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Paving the road to an all-inclusive digital Economy: Open source & its evolutions

Author: Dr Vassilia Orfanou, CMO of Gaia-X

Editor: Robert Goia, Stakeholder Engagement Officer, Gaia-X


The European Commission has issued a study on the impact of open-source software and hardware on technological independence, and innovation discussing the necessity of services that promote the use of open source and equally endorse the implementation of the necessary software. In this fashion, this article begins with the evolution of open source and showcases how it presents the only paradigm to move forward. A set of key recommendations explain why and how the road towards an all-inclusive digital Economy can only be enabled by open source, including benefits and opportunities that Gaia-X brings in this direction. The article concludes on how the Gaia-X paradigm can pave the way towards bringing digital autonomy and sovereignty, finally decentralising practices and bringing the control of the data back to the user.

Adoption, sharing, and collaboration are some essential values ​​at the heart of open source. A technology that depicts freedom and contribution – open source is a philosophy for developers and other creators of free content, clearly transcending beyond the IT sector. “Open Source” refers to software whose source code is open and freely accessible. So, you can edit the program yourself and adapt it to your own needs. According to Richard Stallman, the pioneer of free software, the difference between free software and open source lies in their philosophy: “open source is a development methodology, free software is a social movement.” In the Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software, Stallman tries to clarify: “The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology, while free software is a social movement”. In the early 1980s, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), thought about the notion of free software and its possibilities for users to use, study, improve, modify, and redistribute computer code. Still, it should be mentioned that the notion or concept of “Free software” is older than that of Open Source. To understand what open source is, the concept of free software must therefore be understood. According to The Guardian, the idea of ​​free software originated from a movement founded by Richard Stallman, known as the originator of the GNU’s Not Unix (The GNU project) in 1984. The goal of the GNU project was to create a completely free operating system. It  was created as a reaction to the practice of the time, which simply entailed keeping the source code of software secret. According to Stallman: “Free Software is a social movement. We are fighting for freedom. We are campaigning for social solidarity. Freedom and social solidarity are our goals. Proprietary software is evil because it attacks freedom and social solidarity. When a program is proprietary, that means that the social system of its distribution and use is unethical.”  Concretely, for software to be free, it needs to respect 4 rules:

  • Freedom to run the program for any purpose
  • Freedom to study and modify the program
  • Freedom to redistribute the program as it was sent to us
  • Freedom to redistribute modified versions of the program

But beware, open software does not mean free software. Richard Stallman also explains the difference between his slogan, “Think free,” and the sentence, “as in free speech, not free beer.” This means that even though you can charge anything you want for a free software, you cannot keep the knowledge that makes it work – a secret. Lawrence Lessig, law professor and copyright expert explains the slogan and sentence in a piece on The Wired. According to Lessig, “What makes Free Beer free is the same thing that makes free software free: Its recipe is open and licensed freely. Anyone can make improvements. But anyone who distributes an improved version must release the changes as well.” Free software is therefore defined by its openness and improvement and not by questions of free access. However, many open  software programs are also free (Firefox browser, Libre Office suite, etc.). The evolution of free software continued with Linux after it was launched in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a young student at the University of Helsinki. This Unix-like operating system is one of the pillars of open source, still bringing together millions of users today. “Free software” induces the dual idea of ​​software that is both “open” and “free.” However, the expression “open source” appeared in 1998 to detach “open” from “free”. The objective is to attract investments in software with open codes that could prove economically viable. Open source then detaches itself from the philosophy of strictly free software to turn to new methods of development and distribution. It is the Open Source Initiative (OSI)– a project launched by Bruce Perens and Eric Steven Raymond, which will  aim for  freedom to access the sources of the programs without encompassing the whole philosophy of free software. This body issues labels to verified open-source solutions, mainly to prevent abuse of source codes that can only be consulted under certain conditions.

In terms of software development (all types combined), the United States is indeed widely present on the market with over 4.3 million software developers. Given that these reflect private creations, Europe responds with open source. In fact, most of the free software developers are European. Looking at the investment in this direction, European companies and governments have so far invested more than €1 billion in the open-source technology. Around 8 percent of software developers in the EU – about 260,000 individuals — have contributed to the open-source market.

The European Commission (EC) is equally aligned with investing further on open source. As such it has issued a comprehensive study, entitled “Study about the impact of open source software and hardware on technological independence, competitiveness and innovation in the EU economy.” The EC study shows that open-source technologies can significantly impact the competitiveness of European companies, accelerate economic growth, and the start-up/SME scene, and ensure technological independence. In fact, the Commission recommends its Member States to promote open source at all levels, having already put in place an open-source strategy (as per the above study) to implement its software between 2020 and 2023 to shape and deliver better European services to society. The study’s key objectives are to “progress towards digital autonomy of Europe’s own independent digital approach; implement the European Commission Digital Strategy; encourage sharing and reuse of software and applications, as well as data, information, and knowledge; contribute to the knowledge society by sharing the Commission’s source code and build a world-class public service.” The same study measures the current and future impact of open-source technologies on the economic realities of Europe: a (positive) impact that goes beyond all expectations. The research focuses on the possibilities open to Europe to achieve key objectives such as economic growth, greater competitiveness, innovation, and job creation through the use, promotion, and support of Open-Source Software and Hardware (OSS and OSH). The main conclusions and recommendations of these research studies are summarised below:

Open source makes a significant contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the EU and has a cost-benefit ratio of at least 1:4, according to a study from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect). In a detailed account, the research reads “According to a cost-benefit ratio of 1:4, the costs needed for the investment in OSS will generate benefit, which is four times higher, according to our macroeconomic approach, but also based on the assessment of the stakeholders,”. Considering the hardware and other capital costs of the approximately 260,000 EU open-source software contributors, the cost-benefit ratio is still just over 1:4. Furthermore, the pool of open-source software created in this way is available to the public, so it does not have to be developed again by companies, organisations, or state institutions. The general availability and the high quality of these technologies, due to the four or six-eyes principle[1] make it easier for start-ups and SMEs to enter the market for digital transformation. Meanwhile, according to the Open Source Study that OpenForum Europe and Fraunhofer ISI conducted, around €1 billion invested in open source by companies in the EU in 2018 resulted in an economic added value of €65-95 billion. According to the CEO of OpenForum Europe, Sachiko Muto, “Open source offers a greenfield advantage for policymakers, and Europe has the chance to lead.”

The report also concludes that the increase in open-source contributions would significantly increase the EU’s gross domestic product and encourage start-up creation. Overall, around 8% of the almost 3.1 million EU employees in software development contributed to open source in 2018. According to the study, an increase in open source contributions by just 10% would lead to GDP growth of around 0.4% to 0.6% and more than 600 additional European start-ups per year.

Open-source software (OSS) has become established in all areas of the software industry over the past ten years. In contrast, according to the European Commission study mentioned above, the development status of Open-source Hardware (OSH) is currently lagging noticeably behind. However, the business ecosystem for OSH is evolving rapidly. According to the study, by the end of the digital decade, if OSH goes through the same evolution as OSS, it could be the cornerstone of the future Internet of Things (IoT), of computing, and of the digital transformation of the European industry.

According to another white paper titled Smart Digital Economy released by FIWARE Foundation and the OPEN Compute Project Foundation, open-source can trigger innovation right from the university level and can bring about smart societies. “Open-source software is a key element of open innovation at university level. The availability of source code provides access to organisations and teams within universities to collaborate, share expertise and support innovation at the research phase,” writes Prof. Antonio Skarmeta from the University of Murcia and member of the FIWARE Scientific Advisory Board.

In view of this, open source can ease on the skills shortage and respective repercussions. Furthermore, participation in open-source projects can make it easier for companies and organisations to continually update their workforce’s skills and retain employees through a richer, more diverse range of jobs. According to Skarmeta, “open source helps open innovation and promotes the collaboration between internal and external technologists as a mutually beneficial measure and facilitates the possible exploitation through university spin-offs.” Companies, therefore, benefit not only directly but also indirectly from participation in open-source communities. This is because the value created by open source far exceeds the scope of Europe’s institutional capacities. The development of Europe’s institutional capacities regarding Open Source thus harbors the enormous potential for the economic development of European companies and institutions.

During the event on  “Digital sovereignty: a new framework to accelerate innovation and competitiveness,” that was held back in March 2022, at the French Embassy in Spain, there was a long discussion about what is the most transcendent today’s issue in Europe: its sovereignty. Particularly digital, which has some of its figureheads in creations such as Gaia-X, GDPR, or IPCEI. The terrible war in Ukraine is bringing into play something that many have long lamented: Europe’s historical acceptance of a merely secondary role on the world geostrategic map. The fatal context has only promoted the word ‘sovereignty’, to a level of importance and the most frequently cited one in any meeting on the continent’s future. Energy sovereignty, economic sovereignty, and industrial sovereignty, yes, but also another type of sovereignty is needed, with the capacity to bring these three together at the same time: digital. Because “political sovereignty is today, above all, a technological challenge,” as the French Ambassador, Jean-Michel Casa, recalled at the opening of the event. “Europe must be able to control the use of its own data. This is something that acquires more and more importance with the evolution of our digital space, full of monopolistic practices of various technological giants in our territory”, Casa explained. “In fact, the idea of ​​the French presidency of the Council of the European Union is to make a model of European technological power emerge. A path that is essentially different from the Chinese state and the American or British laissez faire. The model we defend is close to our core values, with great protection of our data, fair trade standards, and integrity of online content”, she argued. During the same event, the General Director of Atos Iberia, Pilar Torres, who is one of the 22 founding members of Gaia-X together with OVHcloud, saw it fit to go back to the definition of Gaia-X: It is the need for a federated and interoperable data infrastructure that will create the basis and future of the European data economy. And here, every word is relevant. For example, interoperability. We all agree that data is wealth, but only if it is seen as a unit and not isolated. Without their governance, the use of information has excessive challenges. The framework that Gaia-X provides is key to understand that only through digital sovereignty can users and businesses of any level can become true owners of their data. This is exactly what Gaia-X aims: Bringing the control back to the user. In fact, it is beyond a necessity to have a system that tells you how to implement the transparency and sovereignty you want for your company or your own data. It is beyond a necessity to have a Gaia-X framework that will propose the standards, rules, and regulations and together with specific members, will jointly create an ecosystem, ground it, and enhance a common direction that will create the basis for the next generations.

Digital sovereignty is becoming increasingly important due to the rising penetration of digital technologies in all areas of life and work. Information technology is thus turning to a strategic issue, particularly for public administrations and how these may translate into policies, that go beyond a regulatory basis and would indeed impact the overall community, both from a corporate and citizen angle. Open source can and will play an essential role in industrial policy, leading to business services that bring in a concrete business impact and reinforce the potential of the digital economy. Still, the only feasible paradigm to do so is via the Gaia-X Framework and specifications such as the architecture, trust framework, policy rules and labelling criteria that will enhance practices that are standardised, compliant and indeed aligned with EU values to ultimately enhance the delivery of use cases, business lighthouses and replication via its national hubs that will boost the digital economy of the future.   [1] When it comes to a decision-making process, a four-eye principle or more centers around the segregations of duties, also known as “duality.” When thinking about preventing mistakes, this principle postulates the involvement of multiple people – or automating the process throughout the life cycle of a data process transaction till a decision is finally made.