmless thing they might do with the mere usage of their services just to keep paying the bills and covering their overheads, but one should still be wary that information stored on some remote server in some distant country might somehow make its way to someone who might take a closer and not so benign interest in it. Indeed, the matter of the data residing in some environment beyond their control is enough for adopters of cloud computing to offer specially sanctioned exemptions and opt-outs. Maybe it is not so desirable that some foreign student writing about some controversial topic in their own country has their work floating around in the cloud, or as far as a university’s legal department is concerned, maybe it does not look so good if such information manages to wander into the wrong hands only for someone to ask the awkward question of why the information left the university’s own systems in the first place.

A leaflet for a tourist attraction in the Cambridge area

Excuses, Excuses

Cloud-based service providers are likely to respond to fears articulated about privacy violations and intrusions by insisting that such fears are disproportionate: that no-one is really looking at the data stored on their servers, that the data is encrypted somewhere/somehow, that if anything does look at the data it is merely an “algorithm” and not a person. Often these protests of innocence contradict each other, so that at any point in time there is at least one lie being told. But what if it is “only an algorithm” looking at your data? The algorithm will not be keeping its conclusions to itself.

How would you know what is really being done with your data? Not only is the code being run on a remote server, but with the most popular cloud services the important code is completely proprietary – service providers may claim to support Free Software and even contribute to it, but they do so only for part of their infrastructure – and you have no way of verifying any of their claims. Disturbingly, some companies want to enforce such practices within your home, too, so that when Microsoft claims that the camera on their most recent games console has to be active all the time but only for supposedly benign reasons and that the data is only studied by algorithms, the company will deny you the right to verify this for yourself. For all you know the image data could be uploaded somewhere, maybe only on command, and you would not only be none the wiser but you would also be denied the right to become wiser about the matter. And even if the images were not shared with mysterious servers, there are still unpleasant applications of “the algorithm”: it could, for example, count people’s faces and decide whether you were breaking the licensing conditions on a movie or other content by holding a “performance” that goes against the arbitrary licensing that accompanies a particular work.

Back in the world of the cloud, companies like Microsoft typically respond to criticism by pointing the finger at others. Through “shell” or “front” organisations the alleged faults of Microsoft’s competitors are brought to the attention of regulators, and in the case of the notorious FairSearch organisation, to take one example, the accusing finger is pointed at Google. We should all try and be aware of the misdeeds of corporations, that unscrupulous behaviour may have occurred, and we should insist that such behaviour be punished. But we should also not be distracted by the tactics of corporations that insist that all the problems reside elsewhere. “But Google!” is not a reason to stop scrutinising the record of a company shouting it out loud, nor is it an excuse for us to disregard any dubious behaviour previously committed by the company shouting it the loudest. (It is absurd that a company with a long history of being subject to scrutiny for anticompetitive practices – a recognised monopoly – should shout claims of monopoly so loudly, and it is even more absurd for anyone to take such claims at face value.)

We should be concerned about Google’s treatment of user privacy, but that should not diminish our concern about Microsoft’s treatment of user privacy. As it turns out, both companies – and several others – have some work to do to regain our trust.

I Do Not Agree

So why should students specifically be worried about all this? Does this not also apply to other groups, like anyone who is made to use software and services in their job? Certainly, this does affect more than just students, but students will probably be the first in line to be forced to accept these solutions or just not be able to take the courses they want at the institutions they want to attend. Even in countries with relatively large higher education sectors like the United Kingdom, it can be the case that certain courses are only available at a narrow selection of institutions, and if you consider a small country like Norway, it is entirely possible that some courses are only available at one institution. For students forced to choose a particular institution and to accept that institution’s own technological choices, the issue of their online privacy becomes urgent because such institutional changes are happening right now and the only way to work around them is to plan ahead and to make it immediately clear to those institutions that the abandonment of the online privacy rights (and other rights) of their “customers” is not acceptable.

Of course, none of this is much comfort to those working in private businesses whose technological choices are imposed on employees as a consequence of taking a job at such organisations. The only silver lining to this particular cloud is that the job market may offer more choices to job seekers – that they can try and identify responsible employers and that such alternatives exist in the first place – compared to students whose educational path may be constrained by course availability. Nevertheless, there exists a risk that both students and others may be confronted with having to accept undesirable conditions just to be able to get a study place or a job. It may be too disruptive to their lives not to “just live with it” and accept choices made on their behalf without their input.

But this brings up an interesting dilemma. Should a person be bound by terms of use and contracts where that person has been effectively coerced into accepting them? If their boss tells them that they have to have a Microsoft or Google account to view and edit some online document, and when they go to sign up they are presented with the usual terms that nobody can reasonably be expected to read, and given that they cannot reasonably refuse because their boss would then be annoyed at that person’s attitude (and may even be angry and threaten them with disciplinary action), can we not consider that when this person clicks on the “I agree” button it is only their employer who really agrees, and that this person not only does not necessarily agree but cannot be expected to agree, either?

Excuses from the Other Side

Recent events have probably made people wary of where their data goes and what happens with it once it has left their own computers, but merely being concerned and actually doing something are two different things. Individuals may feel helpless: all their friends use social networks and big name webmail services; withdrawing from the former means potential isolation, and withdrawing from the latter involves researching alternatives and trying to decide whether those alternatives can be trusted more than one of the big names. Certainly, those of us who develop and promote Free Software should be trying to provide trustworthy alternatives and giving less technologically-aware people the lifeline that they need to escape potentially exploitative services and yet maintain an active, social online experience. Not everyone is willing to sacrifice their privacy for shiny new online toys that supposedly need to rifle through your personal data to provide that shiny new online experience, nor is everyone likely to accept such constraints on their privacy when made aware of them. We should not merely assume that people do not care, would just accept such things, and thus do not need to be bothered with knowledge about such matters, either.

As we have already seen, individuals can make their own choices, but people in organisations are frequently denied such choices. This is where the excuses become more irrational and yet bring with them much more serious consequences. When an organisation chooses a solution from a vendor known to share sensitive information with other, potentially less friendly, parties, they might try and explain such reports away by claiming that such behaviour would never affect “business applications”, that such applications are completely separate from “consumer applications” (where surveillance is apparently acceptable, but no-one would openly admit to thinking this, of course), and that such a vendor would never jeopardise their relationship with customers because “as a customer we are important to them”.

But how do you know any of this? You cannot see what their online services are actually doing, who can access them secretly, whether people – unfriendly regimes, opportunistic law enforcement agencies, dishonest employees, privileged commercial partners of the vendor itself – actually do access your data, because how all that stuff is managed is secret and off-limits. You cannot easily inspect any software that such a vendor provides to you because it will be an inscrutable binary file, maybe even partially encrypted, and every attempt will have been made to forbid you from inspecting it both through licence agreements and legislation made at the request of exactly these vendors.

And how do you know that they value your business, that you are important to them? Is any business going to admit that no, they do not value your business, that you are just another trophy, that they share your private data with other entities? With documentation to the contrary exposing the lies necessary to preserve their reputation, how do you know you can believe anything they tell you at all?

Clouds over the IT building, University of Oslo

The Betrayal

It is all very well for an individual to make poor decisions based on wilful ignorance, but when an organisation makes poor decisions and then imposes them on other people for those people to suffer, this ignorance becomes negligence at the very least. In a university or other higher education institution, apparently at the bottom of the list of people to consult about anything, the bottoms on seats, the places to be filled, are the students: the first in line for whatever experiment or strategic misadventure is coming down the pipe of organisational reform, rationalisation, harmonisation, and all the other buzzwords that look great on the big screen in the boardroom.

Let us be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with storing content on some network-accessible service, provided that the conditions under which that content is stored and accessed uphold the levels of control and privacy that we as the owners of that data demand, and where those we have elected to provide such services to us deserve our trust precisely by behaving in a trustworthy fashion. We may indeed select a service provider or vendor who respects us, rather than one whose terms and conditions are unfathomable and who treats its users and their data as commodities to be traded for profits and favours. It is this latter class of service providers and vendors – ones who have virtually pioneered the corrupted notion of the consumer cloud, with every user action recorded, tracked and analysed – that this article focuses on.

Students should very much beware of being sent into the cloud: they have little influence and make for a convenient group of experimental subjects, with few powerful allies to defend their rights. That does not mean that everyone else can feel secure, shielded by employee representatives, trade unions, industry organisations, politicians, and so on. Every group pushed into the cloud builds the pressure on every subsequent group until your own particular group is pressured, belittled and finally coerced into resignation. Maybe you might want to look into what your organisation is planning to do, to insist on privacy-preserving infrastructure, and to advocate Free Software as the only effective way of building that infrastructure.

And beware of the excuses – for the favourite vendor’s past behaviour, for the convenience of the cloud, for the improbability that any undesirable stuff could happen – because after the excuses, the belittlement of the opposition, comes the betrayal: the betrayal of sustainable and decentralised solutions, the betrayal of the development of local and institutional expertise, the betrayal of choice and real competition, and the betrayal of your right to privacy online.

Site Licences and Volume Licensing: Locking You Both In… and Out

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Once upon a time, back in the microcomputer era, if you were a reputable institution and were looking to acquire software it was likely that you would end up buying proprietary software, mostly because Free Software was not a particularly widely-known concept, and partly because any “public domain” or “freeware” programs probably didn’t give you or your superiors much confidence about the quality or maintenance of those programs, although there were notable exceptions on some platforms (some of which are now Free Software). As computers became more numerous, programs would be used on more and more computers, and producers would take exception to their customers buying a single “copy” and then using it on many computers simultaneously.

In order to avoid arguments about common expectations of reasonable use – if you could copy a program onto many floppy disks and run that program on many computers at once, there was obviously no physical restriction on the use of copies and thus no apparent need to buy “official” copies when your computer could make them for you – and in order to avoid needing to engage in protracted explanations of copyright law to people for whom such law might seem counter-intuitive or nonsensical, the concept of the “site licence” was born: instead of having to pay for one hundred official copies of a product, presumably consisting of one hundred disks in one hundred boxes with one hundred manuals, at one hundred times the list price of the product, an institution would buy a site licence for up to one hundred computers (or perhaps as many as the institution has, betting on the improbability that the institution will grow tenfold, say) and pay somewhat less than one hundred times the original price, although perhaps still a multiple of ten of that price.

Thus, the customer got the vendor off their back, the vendor still got more or less what they thought was a fair price, and everyone was happy. At least that is how it all seemed.

The Physical Discount Store

Now, because of the apparent compromise made by the vendor – that the customer might be paying somewhat less per copy – the notion of the “volume licence” or “bulk discount” arose: suddenly, software licences start to superficially resemble commodities and people start to think of them just like they do when they buy other things in bulk. Indeed, in the retail sector the average person became aware of the concept of bulk purchasing with the introduction of cash and carry stores, discount stores, and so on: the larger the volume of goods passing through those channels, the bigger the discounts on those goods.

Now, economies of scale exist throughout modern commerce and often for good reason: any fixed costs (or costs largely insensitive to the scale of output) in production and distribution can be diluted by an increased number of units produced and shipped, making the total per-unit cost less; commitments to larger purchases, potentially over a longer period of time, can also provide stability to producers and suppliers and encourage mutually-beneficial and lasting relationships throughout the supply chain. A thorough treatment of this topic is clearly beyond a blog post, but it is worthwhile to briefly explore how savings arise and how discounts are made.

Let us consider a producer whose factory can produce at most a million units of a product every year, it may not seek to utilise this capacity if it cannot be sure that all units will be sold: excess inventory may incur warehouse costs and also result in an uncompetitive product going unsold or needing to be heavily discounted in order to empty those warehouses and make room for more competitive stock. Moreover, the producer may need to reconsider their employment levels if the demand varies significantly, which in some places incurs significant costs both in reduction and expansion. Adding manufacturing capability might not be as easy as finding a spare factory, either. All this additional flexibility is expensive for producers.

However, if a large, well-known retailer like Wal-Mart or Tesco (to name but two that come to mind immediately) comes along and commits to buying most or all of the production, a producer now has more certainty that the inventory will be sold and that it will not be paying people to do nothing or to suddenly have to change production lines to make new products, and so on. Even things like product variations can be minimised by having a single customer or few customers, and this reduces costs for the producer still further. Naturally, Wal-Mart would expect some of the savings to be passed on to them, and so this relationship benefits both parties. (It also produces a potential discount to be passed on to retail customers who may not be buying in bulk after all, but that is another matter.)

The Software Discount Store?

For software, even though the costs of replication have been driven close to nothing, the production of software certainly has a significant fixed cost: the work required to develop a viable product in the first place. Let us say that an organisation wishes to make and sell a non-niche product but needs to employ fifty people for two years to do so (although this would have been almost biblical levels of manpower for some successful software companies in the era of the microcomputer); thus one hundred person-years are invested in development. To just remain in business while selling “copies” of the software, one might need to sell one hundred thousand individual copies. That is if the company wants to just sell “licences” and not do things like services, consulting, paid support, and so on.

Now, the cost of each copy can be adjusted according to the number of sales. If things go better than expected, the prices could be lowered because the company will cover its costs more quickly than anticipated, but they may also raise the prices to take advantage of the desirability of the product. If things go worse than expected, the prices might be raised to bring in more revenue per sale, but such pricing decisions also have to consider the customer reaction where an increased price turns away customers who can no longer justify the expense. In some cases, however, raising the price might make the product seem more valuable and make it more attractive to potential customers, despite the initial lack of interest from such customers.

So, can one talk about economies of scale with regard to software as if it were a physical product or commodity? Not really. The days of needing to get more disks from the duplicator, more manuals from the printer, and to send more boxes to distributors are over, leaving the bulk of the expense in employing people to get the software written. And all those people developing the product are not producing more units by writing more code or spending more time in the office. One can argue that by adding more features they are generating more sales, but it is doubtful that the relationship between features and sales is so well defined: after a while, a lot of the new features will be superfluous for all but “power users”. One can also argue that by adding more features they are making the product seem more valuable, and so a higher price can be justified. To an extent this may be the case, but the relationship between price and sales is not always so well defined, either (despite attempts to do so). But certainly, you do not need to increase your “production capacity” to fulfil a sales need: whether you make one hundred or one million sales (or generate a tenth of or ten times the anticipated revenue) is probably largely independent of how many people were hired to write the code.

But does it make sense to consider bulk purchasing of software as a way of achieving savings? Not really. Unlike physical production, there is no real limit to how many units are sold to customers, and so beyond a certain threshold demanded by profitability, there is no need for anyone to commit to purchasing a certain number of units. Especially now that a physical component of a software product is unlikely to be provided in any transaction – the software is downloaded, the manual is downloaded, there is no “retail box”, no truck arriving at the customer, no fork-lift offloading pallets of the product – there is also no inventory sitting in a warehouse going unsold. It might be nice if someone paid a large sum of money so that the developers could keep working on the product and not have to be moved to some other project, but the constraints of physical products do not apply so readily here.

Who Benefits from Volume Licensing?

It might be said, then, that the “economies of scale” argument starts to break down when software is considered. Producers can more or less increase supply at will and at a relatively low cost, and they need only consider demand in order to break even. Beyond that point, everything is more or less profit and they deliver units at no risk to themselves. Certainly, a producer could use this to price their products aggressively and to pass on considerable savings to customers, but they have no obligation and arguably little inclination to do so for profitability reasons alone. Indeed, they probably want to finance new products and therefore need the money.

When purchasers of physical goods choose to buy in bulk, they do so to get access to savings passed on by the producer, and for some categories of products the practice of committing larger sums of money to larger purchases carries little risk. For example, an organisation might buy a larger quantity of toilet paper than it normally would – even to the point of some administrator complaining that “this must be more than we really need!” – and as long as the organisation had space to store it, it would surely be used over time with very little money wasted as a result.

But for software, any savings passed on by the producer are more discretionary than genuine products of commerce, and there is a real risk of buying “more than we really need”: a licence for an office application will not get “used up” when someone has “reached the end” of another licence; overspending on such capacity is just throwing money away. It is simply not in the purchaser’s interest to buy too many licences.

Now, software producers have realised that their customers are sensitive to this issue. Presumably, the notion of the site licence or “volume licensing” arose fairly quickly: some customers may have indicated that their needs were not so well-defined that they could say that they needed precisely one hundred copies of a product, and besides, their computer users might not have all been using the software at the same time, and so it might not make sense to provide everyone with a copy of a program when they could pass the disks around (or in later times use “floating licences”). So, producers want customers to feel that they are getting value for money and not spending too much, and thus the site licence was presumably offered as a way of stopping them from just buying exactly what they need, instead getting them to spend a bit more than they might like, but perhaps a bit less than they would need to if money were no object and per-unit pricing was the only thing on offer. (The other way of influencing the customer is, of course, the threat of audits by aggressive proprietary software organisations, but that is another matter.)

Regardless of the theory and the mechanisms involved, do customers benefit from site licences? Well, if they spend less on a site licence than they do on the list price of a product multiplied by the number of active users of that product, then they at least benefit from savings on the licensing fees, certainly. However, there are other factors involved, introducing other broader costs, that we will return to in a moment.

Do producers benefit from site licences? Almost certainly. They allow companies to opportunistically increase revenue by inviting customers to spend a bit more for “peace of mind” and convenience of administration (no more having to track all by yourself who is using which product and whether too many people are doing so because a “helpful” company will take care of it for you). If such a thing did not exist, customers would probably choose to act conservatively and more closely review their purchases. (Or they might just choose to embrace Free Software instead, of course.)

All You Won’t Eat

But it is the matter of what the customer needs that should interest us here. If customers did need to review their purchases more closely, they might find it hard to justify spending large sums on volume licences. After all, not everyone might be in need of some product that can theoretically be rolled out to everyone. Indeed, some people might prefer another product instead: it might be much more appropriate for their kind of work, or it might work better on their platform (or even actually work on their platform where the already-bought product does not).

And where the organisation’s purse strings are loosened when buying a site licence for a product in the first instance, the organisation may not be so forthcoming with finance to acquire other products in the same domain, even if there are genuine reasons for doing so. “You already have an office program you can use; why do you want us to buy another?” Suddenly, instead of creating opportunities, volume licensing eliminates them: if the realm of physical products worked like this, Tesco would offer only one brand of toilet paper and perhaps not even a particularly pleasant one at that!

But it doesn’t stop there. Some vendors bundle products together in volume licensing deals. “Why not indulge yourself with a package of products featuring the ones you want together with some you might like?” This is what customers are made to ask themselves. Suddenly, the justification for acquiring a superior product from a competitor of the volume licensing provider is subject to scrutiny. “You already have access to an intranet solution; why do you want us to spend time and money on another?” And so the supposedly generous site licence becomes a mechanism to rein in spending and even the mere usage of alternatives (which may be Free Software acquired at no cost), all because the acquisition cost of things that people are not already actively using are wrongly perceived as being “free”. “Just take advantage of the site licence!” is what people are told, and even if the alternatives are zero cost, the pressure will still be brought to bear because “we paid for things we could use, so let’s use them!”

And the Winner is…

With such blinkered thinking the customer can no longer sensibly exercise choice: it becomes too easy to constrain an organisation’s strategy based on what else is in the lucky dip of products included in the multiple product volume licensing programme. Once one has bought into such a scheme, there is a disincentive to look elsewhere for other solutions, and soon every need to be satisfied become phrased in terms of the solutions an organisation has already “bought”. Need an e-mail system? The solution now has to be phrased in terms of a single vendor’s product that “we already have”. And when such extra purchases merely add to proprietary infrastructure with proprietary dependencies, that supposedly generous site licence is nothing but bait on the end of the vendor’s fishing line.

We know who the real winner is here. The real loser is anyone having to compete with such schemes, especially anyone using open standards in their products, particularly anyone delivering Free Software using open standards. Because once people have paid good money for something, they will defend that “investment” even when it makes no real sense: this is basic human psychology at work. But the customer is the loser, too: what once seemed like a good deal will just result in them throwing good money after bad, telling themselves that it’s the volume of usage – the chance to sample everything at the “all you can eat” buffet – that makes it a “good investment”, never mind that some of the food at the buffet is unhealthy, poor quality, or may even make people ill.

The customer becomes increasingly “locked in”, unable to consider alternatives. The competition becomes “locked out”, unable to persuade the customer to migrate to open-standards-based solutions or indeed anything else, because even if the customer recognised their dependency on their existing vendor, the cost of undoing the mess might well be less predictable and less palatable than a subscription fee to that “preferred” vendor, appearing as an uncomfortably noticeable entry in the accounts that might indicate strategic ineptitude or wrongdoing – that a mistake has been made – which would be difficult to acknowledge and tempting to conceal. But when the outcome of taking such uncomfortable remedial measures would be lower costs, truly interoperable systems and vastly increased choice, it would be the right thing to do.

One might be tempted to just sit back and watch all this unfold, especially if one has no connection with any of the organisations involved and if the competition consists only of a bunch of proprietary software vendors. But remember this: when the customer is spending your tax money, you are the loser, too. And then you have to wonder who apart from the “preferred” vendor benefits from making you part of the losing team.

The Academic Challenge: Ideas, Patents, Openness and Knowledge

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

I recently had reason to respond to an article posted by the head of my former employer, the Rector of the University of Oslo, about an initiative to persuade students to come up with ideas for commercialisation to solve the urban challenges of the city of Oslo. In the article, the Rector brought up an “inspiring example” of such academic commercialisation: a company selling a security solution to the finance industry, possibly based on “an idea” originating in a student project and patented as part of the subsequent commercialisation strategy leading to the founding of that company.

My response made the following points:

  • Patents stand counter to the academic principle of the dissemination of unencumbered knowledge, where people may come and learn, then make use of their new knowledge, skills and expertise. Universities are there to teach people and to undertake research without restricting how people in their own organisations and in other organisations may use knowledge and thus perform those activities themselves. Patents also act against the independent discovery and use of knowledge in a startlingly unethical fashion: people can be prevented from taking advantage of their own discoveries by completely unknown and inscrutable “rights holders”.
  • Where patents get baked into attempts at commercialisation, not only does the existence of such patents have a “chilling effect” on others working in a particular field, but even with such patents starting life in the custody of the most responsible and benign custodians, financial adversity or other circumstances could lead to those patents being used aggressively to stifle competition and to intimidate others working in the same field.
  • It is all very well claiming to support Open Access (particularly when snobbery persists about which journals one publishes in, and when a single paper in a “big name” journal will change people’s attitudes to the very same work whose aspects were already exposed without such recognition in other less well-known publications), but encouraging people to patent research at the same time is like giving with one hand while taking with the other.
  • Research, development and “innovation” happens more efficiently when people don’t have to negotiate to be able to access and make use of knowledge. For those of us in the Free Software community who have seen how real progress can be made when resources – in our case, software – are freely usable by others through explicit and generous licensing, this is not news. But for others, this is a complete change of perspective that requires them to question their assumptions about the way society currently rewards the production of new work and to question the optimality of the system that grants such rewards.

On the one hand, I am grateful for the Rector’s response, but I feel somewhat disappointed with its substance. I must admit that the Rector is not the first person to favour the term “innovation”, but by now the term has surely lost all meaning and is used by every party to mean what they want it to mean, to be as broad or as narrow as they wish it to be, to be equivalent to work associated with various incentives such as patents, or to be a softer and more photogenic term than “invention” whose own usage may be contentious and even more intertwined with patents and specific kinds of legal instruments.

But looking beyond my terminological grumble, I remain unsatisfied:

  • The Rector insists that openness should be the basis of the university’s activities. I agree, but what about freedoms? Just as the term “open source” is widely misunderstood and misused, being taken to mean that “you can look inside the box if you want (but don’t touch)” or “we will tell you what we do (but don’t request the details or attempt to do the same yourself)”, there is a gulf between openly accessible knowledge and freely usable knowledge. Should we not commit to upholding freedoms as well?
  • The assertion is made that in some cases, commercialisation may be the way innovations are made available to society. I don’t dispute that sometimes you need to find an interested and motivated organisation to drive adoption of new technology or new solutions, but I do dispute that society should grant monopolies on entire fields of endeavour to organisations wishing to invest in such opportunities. Monopolies, whether state-granted or produced by the market, can have a very high cost to society. Is it not right to acknowledge such costs and to seek more equitable ways of delivering research to a wider audience?
  • Even if the Rector’s mention of an “inspiring example” had upheld the openness he espouses and had explicitly mentioned the existence of patents, is it ethical to erect a fence around a piece of research and to appoint someone as the gatekeeper even if you do bother to mention that this has been done?

Commercialisation in academia is nothing new. The university where I took my degree had a research park even when I started my studies there, and that was quite a few years ago, and the general topic has been under scrutiny for quite some time. When I applied for a university place, the politics of the era in question were dominated by notions of competition, competitiveness, market-driven reform, league tables and rankings, with schools and hospitals being rated and ranked in a misguided and/or divisive exercise to improve and/or demolish the supposedly worst-performing instances of each kind.

Metrics of “research excellence” are nothing new, either. It seemed to me that some university departments were obsessed with the idea of research rankings. I recall at least one occasion during the various tours of university departments of being asked which other universities us potential applicants were considering, only to have the appointed tour leaders consult the rankings and make an on-the-spot comparison, although I also recall that when the top-ranked universities were named such comparison exercises drew to a swift close. Naturally, the best research departments didn’t need to indulge in such exercises of arguable inadequacy.

The Ole Johan Dahl building, University of Oslo, seen through the mist

The Real Challenge for Students

But does the quality of research have anything to do with the quality of an institution for the average student? Furthermore, does the scale of commercialisation of research in a teaching institution have anything to do with the quality of research? And anyway, why should students care about commercialisation at all?

My own experiences tell me that prospective students would do better to pay attention to reliable indicators of teaching quality than to research ratings. Many of them will end up having relatively little exposure to the research activities of an institution, and even if researchers actively attempt to engage students with “real world” examples from their own work, one can argue that this may not be completely desirable if such examples incorporate the kind of encumbered knowledge featured in the “inspiring example” provided by the Rector. It is, however, more likely that researchers would rather be doing research than teaching and will be less engaging, less available for consultation, and just less suited to providing high quality tuition than the teaching staff in a decent teaching institution. Who cares if a department is doing “cutting edge” research if all you see as a student is a bored and distracted lecturer having to be dragged out of the lab for an hour once or twice a week?

Even the idea that students will go on to do research after their undergraduate degree in the same institution, presumably by forging contacts with researchers in teaching positions, should be questioned. People are encouraged to move around in academia, arguably to an extent that most well-qualified people would find intolerable even in today’s celebrated/infamous “global economy”. That undergraduates would need to relate to the research of their current institution, let alone any commercialisation activity, is in many respects rather wishful thinking. In my entire undergraduate era I never once had any dealings or even awareness of what went on in the university research park: it was just a block of the campus on the map without any relevance and might have well been a large, empty car park for all the influence it had on my university education.

My advice to undergraduates is to seek out the institutions that care about high-quality teaching, whose educators are motivated and whose courses are recognised for providing the right kind of education for the career you want to pursue. Not having been a postgraduate as such, I don’t feel comfortable giving advice about which criteria might be more important than others, although I will say that you should seek out the institutions who provide a safe, supportive, properly-run and properly-supervised working environment for their researchers and all their employees.

The Circus of Commercialisation

Lots of money is being made in licensing and litigation around commercial and commercialised research, and with large sums being transferred as the result of legal rulings and settlements, it is not particularly difficult to see why universities want in on “the action”. In some countries, with private money and operational revenue ostensibly being the primary source of income for universities, one can almost understand the temptation of such institutions to nail down every piece of work and aggressively squeeze every last revenue-earning drop of potential each work may have, if only because a few bad years of ordinary revenue might lead to the demise of an institution or a substantial curtailment of its reputation and influence. For such institutions, perhaps the only barrier being broken voluntarily is an ethical one: whether they should be appointing themselves as the gatekeepers to knowledge and still calling themselves places of learning.

In other countries, public money props up the education sector, in some nations to the extent that students pay nominal fees and experience as close to a free higher education as one can reasonably expect. Although one might argue that this also puts universities at the mercy of an ungenerous public purse and that other sources of income should be secured to allow such institutions to enhance their offerings and maintain their facilities, such commercial activities deservedly attract accusations of a gradual privatisation of higher education (together with the threat of the introduction of significant fees for students and thus an increased inequality between rich and poor), of neglecting non-applied research and commercially unattractive areas of research, and of taking money from taxpayers whilst denying them the benefit of how it was spent.

Commercialisation is undoubtedly used to help universities appear “relevant” to the general public and to industry, especially if large numbers can be made to appear next to items such as “patents” and “spin-offs” in reports made available to the press and to policy makers and if everyone unquestioningly accepts those things and the large numbers of them as being good things (which is far from being a widely-accepted truth, despite the best efforts of self-serving, high-profile, semi-celebrity advocates of patent proliferation), but the influence of such exercises can be damaging to things like Free Software, not merely creating obstacles for the sharing of knowledge but also creating a culture that opposes the principles of sharing and genuine knowledge exchange that Free Software facilitates and encourages.

Indeed, the Free Software movement and its peers provide a fairer and more sustainable model for the widespread distribution and further development of research than the continuing drive for the commercialisation and monetisation of academia. Free Software developers give each other explicit rights to their work and do not demand that others constantly have to ask permission to do the most elementary things with it. In contrast, commercialisation imposes barriers between researchers and their natural collaborators in the form of obligations to an institution’s “intellectual property” or “technology transfer” office, demanding that every work be considered for licensing and revenue generation (by a group of people who may well be neither qualified nor legitimately entitled to decide). Where Free Software emphasises generosity, commercialisation emphasises control.

Universities, whose role it is to provide universal access to usable knowledge, particularly when funded with public money, should be looking to support and even emulate Free Software practitioners. Instead, by pursuing an agenda of pervasive commercialisation, they risk at the very least a stifling of collaboration and the sharing of knowledge; at worst, such an agenda may corrupt the academic activity completely.

Can universities resist the temptations and distractions of commercialisation and focus on delivering a high-quality experience for students and researchers? That is the real ethical challenge.

Sculpture and reflection detail, Ole Johan Dahl building, University of Oslo