Europe won't develop with old ideas

The European Commission needs more than old ideas to be relevant in the new world

Idealism is a heady drug. It can change the world if used with care, but idealists are not always the most careful of thinkers. Idealists with influence can be reforming heroes — or dangerous people.

Jesús Villasante is the head of software technologies at the EC's Information Society and Media Directorate, and thus a man with considerable influence. When he argues that open source is "a complete mess" with the community reduced to the status of subcontractors for major American firms, it is fair to assume that this attitude has some sway inside the Commission. Likewise, his wish that the open source community should realise that it is "part of the evolution of society and try to influence it" in order to "be moving in the right direction" has the savour of genuine European paternalistic idealism.

It is a shame then that reality does not conform to Villasante's dogma. For a start, the open source community is very aware of its importance in societal evolution. Its role in fundamentally changing the nature of intellectual property is widespread and properly perceived as such. Likewise, the "complete mess" of open source looks more like a ferment of creativity and opportunity, with big companies paying bright people to develop software that is immediately open to all.

Villasante's concerns have their roots in familiar soil. While there are many European open source developers, he says, there's no sense of a coherent European software industry. But open source is far from being an engine of regional cohesion: it is quite the opposite, bringing together communities of like interests and capabilities entirely independent of geographic or national considerations. Open source is new and different, and should not be expected to conform to old ideas — corporate or federalist. Linux was invented in Europe: it now belongs to the world. That is to be celebrated, not feared.

The European Commission has valuable work to do in encouraging the free flow of ideas and the creation of an inclusive environment where the baleful influence of big business is not allowed to appropriate the rights of its customers. Open source knows how to fight that war, but needs the tools and support to be allowed to get on with it. It does not need to be warned off accepting sweets from strangers.

The application of outmoded thought to new ideas should not be allowed to divert us from the real issues that need our attention. This week of all weeks is a good time to critically examine the European addiction to old dogma, replacing it where necessary with new ideas that work and respect for the people that think them.